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Women who resisted the Arab Spring

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28 October 2011 15:05

In looking at the role of women in the Arab Spring it would be remiss not to touch on the spouses of autocratic rulers. Are they silent witnesses to the rule of their husbands? Are they partners in it? Or just beneficiaries?

Looking outside the Arab world, few wives have suffered as badly as their ruler husbands when revolutions came. There are examples in Tsarist Russia and revolutionary France, but not many in the 'modern' era.

Elena Ceausescu is probably the most famous, being executed with her husband after a summary trial on Christmas Day 1989. But she was hardly a peripheral player in the business of repressive government. She had amassed enormous personal wealth and great influence, but more importantly in 1980 she was appointed first deputy prime minister in the Romanian government, making her very much part of the autocracy.

Mirjana Milosevic is another who stood shoulder to shoulder with her husband in both a marital and ideological sense. Imelda Marcos of the Philippines also filled a number of senior political roles (as well as several hundred wardrobes) during her husband's rule and later returned to the Philippines after a period of exile in Hawaii.

With this in mind, it is interesting to view the varied approaches taken to the spouses of Arab autocrats.

Perhaps the most reviled of the autocratic rulers' other halves was the first to fall; Tunisia's Leila ben Ali. She was able to inveigle her wider Trabelsi family into positions of power and wealth courtesy of her position, and by so doing earn for herself a reputation as the North African Imelda Marcos. Like Imelda, she followed her husband into exile, though Leila got Jeddah rather than Hawaii.

But at least Leila and her family were intact following the fall of the regime. In the case of Muammar Qadhafi's wife, Safia Farkash, the fall of the regime not only cost her her husband but a number of her sons as well. Two of them escaped with her to neighbouring Algeria (along with her daughter), two have reportedly been killed and two may have been captured or surrendered (or they may not — the accuracy of TNC claims is somewhat questionable). Safia rode out much of the conflict in Tripoli but when the end was nigh she escaped to Algeria, which has given her asylum on humanitarian grounds.

Across to the east, the treatment of Suzanne Mubarak broke new ground when she was arrested on corruption charges. Hospitalised at the thought of doing hard time, she handed over several million dollars in assets that it was alleged she had acquired illegally and is currently sweating it out at the Mubarak's multi-million dollar Red Sea villa.

In Syria, the would-be modernist glamour couple of the Arab world, Bashar and Asma al Assad, have fallen on some reputational hard times. Asma may or may not have decamped to London, but her widely acclaimed intelligence, Western education and upbringing have left many wondering how she could be party (regardless of how willingly) to the efforts of her husband to ruthlessly crush the political opposition.

In Yemen and Bahrain, the virtual public invisibility of the rulers' spouses (and the presence of multiple wives) shields them from public opposition or even comment most of the time.

There are also some Arab women who are figures of derision for their actions in support of the ruling regimes, rather than for their marital relationships. The Oxford-educated spokesperson for the Assad regime, Reem Haddad, is perhaps the best known example. And good old Hala Misrati provided a somewhat less cultured version of pro-regime apologetics (see above) on Libyan state television before she was captured.

If you search really hard you can also find some examples of groups of women rallying behind their ruler in Yemen and Egypt, while there are examples of women taking part in pro-monarchy demonstrations in Bahrain. But any all-women pro-regime rallies that did get off the ground were dwarfed by those of women advocating change, and drowned out by pro-democracy advocates.

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