Arab women rise

Regarding Rania

Posted Sunday, February 15, 2004; 15.48GMT

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.