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“Yet still people persisted in believing that just because I had ovaries, I must have been sobbing into my pillow at night at the thought of my husband’s atrocities. Newsflash: I laid on his shoulder, thinking about how much I loved him, while urging us on.” TDW, Chapter Ten

I don’t generally write much about politics on this blog or my Twitter account – which may seem odd, considering both the sheer amount of politics going on over the last twelve months, and my book’s overtly political themes.

For the record, this isn’t due to apathy or disinterest. I work as a civil servant in a relatively senior role in central government, and as a result – unless I wanted to go full National Parks Service – I’m subject to pretty strict rules about what I can and can’t talk about online, particularly in relation to showing support or opposition to particular politicians or policies.

I planned today’s blog earlier in the week. There’s been so much going on between now and then that it feels a little odd to focus on a comparatively minor issue, but it’s one it’s acceptable for me to comment on, and one that’s oddly relevant to one of my books.

I’m talking about #freemelania – because after all, wives of… erm… political leaders are sort of my specialist subject.

In many ways, the hashtag seems innocent enough, especially considered alongside so much of this week’s news. It’s based on the idea that the President’s wife really, really doesn’t want to be there and is basically being held captive by her husband.  Part joke, part one more line of attack against Trump, and perhaps part, in some people’s minds, a genuine belief.

melania

Certainly, you can find a good few pictures where she looks less than enthusiastic, and I would concede that based on evidence so far, she is less likely either to be or even to want to be a semi-equal partner in the Michelle Obama or Hillary Clinton mould.

All the same, it reminds me of one of the main themes of The Dictator’s Wife – people’s consistent inability to believe that the eponymous wife, Marianne, can possibly be as committed as her husband, Julien, to their autocratic Regime, and that she must be relatively nice and regret his more extreme actions.

As Marianne comments after the rebels start broadcasting videos urging her to curb her husband’s worse excesses (which incidentally is based on a real video aimed at Asma al-Assad, wife of the Syrian leader – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/9210007/UN-ambassadors-wives-produce-video-urging-Asma-al-Assad-to-stop-violence-in-Syria.html)

I hated that video and that whole campaign. I hated it for the way it depicted the Regime as the bad guys, of course, but I’d come to expect that from the Treaty. What I couldn’t stomach was the patronising assumption I was an unwilling participant in my husband’s “crimes.”

 An odd theory, sprouted by housewives and certain hard-core feminists alike, claims that if women ran the world, it would be a nicer place. There wouldn’t be wars. The female leaders would sit down and talk problems through, as though they were gossiping in a wine bar. There wouldn’t be poverty. They’d be far too nurturing to allow that to happen.

 Tell that to Thatcher, Merkel, or Elizabeth I. There have been nowhere near enough women leaders, but of those that have pulled it off, I see little evidence of treating the country like a cosy kitchen and other countries as friends to compliment and confide in.

 “They aren’t real women. They act like men.” The whispered mantra every time a powerful woman declares war, literally or metaphorically.

 Actually, no. They act like leaders. Very few men have the requisite strength of character to run a country and protect it against its enemies. Plenty of touchy-feely men care about people’s feelings and hate war, but they don’t make it to the top any more than stereotypical women do. Or, in the rare instances where they pull it off, their principles and preferences quickly crumble under the harsh reality of what it takes to hold a state together.

 Yet still people persisted in believing that just because I had ovaries, I must have been sobbing into my pillow at night at the thought of my husband’s atrocities. Newsflash: I laid on his shoulder, thinking about how much I loved him, while urging us on.

 When they realised I possessed no sympathy to their cause of peace and conciliation, the rebels began to truly hate me, not just because of my actions, views or allegiances, but because I challenged all their ideas of what a woman should be. Because I looked them in the eye and let them know the truth: they could turn the patriarchy into the matriarchy, and I would still ensure that history would bury them.

 Julien’s evil was understandable; mine was unforgivable.

 In the book, half the point is that Marianne is an equal partner in the Regime and as bad – if not worse – than her husband. On balance, I doubt that either of those things are true of Melania. But equally, I doubt that she’s some angel, or held against her will.  I don’t believe you can be in a relationship with someone with such strong views and not either broadly agree with them or at least not feel actively opposed to them. We know very little of her political views, beyond a fairly non-partisan uncontroversial anti-bullying stance, and this rather darker video where she opines on Obama’s birth certificate:

I honestly have no idea whether she’s tearfully trying to persuade Trump to revoke his Muslim ban, urging him to extend it to more countries, or ignoring it entirely in favour of a discussion on what dress to wear to their next ball. Neither do I know whether she stays with him through gritted teeth for the sake of the money and their child, or whether she loves and reveres him for his power and his outspoken ways – but some of her old pre-election tweets suggest a degree of admiration – https://twitter.com/MELANIATRUMP/status/482876950361280512

Far from being entirely oblivious to politics, I imagine she must be shaped to some degree by her upbringing in a then-Communist state and by her own experiences as an immigrant, but have no idea whether that gives her sympathy for other immigrants or a mentality of wanting to close the door behind her. I can take a guess on all counts, but it would be nothing more than speculation.

I can’t help but feel that her conventionally attractive appearance and her past as a model contribute to this idea that she can’t possibly have strong political views or sympathy for her husband’s stances. And to me, denying Melania any blame for her husband’s views and actions is just as patronising as denying Michelle any credit for her husband’s would have been.

Like I said, it’s hardly the most important Trump-related issue of the week. But I do think it’s crucial that critics stick to their principles when attacking him, and for me, a major principle is starting from the presumption that until proven otherwise, every woman – pretty ones included – has agency, thoughts and views.

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