Lessons in charity from dictator's wives

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On Sunday night, a young woman risked her life for the man she loved. She threw herself in front of him, and got shot. The young woman was called Amal al-Sadah. The man she loved was called Osama bin Laden.

We can assume she loved him, because you don't, on the whole, throw yourself in the line of fire of some of the most highly skilled special forces in the world for someone you just quite like. We can also assume she loved him because her life was rather limited. There were no candle-lit dinners in restaurants. No minibreaks to Malaga. No little strolls beyond those high, concrete walls.

The conversation must have been magnificent. Or perhaps the kisses. Or perhaps the sex. Or perhaps just a glance from those big, soulful eyes made her heart melt. We don't know. We can't know. All we know is that Amal al-Sadah, who married Bin Laden when she was 15 and he was 44, loved a man she knew was a mass murderer.

Leila Trabelsi was 35 when she married Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. He was 56. She was a hairdresser. He was President of Tunisia. We don't know exactly what attracted her to the multi-millionaire with the very big nose and the run of a country, but it seems unlikely to have been his love of democracy and free speech.

She started a charity. Politicians' wives do like a charity. She had one for the disabled, and one for cancer, and one for micro-finance loans. For her extended family, she didn't bother with loans. You don't need loans if you're related to the President's wife. She liked shopping. She really, really liked shopping. When Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted, after weeks of protests, she went to the bank and stocked up on gold bars. They fled, with both their extended families, to Saudi Arabia. And with, according to the government that replaced them, a big stash of illegally removed cash.

Suzanne Saleh Thabet married Hosni Mubarak when she was 17 and he was 30. He was an officer in the Egyptian air force. She was a (half British, half Egyptian) student. When he became President, she did a Master's degree in the sociology of education and a thesis on "social action research in urban Egypt". She did charity work. Of course she did charity work. She was a patron of the Arabic version of Sesame Street, and a "goodwill ambassador" for the UN.

Her husband was not a "goodwill ambassador". There isn't a huge amount of "goodwill" when you run your regime in a constant state of emergency, and when you legalise censorship and suspend constitutional rights. There isn't a huge amount of "goodwill" when you detain thousands of people under this emergency law, and have more than 30,000 political prisoners. Or when you amass a 70 billion-odd dollar fortune.

Suzanne Mubarak was very keen on causes that promote the rights of children. She was very keen on causes that promoted the rights of her children, and in particular the right of her son, Gamal, to take over as President. She was also very keen on shopping, and very keen on cash. As her husband drifts in and out of a coma in Sharm El Sheikh, she faces charges of transferring foreign aid funds into her own pocket.

Asma Fawaz al-Akhras married Bashar al-Assad when she was 25 and he was 35. She was born in Acton. He was born in Damascus. She studied computer science and French literature at King's College London. He studied ophthalmology at the university of Damascus. She became an investment banker. He became a staff colonel in the Syrian army. She married him 11 years ago, six months after he was "elected" President, on a 97% vote, of Syria.

Asma al-Assad is very pretty and very thin. She does charity work. Of course she does charity work. She is, according to a recent profile in American Vogue, a "rose in the desert". She is, according to Paris Match, "the element of light in a country full of shadows".

A "country full of shadows" is one way of describing a country whose citizens are imprisoned and killed for speaking out. A "country full of shadows" sounds a lot nicer than a country where young men have their eyes gouged out, and their noses cut in half and half their faces sliced off. In the past seven weeks, more than 500 Syrians have been killed for standing peacefully in a street and saying that they'd quite like to have a vote. Thousands have been imprisoned. Many have been tortured. We don't know how many because foreign journalists aren't allowed to enter the country, and Syrian journalists aren't allowed to report.

How do these women sleep at night? How do they climb into bed with men who kill, and torture, and steal? How do they stand on platforms and talk about the rights of women and children, while their husbands are stifling, and cheating, and sometimes even killing, the women's husbands and the children's fathers? How do they convince themselves that it's fine for them to have millions, while their people struggle to buy bread, and that, even with their millions, they need more?

The world isn't teeming with eligible men. Sometimes, as my mother always said, you can't afford to be too picky. But, really.

Maybe you can excuse a 15-year-old Yemeni for marrying a middle-aged Saudi she barely knew. You can't excuse a 25-year-old woman for staying with a man she knew to be a mass murderer. You can't excuse a 54-year-old Tunisian for trying to steal money she must have known belonged to the people, or a 70-year-old Egyptian for trying to steal money that was clearly meant for the poor. And you can't even begin to excuse a bright, well-educated, Syrian Brit for colluding in her husband's regime's mass murder.

We may be bored by elections. We may be shocked by MPs who claim expenses for bath plugs and biscuits. We may be worried about cuts. But the cuts we worry about are not cuts to our nose, or face, or genitals. If we don't like our politicians, we can get rid of them. We should spare much more than a thought for those who risk their lives for the right to get rid of the monsters who rule them, and their equally monstrous wives.