Queen Rania, Asma al-Assad, and other Middle Eastern rulers' wives who have become symbols of inequality.

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March 23 2011 5:14 PM

The Middle East's Marie Antoinettes

How a handful of rulers' wives became fashion magazine darlings here and symbols of inequality back home.

Click here to launch a slideshow on the glamourous wives of Middle Eastern despots.

Last night, not quite a month after a Vogue profile of Syrian first lady Asma Assad declared Syria the "safest country" in the Middle East, government forces killed six in the southern city of Deraa, site of unprecedented protests against the ruling regime. That would be the regime headed by Asma's husband Bashar Assad, who, as Vogue explained, was elected with a "startling" 97 percent of the vote. ("In Syria," the writer added delicately, "power is hereditary.") The much-derided article did not linger on this point, however, choosing instead to celebrate its subject with a series of besotted compliments following from this opener: "Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young, and very chic—the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies."

But while Vogue was pilloried for its puff piece, this was neither the first nor the last time Asma has been treated to Western flattery. See, for example, a 2009 Huffington Post slide show on "Asma Al Assad: Syria's First Lady and All-Natural Beauty," or even the Harvard Arab Alumni Association's website, which just last week promoted an event featuring Asma, praising her, rather incredibly, as a great supporter of "a robust, independent and self-sustaining civil society." It is telling that a personal appearance from Mrs. Assad is still considered such a get that the organization was willing to ignore such trifles as, say, Syria's terrible record on human rights. As a Reuters piece on the matter put it: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a dictator who wants to be accepted by polite Western society should look for a charming, glamorous wife."

Assad has company among other charming, glamorous wives of Middle Eastern rulers who increasingly find themselves provoking distaste. In recent months, Jordan's cosmopolitan Queen Rania Al Abdullah—even more of a fashion-mag perennial than Asma Assad—and several other of the region's rulers' wives have been held up, both at home and in the international media, as symbols of all that is wrong with their husbands' regimes. It's a modern-day Marie Antoinette problem—one that Americans have been unwittingly exacerbating.

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Ask the average Westerner what might be a prerequisite for meaningful progress in the Middle East, and there's a good chance she will mention, among other things, greater agency for women. And so to many American readers, the worldly, educated new generation of Middle Eastern rulers' wives and daughters—a generation that includes not only Rania but also her predecessor, Queen Noor, Princess Lalla Salma of Morocco, and even Hosni Mubarak's tabloid-baiting daughter-in-law Khadija el-Gamal, who works for her own father's real estate company—seem like sparkling symbols of female progress and potential. Yet ask someone in one of the countries where revolution has been bubbling what her country's biggest problem is, and she'll probably cite a lack of democratic government combined with inequality and crippling poverty; extravagant Rania, queen (not first lady) of one of the region's poorer countries, is also a symbol of that.

In many ways, Queen Rania is the clearest—and most vexing—example of this contradiction. She holds a fair claim to the title of most glamorous woman in the world. At least, she was Glamour's woman of the year in 2010—an award she can file away next to her membership in Vanity Fair's Best-Dressed International Hall of Fame and her perch on Forbes' Most Powerful Women list. She's appealing to the magazine editors who compile these lists not just because she's a slender clotheshorse with deep pockets and friends in high places—these things help—but also because her calendar is bursting with loads of commitments that seem to crush the stereotypes of both idle royals and submissive Muslim wives. She has done work for everyone from UNICEF to Operation Smile, while also founding initiatives such as the Jordan River Foundation and the Arab Women's Organization (which many of her royal peers have also worked for). Rania, explaining her influence in a 2009 Vogue profile: "Other Arab countries send us people to train as social workers, and now I can suddenly turn on Saudi television and find them talking about child abuse!" Her friend Wendi Murdoch, wife of Rupert, chimed in: "She's modern; she thinks being queen is a job. She takes on all those issues like women's rights and improving the lives of Jordan's people, and they really love her."