Designers & Dictators: Vogue Highlights Fashion Over Freedom

One of the most electrifying outcomes of the recent protests in the Middle East & North Africa has been the shattering of myths about Arabs & Muslims that have for too long been fed to the West: the women are voiceless, passive creatures apathetic to their country’s political processes, and democracy is something we are not only incapable of handling, but do not desire to begin with.

Of course now the truth is out, and the whole world has witnessed the opposite: the deep yearning for democracy actually permeates the Arab world, and women are front and center of the protests. The youth from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen to Libya have shown us they are willing to die for freedom.

Asma al- Assad's Designer Accessories Only Act As a Cover for Syria's Ruthless Dictatorship. Image Credit: Huffington Post

But Vogue has no interest in that. The iconic fashion publication has made it clear that when is comes to the Middle East they are more interested in the choice of designers of dictators, or more specifically their wives, as the recent profile of Syria’s First Lady Asma al-Assad proves.

The Wall Street Journal points out that the magazine, whose characterization of Asma (aptly titled “The Dictator’s Wife Wears Louboutins”) which concentrates on her couture and Chanel accessories, clearly missed the memo that tyrants are no longer trending in the Middle East:

The Assad family—first Hafez and now his son Bashar—has ruled Syria since 1970. In that time, they’ve killed 20,000 Syrians to put down an uprising in Hama, provoked civil war in Lebanon and then occupied the country to “keep peace,” built a secret nuclear-weapons facility modeled on North Korea’s, and established Damascus as a hub for terrorists from Hezbollah to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. All part of keeping their countrymen under foot for 40 years.

Let's Talk About Dior, Not Democracy: Like Asma, Queen Rania Does a Similar Job for Her Husband. Image Credit: Flickr

Ironically, democracy in Syria does briefly come up in the article when Asma speaks about how in her household, “everything is run on wildly democratic principles. We all vote on what we want and where.”

But as the Journal stipulates, that is not the case for the people of Syria:

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.

Asma is not the only dictator’s wife whose face and wardrobe are used to project a modern and glamorous face to a ruthless regime. Her more famous counterpart, Queen Rania of Jordan works a similar public relations machine for her husband, King Abdullah.

But what disturbed me most aside from the fact that Vogue would even think about running a piece like this at a time when the rest of the region is literally bleeding to death to break free from the stranglehold of dictators like Syria’s, is that the publication chose to focus on Asma al-Assad’s closet over the story of Tal al-Molouhi.

Tal is a 19yr old high school student and blogger who was arrested in 2009, but sentenced just last month under charges of “espionage”. The New York Times reports that the teenage blogger was “brought into court chained and blindfolded,” and sentenced to five years in jail without any evidence or details on why she was being charged. The Times states that Al–Molouhi wrote articles about how she “yearned for a role in shaping the future of Syria.”

For such a high-profile publication like Vogue to let this story go and choose instead to run a piece on the Syrian First Lady’s designer shoes is, frankly, disturbing.

Who is the publication trying to fool? And more importantly, why when the world is finally seeing the real faces of the Arab world, the real desire for freedom, would Vogue bother running a piece that just promotes a farce?

As blogger Wendy Brandes points out in her piece, Syria may be in Vogue, but a teenage Syrian blogger is in jail.

Clearly, Vogue missed the real story here. And that’s the one people are interested in hearing now when it comes to the Middle East.

*This post of mine was also published on Forbes Woman & Ms. Magazine.