The Middle East’s Marie Antoinettes

How a handful of rulers’ wives became fashion magazine darlings here and symbols of inequality back home.

Last night, not quite a month after a Vogue profile of Syrian first lady Asma Assad declared Syria the “safest country” in the Middle East, government forces killed six in the southern city of Deraa, site of unprecedented protests against the ruling regime. That would be the regime headed by Asma’s husband Bashar Assad, who, as Vogue explained, was elected with a “startling” 97 percent of the vote. (“In Syria,” the writer added delicately, “power is hereditary.”) The much-derided article did not linger on this point, however, choosing instead to celebrate its subject with a series of besotted compliments following from this opener: “Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young, and very chic—the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies.”

But while Vogue was pilloried for its puff piece, this was neither the first nor the last time Asma has been treated to Western flattery. See, for example, a 2009 Huffington Post slide show on “Asma Al Assad: Syria’s First Lady and All-Natural Beauty,” or even the Harvard Arab Alumni Association’s website, which just last week promoted an event featuring Asma, praising her, rather incredibly, as a great supporter of “a robust, independent and self-sustaining civil society.” It is telling that a personal appearance from Mrs. Assad is still considered such a get that the organization was willing to ignore such trifles as, say, Syria’s terrible record on human rights. As a Reuters piece on the matter put it: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a dictator who wants to be accepted by polite Western society should look for a charming, glamorous wife.”

Assad has company among other charming, glamorous wives of Middle Eastern rulers who increasingly find themselves provoking distaste. In recent months, Jordan’s cosmopolitan Queen Rania Al Abdullah—even more of a fashion-mag perennial than Asma Assad—and several other of the region’s rulers’ wives have been held up, both at home and in the international media, as symbols of all that is wrong with their husbands’ regimes. It’s a modern-day Marie Antoinette problem—one that Americans have been unwittingly exacerbating.

Ask the average Westerner what might be a prerequisite for meaningful progress in the Middle East, and there’s a good chance she will mention, among other things, greater agency for women. And so to many American readers, the worldly, educated new generation of Middle Eastern rulers’ wives and daughters—a generation that includes not only Rania but also her predecessor, Queen Noor, Princess Lalla Salma of Morocco, and even Hosni Mubarak’s tabloid-baiting daughter-in-law Khadija el-Gamal, who works for her own father’s real estate company—seem like sparkling symbols of female progress and potential. Yet ask someone in one of the countries where revolution has been bubbling what her country’s biggest problem is, and she’ll probably cite a lack of democratic government combined with inequality and crippling poverty; extravagant Rania, queen (not first lady) of one of the region’s poorer countries, is also a symbol of that.

In many ways, Queen Rania is the clearest—and most vexing—example of this contradiction. She holds a fair claim to the title of most glamorous woman in the world. At least, she was Glamour’s woman of the year in 2010—an award she can file away next to her membership in Vanity Fair’s Best-Dressed International Hall of Fame and her perch on ForbesMost Powerful Women list. She’s appealing to the magazine editors who compile these lists not just because she’s a slender clotheshorse with deep pockets and friends in high places—these things help—but also because her calendar is bursting with loads of commitments that seem to crush the stereotypes of both idle royals and submissive Muslim wives. She has done work for everyone from UNICEF to Operation Smile, while also founding initiatives such as the Jordan River Foundation and the Arab Women’s Organization (which many of her royal peers have also worked for). Rania, explaining her influence in a 2009 Vogue profile: “Other Arab countries send us people to train as social workers, and now I can suddenly turn on Saudi television and find them talking about child abuse!” Her friend Wendi Murdoch, wife of Rupert, chimed in: “She’s modern; she thinks being queen is a job. She takes on all those issues like women’s rights and improving the lives of Jordan’s people, and they really love her.”

In many ways, Rania’s appearance also meshes perfectly with Western ideas of what an enlightened Arab woman might look like: Not only does she speak her mind, she’s unveiled, and she wears pretty much whatever she wants. The writer of the Vogue profile half-acknowledged this part of her appeal, writing: “I can look at Rania … and not make assumptions. But, as a Western woman, I do make assumptions when a faceless woman is hidden under a niqab or burka.”

Rania’s image doesn’t play as well at home, however. Muslimah Media Watch blogger Sana Saeed put the problem this way in an email: “Rather than speaking to the very people she seeks to represent, Rania speaks beyond them.” Nor do they like her spendthrift ways: The lavish clothes that land her on best-dressed lists rankle in a country where an estimated 25 percent of people live in poverty. During the recent Jordanian protests, a group of the country’s Bedouin tribesmen wrote an unpredecented open letter criticizing the monarchy and accusing Rania of corruption and extravagant spending. (For an example of which, see the queen’s 40th birthday party, which the Spectatordescribedthus: “Six hundred guests were flown in from all over the world. Two giant figure ‘40’s were beamed on to mountainous outcrops – although the neighbouring villages don’t even have electricity. Locals still speak of the water used to dampen down the sand so that the guests could walk more easily, though there were desperate water shortages nearby.”) The tribesmen’s letter went on to compare Rania to the unapologetically spendy Leila Trabelsi, wife of deposed Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and so-called “Imelda Marcos of the Arab world.” Whether or not there is merit to the comparison, or to the corruption charges more broadly, even the suggestion draws attention to the contrast between her personal habits and the values she advocates publicly.

And yet it’s hard to imagine, even amid the current turmoil, that Queen Rania and her peers will fall out of fashion globally, at least not as long as they remain in power. Glossy magazines are addicted to royalty, and while there aren’t many queens to be found in our parts these days, the Middle East is still thick with them. That Vogue profile of Rania was very clear on this point: “In truth,” it explained, “there are very few women movers and shakers at her global level, and they aren’t queens.” It’s an almost wistful sentiment, a longing for the days of Jackie O. and Princess Diana (who still regularly grace Vanity Fair covers, years after their deaths). But here’s the irony: The same extravagant lifestyle that vaulted these women to the global stage is what’s getting them booed off of it now. We idealized them as models of the female empowerment we’ve been rooting for, that we’re certain will help bring change to the Middle East—but we failed to see that they are also symbols of societies holding back not only their women, but also the vast majority of their men.

Click here to launch a slide show on the glamorous wives of Middle Eastern rulers.