Vogue‘s story about Syrian first lady Asma Al-Assad couldn’t have been timed worse for publication. The story, a 3,000-word love letter to the way Al-Assad lives her life, is in the current issue of American Vogue. And its presence there has caused media minders to lose their heads, especially amid revolutions in nearby Middle Eastern countries in the throes of revolution against their own autocratic leaders.
Syria government is a dictatorship, not unlike Egypt and Libya, where spirited — and violent –demands for democratic government have been watched by the world. By contrast, Vogue‘s story about Al-Assad pays no attention to the conflict in her neighborhood, and instead frames her as “a rose in the desert.” Her day starts at 6 am, and she’s as busy with the work of raising three children as she is with supporting her husband Bashar al-Assad, who was elected in 2000 after the previous president, his father. (“In Syria,” the story notes, “power is hereditary.”)
It’s the story’s cavalier disregard for the plight of people in Syria and in the surrounding area that has bloggers and news commentators up in arms. Instead, it devotes itself to her wardrobe (filled with Chanel sunglasses and Louboutins) and her parenting style.
The household is run on wildly democratic principles. “We all vote on what we want, and where,” she says. The chandelier over the dining table is made of cut-up comic books. “They outvoted us three to two on that.”
It’s worth noting that the people of Syria aren’t afforded that kind of luck. Per The Wall Street Journal, which weighed in on the story today:
Outside their home, the Assads believe in democracy the way Saddam Hussein did. In 2000, Bashar al-Assad won 97% of the vote. Vogue musters the gumption only to call this “startling.” In fact, it’s part of a political climate that’s one of the world’s worst—on par, says the watchdog group Freedom House, with those of North Korea, Burma and Saudi Arabia.
Vogue senior editor Chris Knutsen told The Atlantic last week that the story on Al-Assad had been in progress for over a year, and that the close eye Syria keeps on the press would have made it difficult for writer Joan Juliet Buck to comment on the state of daily life in that country — if that had been Vogue’s intent to do that.
“We thought we could open up that very closed world a very little bit.” When I asked why they chose to dedicate so much space to praising the Assads without at least noting his brutal practices, he explained, “The piece was not meant in any way to be a referendum on the al-Assad regime. It was a profile of the first lady.” He noted the country’s difficult media restrictions and touted the article’s passing reference to “shadow zones,” saying, “we strived within those limitations to provide a balanced view of the first lady and her self-defined role as Syria’s cultural ambassador.”
While the restrictions might be difficult to work around, and while the first lady herself might not have anything to do with the administration of the country, she’s not divorced from it. In the same way, a fashion journalist might be dispatched to write about the style of someone, but that doesn’t mean they’re unable to comment on the circumstances they live in or the world beyond their closets. Buck’s story is an elegantly written profile of a woman’s every day life, but it quite easily could have been a great story on how one half of Syria lives while it’s other half struggles against the iron hands that lead it.
Asma al-Assad: A Rose in the Desert [Gawker]
How Vogue Covers the Mideast Crisis [Gawker]
Vogue Defends Profile of Syrian First Lady [The Atlantic]
The Dictator’s Wife Wears Louboutins [The Wall Street Journal]