The secret and public lives of dictators' wives

The secret and public lives of dictators' wives

Washington : DC : USA | May 26, 2012 at 5:18 PM PDT
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Marie Antoinette

A popular genre in American reality television delves into the lives of wives that began with the popular show “Desperate Housewives.” The spinoffs have grown exponentially to include the wives of sports figures, mob wives, prison wives, basketball wives, sister wives (wives of a polygamist), and some I have most likely missed. To date, reality TV has not created a show about dictator’s wives; however, their lives are not without drama and have proven to be both fascinating and bewildering.

Recent reports have become public regarding the loyalty of Osama bin Laden’s wives. His three wives were fiercely loyal to him and gave little away when they were interrogated after the al-Qaida terrorist was killed in a U.S. raid over a year ago, a Pakistani intelligence agent who questioned them said. Before bin Laden’s death, little to nothing was know of these women who were loyal to their terrorist husband.

The unidentified agent describes months of interrogation in a Pakistani publication. “Slowly puffing on a cigarette in a rundown Islamabad villa as he described months of questioning the women, the agent said he struggled to glean any worthwhile information. Yemeni-born Amal al Sadeh, the youngest of the three, was headstrong and showed fury when asked questions, while the others, Saudi citizens, expressed displeasure by mostly keeping silent behind their veils, the agent said.”

Their relationship with bin Laden will be mostly cloaked in mystery and supposition, as these women remain silent about their relationship with the most notorious villain of the century.

This prompts curiosity into what is it like for wives like these who must publically show support for some of the most hated men in history, and the logical question is are they privately content and happy?

Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette at 14 was forced into marriage by her Austrian family in order to create a political liaison between Austria and France’s Louis the XVI. The excesses of which Antoinette is accused are exaggerated, both she and Louis were teenagers when brought together and seriously ruling France was not something neither of them knew much about, nor were they interested initially. They were extravagant, frivolous and indifferent, but not devious. In retrospect they were aristocratic victims of the virtues of the Enlightenment professing liberty and freedom from oppression throughout Europe and America. Still, Antoinette is considered a contributor to the downfall of the French Monarchy together with Louis XVI during the French Revolution.

It is noteworthy that Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI matured into loving parents and supported each other during the tumultuous French Revolution that ended for both of them at the guillotine.

Eva Braun

Eva Braun, long time companion “wife” of Adolf Hitler is no doubt one of the most famous. Her 1935 diary was discovered after World War II and gives some indication of her relationship with the dictator.

February 6, 1935: I shall end my birthday "with gluttony and drunkenness." I think this is what he would want me to do.

February 11, 1935: He did not even ask me what I wanted for my birthday. So I bought some jewelry for myself. A necklace, earrings, and a matching ring, all for 50 marks. All very pretty, and I hope he likes it. If he doesn't, then he should choose something for me himself.

March 11, 1935: He only needs me for certain purposes, otherwise it is not possible. This is idiocy. When he says he loves me, it only means he loves me at that particular instant. Like his promises, which he never keeps. Why does he torment me like this, when he could finish it off at once?

Her diary continues to show her ambivalence in the relationship, yet she does not leave him. But by the end of May of that same year she is contemplating suicide by taking “35 pills.” She chooses, however, to live and commits suicide with Hitler in a bunker with allied forces closing in on them.

Gertraud Weisker, Braun’s cousin and last living relative recalls Eva differently than most historians and lends some insight. “Yes, Eva was self-preoccupied and silly. But, claims Weisker, “the historians have got it wrong. Eva was not a Nazi. She was a victim, an unhappy, caged and desperate victim who suffered from lack of confidence and depression. The Nazi wives shunned her, she was alone; who in her position would not have acted as she did?”

Asma al-Assad

More recently the wife of the Syrian dictator wife of Syrian Prime Minister Bashar al-Assad – sent an e-mail to London Times in which she supported her husband’s response to the uprisings that began in Syria almost a year ago. It was a controversial move for someone who has been largely unavailable for comment—and one that inspired The Times’s Martin Fletcher to ask: “Has Syria’s Princess Diana become its Marie Antoinette?”

Andrew Tabler, who is an American expert on Syria has one of the best observations on wives of dictators saying, “No one can say what’s happening behind closed palace doors, but I doubt she feels she has any control or would ultimately have much influence over what her husband is doing.”

Like the wives of many dictators, Asma al-Assad has little to no power over what her husband says or does and supporting him puts her in his favor cementing her position in the hierarchy, which ensures her prestige and safety.

Rebellious wife: Susana Higuchi

Not all dictator’s wives have shown unshakeable loyalty like bin Laden’s wives, the pathetic sycophantic behavior of Eva Braun, or the trapped aristocrat Marie Antoinette doomed by her own extravagance.

In 1994 Susana Higuchi the first lady of Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori accused her husband of corruption and criminal activity. They were married for 20 years, yet she publically denounced him as a tyrant. Despite her declaration, she said she still cared for her husband saying, “Our differences are merely political, not marital,” she said. Higuchi is an inspirational symbol for women’s activism and independence; however, her husband stripped her of her title and promoted his eldest daughter. Her claims of torture by Peruvian Intelligence were denied by Fujimori. Higuichi divorced her husband in 1998 after he fell from power in Peru.

Loving, influential wife: Sally Hayfron Mugabe

Sally Hayfron Mugabe now deceased was the first wife of Robert Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe and the First Lady of Zimbabwe from 1987 until her death in 1992. She was popularly known as Amai (Mother) and a normalizing, sensible force as her husband’s confident and advisor post revolution when the country was attempting normalcy and dealing with the return of refugees from Rhodesia. Mugabe’s second wife does not enjoy her popularity, nor her political influence. On the contrary, her elaborate lifestyle is illustrative of the excesses of dictatorships and some believe the downward spiral of Zimbabwe’s government under Mugabe.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu says that Zimbabwe's long-time president has become a cartoon figure of the archetypal African dictator. During the 2002 presidential campaign, he started wearing brightly-colored shirts emblazoned with his face - a style copied from many of Africa's notorious rulers. Sally Mugabe probably—as many wives do—would have advised him on his choice of clothing with political intuitiveness.


Wives of dictators can be loyal and unshakeable, disturbingly weak, misunderstood, loving and influential, and from the few described here not lacking in distinguishable characteristics as women, with a variety of motivational factors. For individuals like Susana Higuchi personal integrity trumped love, conversely in the case of bin Laden’s wives love trumped personal integrity.

Many wives throughout history have supported their husbands with honor and sacrifice in politics. In the U.S. powerful presidents have among them many prominent first ladies. Abigail Adams is legendary as her husband’s advisor. A few names stand out in modern times as U.S. first ladies namely Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford and Hillary Clinton all met challenges with dignity earning them the respect of the nation.

Dictator’s wives, however, remain unpredictable in intention and motivation. Their survival and happiness might depend on their ability to meld with their husband’s regime, and the choices they make induced by self preservation, rather than altruism. Are they happy? If staying alive is equated to happiness, the answer would have to be “yes.”


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Asma al-Assad
Asma al-Assad British born wife of President of Syria.
Dava Castillo is based in Clearlake, California, United States of America, and is an Anchor on Allvoices.
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