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Al–Abdullah, Rania

Rania Al–Abdullah

Jordan's Queen Rania (born 1970) is one of the Middle East's most intriguing public figures, and has been called the new face of Islamic feminism in the twenty–first century. Married to King Abdullah II, this college–educated former banker and mother of three works tirelessly to improve conditions for her country's disadvantaged, and regularly steps onto the world stage to promote and enhance Jordan's image abroad. "I am an Arab through and through, but I am also one who speaks the international language," she told Newsweek International writers Daniel Klaidman and Jeffrey Bartholet. "I feel I do represent a large segment of women in the Arab world . . . I share with them their hopes and aspirations and the challenges they face."

Jordan's queen is not of royal lineage herself. Instead, the former Rania al–Yasin is of Palestinian heritage, from a family whose roots go back to an area near the west bank of the Jordan River. This land was once a part of Palestine, but annexed by Jordan after the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, and taken by Israel in 1967; it then became part of the disputed "West Bank" territories central to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Because of the instability, Rania's father, a pediatrician, settled in Kuwait in the early 1960s. He and his wife prospered there, and would become parents to three children. Rania was born in Kuwait City on August 31, 1970, and was educated at private schools in the city. She went on to American University in Cairo, where she earned a degree in business administration.

Family Fled First Gulf War

When Rania graduated from American University in 1991, she could not return to Kuwait. A year earlier, the country had been occupied by Iraqi forces under Saddam Hussein, and her family had been forced to flee to Jordan. She followed them to Jordan's capital, Amman, and found a job with Citibank there. She was working for the local office of Apple Computer when her business contacts brought her a dinner invitation to the home of Princess Aisha of Jordan in January of 1993. Aisha was one of several children born to King Hussein, Jordan's ruler since 1952, over the course of his four marriages. Aisha's brother, Abdullah, had been serving in the military but was granted leave that weekend at the last minute, and made a surprise appearance at his sister's party. He was said to have been instantly smitten with Rania, but she later admitted that initially, she was cool to him. "I was kind of reserved," she recalled in an interview with Lisa DePaulo of Harper's Bazaar. "It's kind of intimidating when it's a prince, you know? You sort of think, Well, he must be a playboy or he must be this or that."

The two began dating, but did not venture out in public in order to avoid unwanted media attention. They were married in an elaborate ceremony just five months after their first meeting. She became a princess upon her marriage, but there was little expectation that she would ever become queen: her new husband's paternal uncle was the designated successor to King Hussein, followed by a half–brother. The king was a beloved figure in Jordan and respected abroad for his work toward achieving peace in the Middle East. Rania also became part of a royal household that was relatively modern and internationalist in its attitude toward women's roles: her new mother–in–law was Hussein's fourth wife, the former Lisa Halaby, an American of Syrian–Lebanese heritage. A Princeton–educated architect, Halaby became Queen Noor upon her 1978 marriage to Hussein.

Rania and Abdullah began their family in 1994, with the arrival of a son, whom they named Hussein in honor of his grandfather. He was followed by sisters Iman, born in 1996, and Salma, in 2000. By then, however, much had changed for the young couple: King Hussein was stricken with cancer, and died in February of 1999. Just before he passed away, he changed his will and named Rania's husband as his designated heir. The news stunned Jordan, and Rania, too. "There had been so many rumors, so much speculation," she told DePaulo in Harper's Bazaar. "But I remember that day, I was going through a pile of pictures, organizing them, and my husband walks in and says, 'Rania, it's going to be me.' I remember saying, 'All right.' "

World's Youngest Queen

Rania's husband elevated his wife's title to that of queen, though the widowed Queen Noor retained her crown as well as an active role in Jordanian public life. At Rania's coronation, for which she chose to borrow rather than buy a tiara, the former Citibank executive became the youngest queen in the world. She and the new king, however, did not relocate with their children to the Ragadan Palace compound, but chose to remain in their villa in the hills overlooking Amman.

Like her mother–in–law, Rania has no official role or duties as queen according to Jordan's constitution. Yet she has followed Noor's path and chose to use her position to promote a number of social issues and important charities. King Abdullah has been supportive of Rania's work, and named her to head his Royal Commission on Human Rights. In that capacity, the new queen added her voice to those of several progressive Jordanian activists campaigning for change in the country's divorce law. In 2002, Jordan's parliament passed a temporary set of laws that granted women the right to initiate divorce proceedings, but they were rescinded two years later.

