Grand palaces, extravagant attire, and laudable charity work: the invariable characteristics of the leader’s spouse can be crucial to preserving supremacy.
Following the bombing of the Syrian Nation Security HQ in July 2012, which resulted in the deaths of central military and security figures of Bashar al-Assad’s government, press speculation began to ensue regarding the whereabouts of al-Assad’s wife Asma. Considered one of the most notorious incidents in the civil war; it was believed that the Damascus blast had resulted in Syria’s first lady fleeing the country. An immediate termination of all public engagements caused a wave of concern and a sense of abandonment from the victims of violence that Asma had pledged to ‘comfort’.
Styled as a vital part of the Syrian public relations drive, Asma was credited with taking a progressive stance on women’s rights and education. Analysts noted the Syrian government sought to formulate a ‘reformer’s aura’ for Asma – focusing on her participation in anti-poverty and social programs. Perpetuation of Asma’s image as a national heroine soon became a mechanism for emotional and ideological manipulation by the al-Assad regime.
The Damascus Opera House was the setting in March 2013 for the reappearance of the first lady; an event entitled ‘Mother’s Rally’ refuted suggestions that Asma had abandoned her people in the midst of a brutal civil war. In the six months which have followed, Asma’s public activities have again been scarce – infrequent photograph opportunities, propagated as offers of help to the country’s refugees, the only evidence of her presence. The human face of the Syrian regime continues to pervade via the first lady’s Instagram account.
History has shown the courtship of a cult of personality to be central to the wives of tyrannical men. Embrace of media, home and abroad, serves to preserve the repressive nature of these regimes. In 1996, Imelda Marcos, widow of the tenth Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, was the focus of an interview by American comedian Ruby Wax. Marcos’ engagement with the Western media prolonged her fixation with self-indulgence and glamour. After her husband’s ouster in 1986 the extravagance of their rule was fully disclosed – with Imelda gaining notoriety for her ownership of 2,700 pairs of shoes.
Such luxury was contained within the walls of the extensively remodelled Malacañang Palace. Disparity of wealth, violent crime and civil unrest were synonymous with the Marcos regime. Moreover, with various roles in the Philippine House of Representatives, Imelda was prepared to politically stand side-by-side with her husband in the proliferation of oppression and control – she shunned any emotional responsibility to the Filipino population.
A totalitarian partnership is bound by a joint tenacity to resist any challenge. Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime in Romania, from 1965 to 1989 one of the most brutal of the Eastern bloc, saw Elena Ceaușescu proclaimed as the ‘Mother of the Nation’. However, Elena’s egotism and desire for honours exceeded that of even her husband. As Deputy Prime Minister she was instrumental in the restriction of human rights. Moreover, extreme invasion of privacy by the ‘Securitate’ ensured the preservation of a domineering system.
Ultimately the Romanian people revolted in December 1989, and over one thousand people died in the rebellion against Ceausescu. Elena, along with her remorseless husband, was executed by firing squad on Christmas Day 1989. The Ceaușescus were the last people to ever be condemned to death in Romania: the abolition of Capital Punishment in January 1990 was illustrative of a nation free from its malevolent ‘Mother’.
A tool of the state is perhaps the most appropriate definition of the dictator’s wife: the ability to transmit an empathetic appearance is utilised fully. Manipulation and exploitation of emotions is her employment. Artificial devotion to a whole country played out in front of cameras and packed auditoriums. Fundamentally, her loyalty lies with the ultimate ruler: her husband.
Eva Braun’s marriage to Adolf Hitler lasted just forty minutes, and was contained to the Führerbunker where both would take their own lives. On 30th April 1945, with the Axis’ military situation on the verge of capitulation, Hitler and Braun committed suicide. Devotion and loyalty or fear and control; Hitler’s resignation to defeat and death was a burden shared by Eva Braun.
Safeguarding of hegemony is a brutal task. Many regimes run a natural course. Control can diminish, oppression can be broken, autocrats can be disposed of – however, history is immortal. On 20th October 2013, Jovanka Broz, Tito’s widow, died from a heart attack at the age of 88 in a Belgrade hospital after decades of isolation. In a rare interview, in 2009, Broz recounted her disgust at the assassination of her husband’s legacy. The former first lady’s pledge to sacrifice all for her companion continued – like many others in her position – until her final breath.