DAMASCUS - When Mohammad Ali al-Abid was elected first president of Syria in 1932, his wife, Zahra al-Yusuf, asked if she could attend the official function at the presidential palace. Her husband muttered, "You attending a state function, filled with men. It's impossible Zahra; what do you want people to say?" 

The 47-year-old first lady, born into Damascene aristocracy, refused to take no for an answer. She began to slowly push the red lines and play a greater role in public affairs - well into the 1940s, long after her husband's death in 1939. She headed several charity organizations, like the Goutte de Lait, the Red Crescent and Syrian branch of the International Red Cross, in addition to an intellectual forum, and obtained the Syrian Medal of Honor (Excellence Class) after her husband left office in 1936. Additionally, she obtained the Red Cross Medal of Honor in Gold - being the first Arab woman to win such an honor.

 For over 60 years, the role of Arab first ladies was confined to just that; charity organizations, intellectual forums, and official ceremonies. These duties were new, coming out of 400 years of the Ottoman Empire where women were completely absent from public life. Things changed dramatically, however, in recent years with the coming of three young first ladies to power in Doha, Amman, and Damascus.

 They enchanted Arab societies with their grace and elegance, but soon enough, began to take on increasingly active roles as businesswomen, entrepreneurs, and nation-builders. They are Sheikha Moza of Qatar, Queen Rania of Jordan, and Asma al-Assad of Syria. In addition to being leaders in their respective societies, all three ladies have several traits in common. All of them were born into ordinary families, never destined to rule. All of them are highly educated, holding prestigious university degrees - a far cry from their predecessors (with the exception of the former Queens of Jordan). All three met their husbands by coincidence - and all three married men never destined to rule their countries.

The First Lady of Syria is youngest of the "Big Three", born to a Syrian family in London in 1975. Growing up under the guidance of her father, a cardiologist and Harley Street Consultant, she studied computer science at King's College and graduated with honors and a diploma in French literature. She began her professional career as an analyst in the Hedge Fund Management section at Deutsche Bank.

 She toured the Far East and Europe for work, boasting of her Syrian origins, and landed a job in 1998 at JP Morgan, London, specializing in mergers and acquisitions. Fate interfered at this point, cutting short her early career, when she got married to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria in December 2000, five months after he had come to power in Damascus. They were the youngest couple ever in Syrian history. The president was 34, the First Lady was 25. Speaking to ABC's Dianne Sawyer, Assad was asked in 2007 whether he decided to propose to her during his medical studies in the UK. The president laughed and replied, "We decided together. I didn't decide, we decided."

 Life had changed considerably in Syria since the days of Zahra al-Yusuf. Assad did not need to convince her husband of playing a greater role in society; it came by nature since both she and the President were strong advocates of women's empowerment. He, too, was something new in Syria; he drives around in his own automobile, dines with friends, goes to amusement parks with his children, attends concerts and plays, and mixes easily with regular citizens. He listens to Phil Collins and has an iPod - as said during his interview with ABC. 

Asma al-Assad was equally dazzling for Syrians and Arabs in general. Charming, well-spoken, and very intelligent, she toured the world with her husband, showing what a real Syrian woman looks like in the royal courts of London, Morocco, and Spain, and the palaces of Istanbul and Moscow. At home, the First Lady focused on economic development, rural development, micro-finance, culture, arts, ICT development, and children with special needs. 

In July 2001, she established the Integrated Rural Development of Syria (FIRDOS), the first rural development NGO in Syria. The Syrian Trust for Development followed in 2001, targeting education and culture, and so did the Women and Education Conference, held in Damascus. She gathered six Arab First Ladies - Sheikha Moza and Queen Rania included - and delegations from 22 Arab countries to jumpstart educational reform in Syria. 

That same year, she held the largest conference ever on women in business, also in Syria, and put full weight behind the Syrian Businesswomen Committee in Damascus. By 2002, she was representing Syria at economic talks with the Bank of England, and initiating the Mobile Information Center (MIC), targeting IT education in rural districts of Syria. She also founded and headed the Syrian Organization for the Disabled (AAMAL) and the Children Discovery Center (MASSAR).

 The First Lady created the first National Children's Fair in Syria, and in 2004, received an honorary PhD from La Sapienza University in Rome, in addition to nomination for the First Arab Lady Award in 2008. Additionally, she played a major role in preparing and planning to host the UNESCO honor of naming Damascus as Capital of Arab Culture for 2008, a title that goes on to Jerusalem in 2009. 

When a poll was conducted in Damascus on the "Most popular current or former First Lady in the Arab world", Asma al-Assad came in with an impressively high 96%. Wherever she goes she is greeted with an entire generation of Syrians who feel inspired by her dedication, will, and charm. 

In addition to her work with non-governmental organizations, which she creates, supervises, and invests in, the Syrian First Lady has toured Syria's underdeveloped areas bringing hope and encouraging developmental projects. In 2007, for example, she was the first senior Syrian to visit the Neirab Refugee Camp near Aleppo, established for refugees in 1948. For 59-years the Neirab Camp has been the largest and most highly populated refugee camp in Syria, with an estimated 89 residents per 1,000 meters and conditions that UNRWA describes as "deplorable". 

From Neirab, she went to the Jabal al-Hoss to inspect the United Nations Development Program programs of rural social development. The district is considered one of the poorest and most underdeveloped in Syria. Assad stressed the importance of expanding the network of small funds in Syria to the most underdeveloped regions, in order to improve income, and create job opportunities. 

In 2008, the First Lady went to the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, to attend a Syrian musical recital on the occasion of Damascus as Capital of Arab Culture, with Queen Sophia. She gave an interview to a Spanish news agency saying, "I am lucky that my responsibilities are exactly where my passion is. My passion is to help my country develop and realize its full potential. In so many areas, I see as-yet untapped opportunities for Syria to develop and prosper - that is what drives me every day." 

She continued, "If I have learned anything in the past couple of years, it's that for any type of development to be successful, for it to be sustainable, it's got to include the direct beneficiaries as a core part of the process. They need to be actively involved. This not only ensures local ownership, which is vital for sustainability, but it also ensures that needs and priorities are properly addressed and clearly identified." 

When asked about her role as First Lady, which she was never raised to become, Assad said, "Both roles didn't come with a guide book or a manual you can read and implement the next day! One of the major differences is that most women hope to become mothers, but I doubt that most women expect to become First Ladies! Having said that, being First Lady is not who I am, but rather what I do and how I influence and support the development process in my country."

 Speaking of her children, the First Lady added, "I think what we need to do as parents, one thing I try to do as a mother, whether my children are writing, playing sports, playing music or a computer game - is to do everything possible to help them fall in love with what they're doing. So focusing less on how successful they were (or are likely to be) and show more interest in the task itself. That's just another way of saying we need to encourage more, judge less and love always." 

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst. 

(Copyright 28 March, 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd) 

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