Rania has also joined other Jordanian women and human–rights activists in calling for an end to the so–called "honor killings" in the nation of five million. In some cases, when a woman in Jordan is the victim of sexual assault, or is suspected of engaging in premarital sex, she is murdered by her male relatives. Under Jordanian law, these murders are subject to less stringent penalties than other capital crimes. She is also a tireless advocate for children, and even before becoming queen made child–abuse prevention a priority. In Jordan, child abuse cases are thought to be vastly underreported, and the matter was almost never discussed publicly. Rania launched the Child Safety Program in 1998, and also established Dar Al Aman ("Home of Safety") for young victims of abuse. The shelter is the first of its kind in the Arab world.

Unafraid to Assert Political Opinion

Rania's husband also shares her concern for the disadvantaged, and during his first months as king would disguise himself as a beggar and show up at police stations with a complaint in order to gauge how the country's civil servants treated the poor. Like his father, he has taken an active role in forging a more peaceful Middle East. On a larger stage, Rania has joined her country in lending support to the Palestinians living in the territories occupied by the state of Israel. She is one of the large majority of the population in Jordan—estimated to be around 60 percent—who are of Palestinian origin. She has a grandmother and other family members in and around Nablus, a city in the West Bank territories occupied by Israel. She has spoken publicly of the need for women in the Arab world to take a more active role in the peace process, and has also distanced herself from the extremist measures adopted by suicide bombers. "Palestinians have to have the moral courage to say killing civilians isn't right," she asserted to Times of London journalist Daniel McGrory. "Both sides see themselves as victims, and when you feel victimised it justifies anything you do, no matter how crazy or out of control it is, so you think it's OK to bomb innocent civilians and it's OK to invade towns and cities."

The list of Rania's other projects is a long one: she sits on the board of directors of the Vaccine Fund, established the Jordan River Foundation to provide small–business loans for folk artisans living in some of the country's poorest villages, and has worked with education authorities to ensure that every schoolchild in Jordan has access to a computer. Her progressive ideas have made her the target of some criticism, mainly from Jordan's conservative Muslim clerics. Others deride her fashionable wardrobe and the adulation with which the Western media seems to treat her. She does not wear the traditional headscarf common or even required by law in some quarters of the Muslim world. "I pray five times a day, I fast, I do all the things that my religion requires me to do," she said in the in Harper's Bazaar interview with DePaulo. "But, you know, maybe one day I will wear the veil—I don't rule it out."

Despite her active schedule, Rania's husband and the three other royal highnesses at home remain her top priority. She prefers to take them to school herself, in her BMW sport–utility vehicle, and the family can sometimes be seen dining in one of Amman's family–friendly restaurants, a Howard Johnson's eatery. Over the years, however, there were frequent assassination attempts on her father–in–law—whose own grandfather was killed in front of him when he was 15 years old—and Rania's family lives under heavy guard.

"They're Just Like Us"

With her excellent command of the English language, Rania is comfortable speaking with foreign dignitaries and Western journalists alike. Even on matters that require the utmost diplomatic skill, she seems at ease. Just a few weeks after the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, in which Arab men hijacked four airliners, she visited New York City to show her sympathy and support. In mid–2002, Psychology Today editor Robert Epstein asked her what advice she might give to Americans, from the perspective of a person from a part of the world that has been regularly plagued by politically–fueled violence during her lifetime. "There's been a feeling all over the world of collective moral consciousness" since 9/11, Rania ventured. "We feel that what happens in different countries in the world is important to us. That is a positive thing, we need to build on that. So I would advise the American people to learn about what happens in other parts of the world, to get to know the Arab world, the Islamic world and to try to understand that there's nothing to fear in that society."

Jordan's famously photogenic queen has sometimes been compared to the late Diana, Princess of Wales, who was also a tireless social–aid advocate. Yet Rania is determined to forge her own path, and serve as a beacon for a troubled part of the world. "People in the West view Arab women as being very conservative . . . not necessarily being educated," she commented in the Newsweek International interview with Klaidman and Bartholet. "And the truth of the matter is that we have many brilliant women who are very forward–looking." She noted in another interview that one of the most crucial revelations she has had since becoming queen came about because she was suddenly traveling so widely. Visiting other parts of the world like Africa and Asia and meeting people there, she told Psychology Today's Epstein, helped her recognize "that, although on the outside they may do things differently, at the end of the day, they're just like us. They have the same hopes and fears, they want the same things out of life. Parents worry about their children, people worry about their health, their future, their jobs."

Periodicals

Harper's Bazaar, June 2000; March 2003.

Newsweek International, June 12, 2000.

Observer (London, England), November 11, 2001.

Psychology Today, May–June 2002.

Times (London, England), July 20, 2002.

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