Profile: Buthaina Shaaban

As the Syrian president’s right-hand woman, Shaaban presents a polished defence of regime policies.

Profile: Buthaina Shaaban

As the Syrian president’s right-hand woman, Shaaban presents a polished defence of regime policies.

Dressed in sober western attire, Buthaina Shaaban responded in fluent English to questions put by a western journalist. In her recent interview with the American TV channel Fox News, Shaaban, who is media and political advisor to the Syrian president Bashir al-Assad, vehemently defended her country's support for militant groups fighting against Israel, while at the same time welcoming a thaw in relations between Damascus and Washington.

“The idea of isolating countries, or threatening or punishing, or refraining from talking to countries has proven not to be effective,” she said. Shaaban’s eloquence, coupled with her high-ranking position, has led to her becoming the Syrian administration’s public face in the West.

Her media visibility in the past few years has set her apart from other Syrian politicians. She has written several columns in international newspapers, appeared frequently on foreign TV channels, and given talks at universities in Canada and the United States.

Shaaban, 55, climbed her way up through the ranks of the Ba'ath party gradually. In the Nineties, she worked as an interpreter at the presidential palace, winning the trust of the late president Hafez al-Assad.

The then US president, Bill Clinton, noted in his memoirs that Assad always listened carefully to Shabaan. After Assad died and his son Bashar took over in 2000, Shaaban gradually began her ascent to become one of the senior figures in the Ba'ath party.

She continued working as a translator until 2002, when she became director of foreign media relations at the foreign ministry.

In 2003, she was made minister of expatriates, a rare appointment in a country where few women hold top government positions. Two years later, she was also appointed spokesperson for the Ba'ath party, a job created during an emergency congress called to revise state policies.

She left her ministerial post in 2008, when she became the president’s media and political advisor.

Today, Shaaban is one of Assad’s close aides, accompanying him to conferences and key meetings.

For instance, during an Arab summit held in protest against the Israeli attack on Gaza earlier this year, she gave several interviews to reporters in which she articulated her country’s support for the Palestinians.

Following the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005, in which many believed Damascus had a hand, Shaaban gave numerous TV interviews and academic lectures in which she put Syria’s case.

Observers say Shaaban presents a secular, modern image of Syria, at a time of rising Islamic fundamentalism in the region. Married with three children, she believes strongly that women have a right to work rather than stay at home as housewives.

But many argue that the modern image she portrays and her eloquent defence of government policies belie the reality of a state that continues to crush any expression of political opposition or dissident opinion.

Many opposition figures therefore decry her as an apologist for a repressive regime. According to news agency reports, Shaaban used an address to voters during the 2007 parliamentary election to attack the opposition and accuse its members of trying to undermine the country. “The opposition is an accomplice in destroying this region,” she was quoted as saying. “And the fate of those who conspire against their country is clear.”

In another interview, Shaaban slammed what she characterised as western policies seeking to export ready-made democracy to the Middle East. Earlier this month, she told the Omani al-Watan newspaper that developing countries should develop a form of governance that is in harmony with their own culture.

During her time as expatriates minister, she was in charge of persuading Syrians living abroad, for example in the United States and Europe, to renew ties with their country of origin and invest in Syria.

Some say she was unsuccessful at this as many ex-pats remained appalled at the lack of freedom of expression and other rights in Syria.

Outside politics, Shaaban has written many articles and books on women’s issues and literature.

She studied English literature at Damascus University, and then won a scholarship to study in Britain, where she obtained a PhD in literature in 1983. After that, she taught Romantic poetry and feminist literature at Damascus University from 1985 until 2002.

Shaaban had a humble childhood. She was raised in Massoudiya, a village near the city of Homs, where she recalls spending many nights with her nine siblings gazing at the stars on the rooftop of their home, and walking along “the tiring and muddy road” to school every day.

In a documentary called A Woman, made in 2007 by Syrian-American director Ziad Hamze, she said she learned how to be a “strong and independent” woman from her mother who, in the 1940s, fought court battles to win inheritance rights for female relatives, in the face of the prevailing conservative social attitudes.
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