Mrs. Al-Assad Voyager Interview

 

Asma al-Assad

She is the British-born Syrian banker who married a pivotal president of the Middle East. As one half of the most powerful young couple in the region, how does Asma al-Assad still keep in touch with the grassroots?

INTERVIEW | ANDRE ASTOELKE / TCS AND HUGH MACLEOD

AS SHE HERSELF IS SO OFTEN SAID TO DO, let us begin this story of Asma al-Assad by breaking a little presidential protocol.

Let us agree that there is more to her than her glamorous good looks. Can we put aside that tempting notion – gushing forth from nearly every article written by the Western press about her – that Asma, and her neighbouring first lady, Queen Rania of Jordan, are the convention-defying beauties representing a new generation of Arab women? As if, somehow, possession of high cheekbones, a brilliant white smile and the ability to wear jeans and drive a car are the leadership qualities appropriate to a woman.

And, anyway, being both a beautiful and accomplished woman from the Middle East is in no way unusual. Let us also put aside for a moment that Asma was once voted the world’s most elegant political woman by French Elle magazine, beating even the glossy glamour of France’s own première dame, Carla Sarkozy?

The time has come to take Syria’s First Lady at her word. “People in Europe or in the West do tend to focus more on what women look like rather than how effective they are or what they do, and that’s women in politics, in the business world, celebrities and fashion.”

 

We’re up in the clean-lined, Japanese-designed ‘People’s Palace’, a great white complex of marble and glass perched on the dusky-coloured mountain overlooking Damascus. It’s not quite the public arena its name suggests, used as it is by Asma’s husband, President Bashar al-Assad, to receive kings, princes, presidents and prime ministers.

However, it’s apparently rather too stuffy for the First Lady herself: “I don’t come here very often,” she says, smiling during the (rare) photo shoot. “It’s far too posh for me.” And so we sit and dispense with some of the other formalities that surround Mrs Assad. She was once Ms Asma Fawaz al-Akhras, the London-born daughter of a Syrian doctor, who had a private British education and went on to be a JP Morgan mergers and acquisitions specialist and to manage hedge funds for Deutsche Bank.

Not only did she gain a first-class degree in computer science and a diploma in French Literature but now, the multi-lingual mother of three, aged only 34, is the wife of a pivotal regional leader and an icon – albeit an accidental one – for women in the Middle East.

“I’m not very good with women’s questions, because I don’t see myself in that way,” she says. “The world from my perspective is very much orientated towards the partnership between men and women. The Middle East is still perceived to be a place where women walk around in black all day, and don’t drive their own cars or have the right to do anything. But the Middle East is not like this, and hasn’t been like this for a very long time. Not because of me, or my generation, but actually the generation before me, and the one before that.”

That may be true for the nations of the Levant, such as Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, but life for women in Saudi Arabia or Yemen is a very different story. Asma’s concern though is that women be appreciated for what they say and do, more than for how they look.

“Women in politics get a lot of criticism sometimes about how they dress and how they look. We need to shift the agenda back to what women are doing in these positions of authority. That’s why for me image becomes secondary.

Yes, it opens a lot of doors, but what’s more important is what you do in the position you’re in or with the authority that you have.”

And in Asma’s case, that authority has translated into reaching out to some of the poorest people in Syria. To do that, though, she first had to disappear. Just weeks after marrying President Al-Assad, Asma set off, deliberately incognito, to travel across the river valleys, coastal plains, scattered mountain settlements and empty deserts of her country to find out what makes life tick for the people living in Syria’s rural villages.

“Unless you can understand the situation of the environment that you’re trying to support, your change is not going to be as productive or successful as it should be,” she explains. “When you meet people from all walks of life and you have the opportunity to listen to their challenges and go into their homes and to see how they live, to hear some of their hopes and fears for the future, you are enriched as a person. Those two months are still reflective of how I go about my business on a day-to-day basis. I’m still someone who tries as much as possible to engage with people directly, by just being out and about.”

