Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Failing the Masses: Buthaina Shabaan and the Public Intellectual Crisis

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Failing the Masses: Buthaina Shabaan and the Public Intellectual Crisis

Article excerpt

"Each generation must out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it." (Franz Fanon, an anti-colonial intellectual who joined the National Liberation Front in 1954 and participated in fighting for Algerian independence from France.)


This article discusses the problematic and double-sided role of the public intellectual in the Syrian revolution, which started on March 15, 2011 and is still unfolding. When recently challenged by Syrians, the regime enforced its control by carrying out military operations against its own citizens, not without endorsement by a large portion of the population. The article follows the case of Buthaina Shabaan (b. 1953-), the writer, professor, and advocate of the Syrian regime. While spurring the populace to embrace the possibility of democratic reform, this female intellectual has accepted--even embraced--the political control employed by an authoritarian one-party regime, which uses her as a representative of their supposed progressive and women's liberation agendas. Shabaan has been playing a significant role in supporting and ultimately sustaining a totalitarian regime, compromising in the process the interests of women and even children, for whose cause she has long claimed to be a champion and a spokesperson. The shift of Shabaan from being a feminist to serving the propaganda of the regime has damaged her integrity as an intellectual. This shift requires not only a revisionary approach to the Western reception of her, but also an analysis of the way the Syrian people have perceived her role in undermining the revolution.

Keywords: Syria, Syrian Revolution, Buthaina Shabaan, Public Intellectual.

Introduction: Shabaan from the Town to the Palace

Buthaina Shabaan was born in 1953 in a small town called Al-Massoudiah, which belongs to Homs, the Syrian governorate that has been a significant participant in the Syrian revolution against Bashar Assad's regime. Graduating as the top student in Horns and receiving the fourth highest score in Syria for the secondary school final exam in 1971, she met the new leader of Syria, Hafez Assad, who awarded her a scholarship to complete a university degree. Even though her family was strict, her father, an Arabic teacher, allowed her--the first girl to leave her town unaccompanied by a male relative--to study at Damascus University. She was the first female student to major in English, and she received another grant to continue her studies in Britain. In 1977, she earned an MA degree from Warwick University, where she also finished her PhD degree. Her PhD dissertation was on the English poet Shelly, who is well-known for his revolutionary political and poetic visions as in his poem "Revolt of Islam," about someone who has "a resolution to confer the boons of political and intellectual freedom on his fellow-creatures" (Williams 176). Demonstrating a great deal of fearlessness and independence, she married, against the will of her family, an Iraqi national whom she met during her doctoral study in Britain (Shabaan, Both Right and Left Handed, 8-9). After graduation, Shabaan taught for two years (1982-1984) in Algeria, before going back to Damascus to start a career as a professor in comparative women's literature and a writer exposing and agitating against the hindrances of women. (1)

Shabaan's high achievements in school and her membership in the Ba'ath party from an early age attracted the attention of President Hafez Assad, who invited her to do a simultaneous translation for his meeting with former US Secretary of State, Warren Minor Christopher. (2) In a society where the President is viewed as utterly unapproachable and mysterious, working with President Assad became a source of unmatched social power. Shabaan states that after her appearance as a translator for the President, she travelled to her hometown and realized that some people wanted to meet her so that she would help "facilitate some services. …

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