Blazing a trail for Arab women, Jordan's stylish Queen has redefined her role to become an agent of political change. But in the face of traditionalist opposition, she can push women's issues only so far
By SCOTT MACLEOD | AMMAN
Sunday, Feb. 15, 2004
Stepping out of her gunmetal-gray SUV and striding into the compound of Amman's Kamalia School for Girls, Rania al Abdullah doesn't fit the prim, circumspect image of an Arab Queen. For one thing, she's wearing a snug-fitting metallic gold top, matching pants and two-inch heels, and her mane of glossy brown hair brushes across her shoulders as she walks. For another, rather than standing around exchanging pleasantries, she's walking briskly to her appointment like a busy CEO heading for a board meeting. Nor could she seem more unlike the audience that awaits her inside the school: 28 teenage girls in drab blue uniforms, half of them with their hair fully covered with scarves in the tradition of conservative Muslims.
The Jordanian Queen's exposed locks and frankly modern style are a sociopolitical statement, of course, advertising her conviction that the veil should be a matter of personal choice for Muslim women; Rania usually chooses not to. But she isn't here to lecture anybody about fashion or faith. She's marking the start of Human Rights Day at one of many events being held in schools across the Hashemite kingdom. The nationwide observance — unprecedented in an Arab world notorious for its violations of basic freedoms — was Rania's idea, just one of many modernizing notions she champions.
After greeting the students, Rania, 33, reads aloud a passage about the rights of women, drawn from the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. "Freedom means no discrimination on the basis of race, language, religion, politics or origin, with no differences between men and women," she says in a teacherly way. "Everyone is equal." To the Queen's delight, one of the girls responds by quoting the Prophet Muhammad on women's equality. Others throw up their hands in a competition to join in. Long after Rania has left, the girls still have stars in their eyes. "She talks to us about freedom, that nobody can take it away from us," beams Rula Nasser, 15. The 10th grader pauses for a moment, then adds: "She's amazing!"
No Western Queen or First Lady would get such a gushing review just for reading from a legal document. But in the Arab world, where most rulers' wives toe the conservative line in dress and demeanor, Rania is a rarity: a powerful woman who uses that power to push a progressive agenda. While other Arab consorts typically limit their public profile to the patronage of uncontroversial charities, Rania exercises her influence on hot-button issues that have brought her praise from modernists, criticism from traditionalists — and attention from well beyond the borders of tiny Jordan. "She's a mover and shaker," says one of the Arab press's leading commentators, Abdul Rahman al Rashid, columnist for the London-based Asharq al Awsat. "She's not a woman who wants media attention, but one who wants to deliver a program. It is not easy to change things, but she is making noise and delivering what she promises."
The secret to Rania's break-the-mold approach to the monarchy may be her background. She was not raised to be a Queen. Her parents are Palestinian — her father was a pediatrician — and she made her own way in Amman's middle class, working as a marketing executive for Apple Computer before meeting and marrying then Prince Abdullah in 1993. After becoming Queen in 1999 — five years ago this month — she turned into an international style icon (Giorgio Armani said she "has the body of a model and she holds herself like the Queen she is — what more could you want?"). But more recently she has evolved into someone altogether more formidable and hard to define. After a Dec. 26 earthquake reduced the Iranian town of Bam to rubble, she supervised the loading of relief supplies onto a Jordanian C-130 transport plane and then rode on it to Iran to comfort the victims. She's on the governing board of the World Economic Forum, the only Arab helping to steer that group of global political and business leaders. She and her husband, King Abdullah II, teamed up with the WEF and U.S. tech giant Cisco Systems to launch the Jordan Education Initiative, which brings Internet-enabled learning to the Middle East. Rania's favorite part of the project: Jordan's 10 Cisco Networking Academies, teaching high-tech skills to 600 students — almost two-thirds of them women. And next month, thanks to Rania's prodding, Arab satellite channels will begin broadcasting public-service ads aimed at boosting women's participation in public life.