What she found out and about in Syria was that rural communities were still struggling with poverty despite decades of socialist rule, and that women were not playing their full role in the nation’s economy. Her response was to launch Syria’s first rural development organisation, the Fund for the Integrated Rural Development of Syria (FIRDOS) which provides around $2 million annually in micro-credit loans to rural communities as well as mobile educational facilities which reach far-flung corners of the country.

In 2003 she established MAWRED, an organisation to enhance the role of women in Syria’s economy. And not just women: Voyager contributor Hugh Mcleod, although neither a woman nor a Syrian, benefited from the space which MAWRED opened up when he edited Syria’s first English-language current affairs magazine, which in its infancy successfully navigated the maze of restrictive media laws guided, protected and given a large degree of political clout by having Asma’s seal of approval. Asma sees much of her development work as harnessing the potential of Syria’s young population, the majority of the country being under 25 years old.

“In Europe the population is generally ageing. In the Middle East it’s the complete opposite, we have a young population that is ready and willing and has an incredible amount of energy and potential to really make a difference. They are at the beginning of their lives and it is our responsibility to make sure that they have the necessary skills not just to survive but to thrive.”

Her other projects – such as Massar, an education centre in Lattakia, northern Syria – aim to equip young Syrians with the skills needed to succeed in business. Developing the critical capacity of the new generation is an important step toward economic development, particularly, believes Asma, in this age of information overload.

“We tend to take for granted too much of what is put in front of us. We live in an information world where we are constantly bombarded with information, every single second, 24 hours a day, which is exhausting. It becomes very difficult for us to filter through what is relevant.

“Typical education systems create a population that is able to read. Projects like Massar encourage a population that is able to distinguish what is worth reading, and that’s the kind of skill we need today, not just in Syria but around the world. It’s no longer about, ‘Can I read and write?’, it’s about, ‘How can I manoeuvre in this information world? How can I decipher what is valuable to me?’”

In a country where politics remains restricted to the rule of one party, Asma has a refreshing instinct for valuing the opinions of ordinary people. She drives herself around the bustling capital and can often be found in her local supermarket talking with other shoppers, gathering vital first-hand experience.

“When people drive, they reflect the mood of a nation and society, and you’re able to see that mood unedited, uncut. When you go into a supermarket and talk to other men and women buying food for their family, it gives you a real sense of what people are talking about on the street. That information for me is more valuable than anything else I have access to.”

This breaking down of barriers, getting to know the people on the other side of the divide, whether it be the palace gates of Damascus, the boundaries between the nations of the East and the West or the cultural assumptions and misunderstandings that too often characterise the relationship between different peoples, is a theme that recurs throughout the interview.

Asma sees technology as playing an important, but as yet unrealised, role in crossing boundaries and building bridges between East and West.

“In the 21st century we have so many methods of communication, whether it’s the internet, satellite TV, Twitter, blogs, YouTube… but unfortunately we know less about each other. Despite all the different types of communication there is still not enough understanding of different cultures. And this works both ways. It’s not just the West to the Middle East, but also the Middle East to the Far East or the Middle East to Europe or America.”

She dismisses a claim that Syria censors its own internet – though many websites of political or Islamic groups remain barred – saying the absence of social networking sites such as Facebook stem from a lack of network infrastructure, in part due to US sanctions, more than any political decision.

“We want people to be able to engage. The president was the one who encouraged the introduction of technology and the internet back in the 1990s. So we are a couple that understand the significance of having access to the wider world through technology. People in Syria can get every kind of satellite broadcast they want directly into their house, so I don’t think that you can censor people today.”

But as she points out, we could all do with looking at things a little more than skin deep. “The walls have come down and technology has allowed communication to happen. Yet we are still very much focused on our own comfort zones. There’s a difference between bringing down the walls and understanding the person on the other side.”

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