Some five years ago, I was in Geneva speaking at an international conference on the abysmal position of women in most Muslim societies.
Afterwards, as I was waiting at the airport to go through passport control, a young Arab woman ran up and gave me a small, beautifully wrapped parcel. She said it was a gift from Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of the ousted Egyptian dictator we saw in court last week, picking his nose on a stretcher in a specially made enclosure as he was charged with corruption, self-enrichment and human-rights abuses. The First Lady wanted to thank me for my speech and hoped I would visit Egypt to speak at another conference she was organising, perhaps also to go to one of Egypt's famous beach resorts. I refused to take the package and the woman first pleaded and persisted and then burst into tears: "You must take it, you must, please. They will be very angry with me, I need this job, please take it and throw it away."
We were being watched now by other passengers, so I took the present and opened it straight away. It was a beautiful and obviously very expensive watch. I have it still, with the box, and will happily return it to the Egyptian government if they so wish. Suzanne had her palaces, wealth and status but wanted more, a reputation of greatness. How hard she worked to get that, casting herself as the curator of female rights across the Arab world. Her many admirers would say she was indeed a champion for women. Does that therefore offset her own complicities? Mubarak treated Egypt as if it was his own estate, its people his serfs. His regime ruled with fear, used torture as a means of governance, neglected the economic and social needs of the population. Mrs Mubarak was cool about it all and even pushed for her son Gamal to inherit the corrupt presidency. This Suzanne, the daughter of an Egyptian surgeon and a Welsh nurse, would surely value democracy and have the moral sensibility to understand why Egyptians revolted against the grotesquely lavish and imperious ways of her fallen clan. Not so, it appears.
From the beautiful, highly educated and cultured Asma al-Assad, witness the same fragrant silence and adjustment to the remorseless barbarity of her husband against his own citizens wanting justice and democracy. She was raised in Acton, west London, in an upper-middle-class, cultivated family. Her father, a consultant cardiologist, and her mother, an ex-diplomat, one assumes, believe in democratic rights. How does Asma now look at the face of her husband Bashar without wanting to spit at it? Yes, love can be blind to many faults – an ugly nose, baldness, perhaps stupidity, greed too – but to wholesale murder? Does she not have nightmares of blood-soiled hands? I wonder about Safia Farkash too, married to Gaddafi for 40 years, for what? The most expensive handbags and diamond-studded headscarves? Did it only take an inexhaustible supply of shoes to keep Imelda Marcos so happy she was blind to her husband's misdemeanours?
Stuff, it seems, assuages the guilt and responsibility that should be felt by the wives of autocrats. Some, like Eva Peron, turn themselves into dream fairies, distracting the population from any thought of revolt against the outrages of the leaders. "Soft power" in their hands becomes a devil's trick, as wicked as the brutal control exercised by the men.
I don't, of course, condemn all the spouses for the evils committed by their power-crazed men. Some are caught in the domestic net because they have children and feel the cold fear of what could happen to them if they question or try to leave the dictators. When I was 17, Uganda's elected but megalomaniac President Obote got student leaders to stay at State House for several weeks. It was the time of the youth revolts in the US and Europe and he wanted to find potential troublemakers. Every evening at dinner, his wife was present, quiet, obviously terrified and casually humiliated by him in front of us. Once he even slapped her and threw the soup bowl into her lap. Such wives are victims too. A few of them do eventually retreat into blameless lives – Rachele Mussolini ran a small pasta house in her family village and Idi Amin's many wives have embraced obscurity. But what of wives who become committed partners in crime with their dictator husbands? For them, no mercy, surely.
They enthusiastically join the firm and at times become more avaricious and tyrannical than their men. Leila Trabelsi, the daughter of a fruit seller, married Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, the now-deposed dictator of Tunisia, to spend, spend, spend and bully, and was loathed by Tunisians. Grace, the young missus of Robert Mugabe, allegedly provokes the same responses for the wealth she has accumulated since her very fortunate marriage. Then there are the true Lady Macbeths – the ex-actress Jiang Qing, wife of Mao, the planner and implementer of the heinous Cultural Revolution, who at least had the grace to kill herself in the end. Or the frightful Mirjana, widow of Milosevic, a ferocious denier of the genocides committed by Serbs loyal to her husband.
But let us come away from those blasted, undemocratic countries to our own green and pleasant land to ask the same question. Do wives of those with power and influence always have to support their hubbies no matter what? Wendi Deng, Tiger wife of Rupert Murdoch, certainly appears excessively loyal, and so too the smart wives of Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell and Blair's former chief of staff Jonathan Powell. They could have dissented over the lies leading up to the Iraq War. They didn't. Now Sarah Helm, wife of Powell, writes a play, Loyalty, to dramatise her anguish over the war. Too late baby, it's too late. It's like Mrs Mubarak writing a novel called Loving a Dictator and expecting us to applaud her "bravery". Cherie Blair even wrote in her memoir that it was a wife's duty to stand by her man whatever decision he takes – even murderous ones, I suppose. That is the advice of a top human-rights lawyer. How far does this go?
I do understand women get blamed too often and harshly for misdeeds which men get away with lightly. However, when you are married to a man who can make or break humans and entire nations, you have an obligation beyond the marriage – and perhaps the means, too, to stop his excesses. If you choose to stand by a dishonourable man, you must then share the blame, the punishment and public opprobrium. There must be a special tribunal in hell for such intimate collusion.