Rania's most controversial work is done behind the scenes in Amman, where she has quietly lobbied the King and leading Jordanian politicians to institute social and political reforms, many of them aimed at improving the circumstances of women. Her promptings (in addition to artful persuasion, she nominated female candidates and provided résumés of their qualifications) helped lead to an unprecedented increase last year in the number of women in Jordanian politics. Now six seats are reserved for women in the newly elected 110-seat Chamber of Deputies. The King has also appointed seven women to the 55-seat Senate and included three women in his government's 21-member cabinet. "She comes and quite articulately pushes the case," says Abdullah. "She'll say, 'I'm just reminding you, if we are going to give women more of a role, for them to feel a stronger part of society, how about trying to push the envelope?'"
There's plenty of pushing left to be done. In a series of interviews with TIME, Rania described a Middle East where many women's lives remain hobbled by inequality: unable to find jobs, confined to their homes by patriarchal tradition, and, in extreme cases, losing their lives if simply suspected of sexual transgressions. "One of the main obstacles preventing the Arab world from advancing is the exclusion of women," she says. "Sometimes people ask, 'Do you have an agenda?' Yes, I do have a gender agenda. The more you include women, the more people will get used to the fact that, yes they are capable, yes they are part of the scene."
But the same traditions that suppress Arab women also place limits on what Rania, for all her power and enthusiasm, can achieve. Many of her modernizing initiatives have been slapped down by Jordan's conservative politicians. Last year, parliament rejected proposals she supported to equalize divorce rights and increase the marrying age of girls from 15 to 18. The Queen has also been frustrated in her campaign against "honor crimes," the term for the murder of women accused of dishonoring their families with sexual misconduct. Parliament refused to repeal sections of the Jordanian penal code that allow courts to show leniency to the perpetrators — usually male relatives of the victims. Rania has also tried and failed to persuade politicians to scrap a regulation that prevents Jordanian mothers from handing down citizenship, with its crucial access to state education and medical care, to their children.
Many Jordanian conservatives resent what they see as Rania's meddling in her husband's affairs, not only because she is a woman but also because she has Palestinian roots — her father fled the West Bank town of Tulkarm in 1967. Jordan's ruling élite comprises mainly East Bank Bedouins with strong connections to the Hashemite throne. "The regime's main supporters wonder about her," says one influential businessman. "Traditional men are not impressed by intelligent women. They are thinking, 'Who is this Palestinian coming to tell us how to run the country?'" Many Jordanians still talk about the 2002 football match where East Bankers chanted a message to Abdullah: "Divorce Her! Divorce Her!" (Ironically, Palestinians complain she has not adequately supported the intifadeh against Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.)
The King hears the grumbling and is careful to point out who's in charge. "There's criticism in Amman that the Queen's calling the shots. That is not the case with Rania," he told Time. "There are boundaries she has never been able to cross." Abdullah also maintains that his wife's reformist urges mirror his own: "She is a reflection of me to some extent, and I of her." Despite that endorsement, however, Rania is "not oblivious to the problem of people perceiving her as being too influential," says an aide. "The question of being a liability is more precarious in a conservative country." As for the suspicions caused by her Palestinian origins, the Queen knows she may never be able to satisfy all of her husband's subjects: "There are certain people who will think I am not Jordanian enough," she shrugs, "and people who think I am not Palestinian enough."
Officials close to the Queen say that the setbacks in parliament have taught her not to expect overnight success. "My disappointments," Rania says, "have stemmed mainly from my own impatience. [Reform] requires changes from within society. If society still believes that a woman's place is in the home, you are not going to get change." Even so, she is adamant that "now is the time to confront these issues."
She has already witnessed plenty of change. Rania al Yasin was born in Kuwait in August 1970, only a few days before Jordan's bloody Black September civil war, when Palestinian guerrillas tried to overthrow her future father-in-law. Her family remained in Kuwait until Saddam Hussein invaded the tiny oil sheikdom in 1990. The Yasins left and never went back. Rania earned a business degree from the American University in Cairo before joining her parents in Amman in 1991. She worked in marketing, first for Citibank, then for Apple. She caught the eye of Abdullah, oldest son of King Hussein and commander of Jordan's special forces, at a dinner party in 1992 and they married the following year.
