A Queen’s life

By | Category: Travel tips & opinions

Jordan’s stunning archaeological site, Petra, is this month celebrating  the 200th anniversary of its rediscovery. But ‘Perfect Petra’ isnt Jordan’s only jewel. Here Kaye Holland takes a look at Jordan’s remarkable royal women, who have caused waves in both the Arab and wider world…

Compared to neighbours such as Saudi Arabia, tiny Jordan is remarkably forward thinking in its attitude towards women. Yes, a predominantly patriarchal society still exists with the genders not yet equal in the eyes of the law. Witness the honour killings – whereby a woman is killed by male relatives in the name of protecting family honour – which remain prevalent and sadly socially acceptable today. Yet whereas Arab women elsewhere in the region are relegated to the role of housewives – perhaps, at a push, teachers and nurses – whose primary function is to obey her husband, raise his children and ‘keep house’, females in Jordan enjoy far greater freedom. Amongst other privileges, they have access to education, are able to actively pursue a career, to travel freely and to choose their partner in marriage.

That Jordanian women are more empowered than one might suppose, can be attributed in no small part to the Kingdom’s current Queen, Rania Al Abdullah, who challenges the traditional role of the ‘Arab woman’, breaking conventions as often as she changes her fabulous frocks. Indeed much has been made of Rania’s glamorous appearance and in 2005 she was named the third most beautiful woman in the world by style bible Harpers  & Queen. Slim as a toothpick, she always looks immaculately manicured, polished and groomed and shuns wearing an abeyya (the scarf that covers the head of many Muslim women) and traditional garb, in favour of form fitting western fashions. (“It’s a personal choice’, she says of her decision not to cover her head. “Some people are more conservative than others. The important thing is the spirit of Islam. That is all about tolerance, about doing good, diversity, quality, and human dignity”.)

But while admittedly easy on the eye – she turns more heads than a model walking through a shopping mall – Rania is more than merely a style queen. The pretty Palestinian is known as much for her business acumen as for her elegance, consistently displaying a maturity beyond her years (at 29, she became the youngest queen in the world upon her unexpected ascension to the throne in 1999). Her humanitarian work is something Rania takes seriously and Jordan’s First Lady is constantly campaigning to improve the lives of Jordanians as well as women and children from around the world. To this end, she heads up the national Early Childhood Development and Family Safety Council, is a member of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), head of Jordan’s Human Rights Commission, a member of the International Youth Foundation and works closely with Dar Al-Amman, the first centre for abused and neglected children to open in the Middle East. She is also an outspoken advocate against ‘honour killings’ – a topic typically considered haram (forbidden) – insisting that “the approach should be to talk about it, bring it to the surface – not to sweep it under the rug”.

Queen Rania

Education is another area in which Rania has been making big strides – something that comes as little surprise to royal watchers given what a source of inspiration children are to the Queen: “Every time I speak to our young people in Jordan, I am always inspired and I am always energised”. Subsequently Rania has been relentless in her quest to drag Jordan’s schools into the 21st century by improving facilities, promoting the importance of IT and making English language lessons a mandatory part of the curriculum. As a side project, she is president of the Jordan Society for Organ Donation – and consequently instrumental in raising awareness of the need to donate organs – and also leads Jordan’s Blood Disease Society which aims to educate the public on preventing blood diseases. As if all this wasn’t enough – just reading the list is exhaustive, yet alone living it – she is a supporter of the Jordan Cancer Society and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations, amongst others.

The Queen’s personal life is similarly buoyant having met her husband, Abdullah Al Hussein 11 – the eldest son of King Hussein – at an Amman dinner party in January 1993. By all accounts it was love at first sight and five short months later the cross cultural couple (Rania was born to parents of Palestinian origin, while Abdullah is a direct descendant of Jordan’s Hashemite royal lineage), were married. Despite their punishing schedules, the pair manage to see plenty of each other and their four children: the Queen often takes her children with her on her travels, finding “comfort in tucking them into bed at night, reading them their favourite bedtime stories and reciting verses from the Koran to them as they sleep.”

Petra is currently celebrating the 200th anniversary of its 'rediscovery'

 

Yet while Rania is revered by many for the way in which she manages to effortlessly wear so many hats – mother, wife, crusader and, of course, Queen – all the while remaining admirably level headed (she ‘borrowed’ rather than bought a tiara to wear her coronation claiming “it would have been foolish to buy one when there was already one in the family”), others aren’t so enthusiastic. Critics claim that her outspokenness has undermined ancient Arabic values and belief – an accusation that was also levelled at her American born predecessor, Lisa Halaby. Halaby – who took the name Queen Noor meaning ‘Light of Hussein’ – upon her marriage to King Hussein and conversion to Islam, was no stranger to a little controversy either. A philanthropic activist, Noor was vocal in her support home for the campaign to prevent honour crimes at home, and abroad for the international campaign to ban landmines. The blonde beauty pursued a policy of charity and change, creating the now annual Jerash festival for culture and arts. Most notably she set up the Noor Foundation, designed to improve the lot of Jordanians, and used her Arab American status to act as a bridge between the Arab world and the West – a move that made her the darling of the western media, but a “meddler” in the Middle East.

Queen Noor

It can be argued that the two Queens’ collective refusal to stick to the status quo (women in Islamic society are expected to assume a subservient role), owes something to their upbringing. Born into a distinguished Arab American family, Noor grew up in America where she attended Princeton University before beginning her working life as an architect. Rania’s childhood was likewise dependably middle class. The daughter of a doctor, the Palestinian grew up in Kuwait before moving to Egypt where she embarked upon a business degree at the American University of Cairo. Given their schooling, the two were arguably always more likely to be interested in treaties than tiaras.

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