A beautiful, educated, British-born fashionista was once the apple of the international media's eye. Deemed the glamorous "'rose in the desert"' by Vogue, and regarded as the modern-day Princess Diana of the Middle East, First Lady Asma al-Assad (above right) was the glimmer of hope for progression, perhaps even democracy, in the government of Syria. That is before she stood silently by the President's side as he called for a bloody crackdown of protests in March 2011.
Since her marriage to Bashar al-Assad in 2000, the former banker became an eager advocate for women's rights and education. The 36-year-old founded an NGO to fund children's educational and cultural facilities, was a frequent visitor of orphanages, approved the first independent magazine in Syria, and encouraged youth to take on civil responsibility. These ideas were inspired by her upbringing in London. Though her parents are Syrian, Sunni Muslims, she was raised in Western traditions and worked at JP Morgan before her marriage to Assad. Needless to say, Asma is not what comes to mind when you think of a Syrian dictator's wife.
As the death toll in Syria continues to rise to over 17,000 people as a result of the war between the army and rebels, instead of standing up against the violence as many people thought and waited for her to do, Asma has said nothing. Instead, leaked emails show that she spent over €270,000 to furnish one of the presidential palaces in what is being called "retail therapy."
If Asma hoped to stay silent, this shopping spree didn't help. Media critics have renamed her "Marie Antoinette of the Middle East" as the e-mails showed inquiries for Christian Louboutin shoes and the new Harry Potter DVD. Although the authenticity of the emails is still unconfirmed, this did not stop critics and citizens from reacting. Whether the Assad regime holds onto power or falls on its face, it will be nearly impossible for Asma to regain the influence she once held in Syria and beyond.
So what happened to Asma's drive to make progress in Syria and to stand up for the helpless in the nation?
Well, Asma gave us her answer in a rare email to the international media in February:
"[Bashar al-Assad] is the President of Syria, not a faction of Syrians, and the First Lady supports him in that role," wrote Asma. "The First Lady's very busy agenda is still focused on supporting the various charities she has long been involved with … [and] she listens to and comforts the families of the victims of the violence."
In other words, Asma probably won't defy the President's actions, even though her busy charity schedule will enable her to comfort those affected by the violence. These are not the words of a woman who defies the stereotypes of a dictator's wife and captured the hearts of many. This is the response of a woman who does not see a way to influence her husband's actions and put an end to the violence.
This united front is honorable and biblical in a marriage. God clearly calls for the man and wife to become one. Many Christians would take it further, saying that a wife is called to submit to her husband's decision-making authority in all spheres of shared life, based on Paul's description of marriage in Ephesians 5. But no matter how you interpret this passage, doesn't a time come when a wife can and should usurp a husband's authority if he is making sinful choices or decisions that harm others? Does unity in sin or harm qualify for biblical unity at all? Is silence in the midst of sin even biblically permissible?
Before someone throws out Ephesians 5 and dismisses the notion, let's consider the context of the question. It's not whether a wife can take over as head of the household, but whether she has the responsibility to voice her wisdom to prevent or stop a decision that will cause damaging consequences unforeseen by her husband.
Obviously, women and men have different perspectives and outlooks on life, so wouldn't women have insight that is valuable to men? Husbands aren't perfect, and neither are wives, of course. But even if wives are submitted to the authority of their husbands, a wife is not called to silence or idleness when wrongs are committed. I would argue that silence in an instance where the welfare of another is at stake is negligence of a wife's role in marriage.
This is not a call for all wives to rise up against their husbands in "wisdom," but rather to support the role of wives to act when most needed. In the West, we likely won't deal with the reality of husbands commanding the bloody crackdown of protests, but we might be in marriages in which the husband is making poor financial choices, creating abusive situations, risking the welfare of others for career advancement, or ignoring the needs of others around him. If your family or others are at risk of harm, will marital unity be your excuse for inaction in a time of need?
No one can make Asma stand up for her nation and make a difference. But imagine how much better the lives and families of 17,000 people would be if Asma was not standing by in silence. Women can make a difference in the lives of many by using discernment and making sensible choices within marriages, even while trying to point her husband to what's right, true, and just.
The way in which to go about taking action can only be determined by each woman, but in this broken world, a lifetime will not pass where the choice between silence and action won't come up. As we continue to pray for the people of Syria, let's remember to stand up and act when we're needed to act on behalf of others. Let's not use marital unity as an excuse to allow injustices to prevail.
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