She was not expected to become Queen. Hussein's deathbed decision to sack his brother Hassan, Crown Prince for 34 years, and make Abdullah his heir caught Rania — and all of Jordan — by surprise. "A whole new life and responsibility was suddenly placed on my shoulders," she recalls. "You start feeling insecure. You feel you have to prove yourself."
The conventional role of the Arab consort would have required her to confine herself to the raising of their children, Hussein and Iman, then aged 4 and 2 (their third, Salma, was born in 2000). Instead, the King asked her to brainstorm initiatives on human rights, women's rights, children's rights, education and health. Rania set up a separate office which now has a staff of 20, including researchers, speechwriters, schedulers and publicists, for the most part worldly young Jordanian women like herself. Although she rarely states her political positions in public, Abdullah says he frequently asks for her advice. "I come home at night, and I have a problem with education or health, and I need somebody to pick my brain," he says. "I'm so busy with everything else I need somebody to raise the flag, and in all the issues she is involved in she has been very successful in doing that."
If her pillow talk with Abdullah was political, Rania's early public profile was predictably centered on her looks and her wardrobe. There were comparisons to Jacqueline Kennedy and Diana, Princess of Wales, and she became a favorite of celebrity interviewers, gossip columnists, fashion magazines and paparazzi on both sides of the Atlantic. Inevitably, this led to criticism from Amman's salon society, where her fondness for designer dresses and expensive European vacations is viewed as inappropriate for a poor country squeezed between the conflicts in Palestine and Iraq. The gossips call her "the handbag Queen," and even serious commentators grumble about palace over-spending — including on Rania's Challenger jet. She calls the criticism "part of the turf," but adds: "If the gossip gets out of hand, I may have to look at myself and ask, Am I doing something wrong?"
That Challenger, incidentally, gets a lot of use: the Queen travels frequently, often to the West, where her glamorous persona elicits raves rather than criticism. She's also learned to use her celebrity to do some big-league networking. Shortly after Abdullah's coronation, she agreed to become a spokeswoman for the global microfinance movement, which seeks to empower Third World women by providing them with small business loans. She has since traveled the globe promoting the Washington-based Foundation of International Community Assistance, holding power lunches with women in Washington and Hollywood and delivering aid to women in battle zones like Kosovo. "Working with us in the trenches, you feel like she is one of our own from the ngo world," says finca policy director Lawrence Yanovitch. Bill Clinton recalls how at a charity event in Dubai she lassoed him into doing another in Jordan. "I needed another involvement like I needed a hole in the head," the former President told TIME. "But before I knew it, she had talked me into helping."
She fractured her leg last month while exercising, forcing her to miss the WEF's annual meeting in Davos. But she recalls the first time that she attended a meeting as the Forum's newest board member. Some of the titans of global business, nearly all of them men, were arrayed around the table. "I was terrified!" she says. She need not have been. At the meeting, recalls WEF president Klaus Schwab, the board found itself evenly divided on a controversial appointment until Rania, who had listened silently, raised some pointed questions that quickly clarified the best course of action. "The world's best CEOs hadn't thought of them," Schwab says. "It was her intuitive intelligence." These days, Rania is entirely at home in a room full of movers and shakers. When she was invited to address the pre-Davos Jidda Economic Forum in Saudi Arabia — where discrimination against women is so pervasive that they are barred from most occupations — she accepted enthusiastically. Aboard the Challenger on her way home from another address in Geneva, she and her aides discussed the speech she would deliver in Jidda. "They want me to talk about corporate responsibility, but that's a little passé," the Queen said slyly. "I'll try to talk about something a little more relevant." When the day came, she went to the podium wearing a white head scarf, a courteous nod to Saudi sensitivities. But her message was blunt: it was time her Arab sisters and brothers did it for themselves. "We must face up to hard truths," she said. "It will not help to wring our hands, point fingers or clench our fists. First, we must all participate." For women across the Arab world, it was a call to action from one of their own.