- Community Empowerment
Monday, December 18, 2006
Elle Magazine talks to Queen Rania about her relationship, her struggles, and her freedom
Her relationship, her struggles, her freedom
She is beautiful, vibrant and contemporary— Queen Rania of Jordan has redefined the look of the modern monarch with her own sense of style. Since becoming Queen almost seven years ago, she has succeeded in balancing her time between family, royal duties, and championing causes close to her heart including promoting women's rights in the Arab world. Here she shares her thoughts with Caroline Laurent. Photos by Gilles Bensimon.
She was born in Kuwait to an average middle class family of Palestinian origin, and was leading “an anonymous and normal life” before her marriage to King Abdullah of Jordan (then Prince), thirteen years ago. The media has been infatuated with the "Jackie O. of the Middle East" since she first stepped into the spotlight, and recent coverage of an alleged divorce has hit newsstands everywhere. Rania of Jordan is a 36-year-old mother of four, and an international style icon who is undeniably charismatic and modern. She is also committed to defending children's and women's rights, and bridging the gap between East and West. As events were unfolding in hot zones in the Middle East, she received us in Amman where she spoke of equality and the need to foster peace and understanding between people of the world.
What type of life did you imagine yourself living when you were a young woman, unknown to the public?
I grew up in a very ordinary, private family…doing pretty regular things….cinema…gym…restaurants… interacting and making friends with people from all walks of life - and I’m so glad I did. My parents instilled in my brother, sister and I the value of hard work as a key to success in life. When I was in college, I studied business so I would probably have become a businesswoman. I thought I would start my own company or something like that. I think I was open to ideas. Like most graduates, I didn't have a set path that I wanted to follow.
According to the Constitution, as Queen you have no political power. Do you consider, nevertheless, that you influence the King through your initiatives?
The King has the executive power and the political and economic power. I work mostly through civil society organizations. But, like in any partnership, in any marriage, you sit over dinner and you talk about your day, and he tells me what he has done and is doing, and sometimes I show him a speech that I have and he’ll tell me "Oh, that sounds good, or it doesn’t." We always say that we’re each other’s biggest fans and also biggest critics, which is a good partnership!
There is, however, a persistent rumour concerning divorce, or even your forthcoming divorce…?
I heard the rumours! Everybody in the public eye is exposed to rumours of all sorts. I find that some of these rumours can be hurtful, particularly when they talk about your children or family. So I won't say that 'Oh, it doesn't bother me…' because I'm a human being and at the end of the day, you get hurt when you hear rumours like that.
This particular rumour, I don't know why it became so strong or so widespread, but the other day my husband and I were talking about it and he was saying he's glad that while things look bad on the outside, they're good on the inside; he thinks that's much better than things looking good on the outside and not being good on the inside.
We've been married now for 13 years, going on to 14, and we've never been more comfortable with each other and happier. We have a very strong relationship
So you are issuing an official denial in ELLE!
(Laughter) I officially confirm that there is absolutely no truth whatsoever! As I said, our marriage has never been more solid and our relationship has never been stronger.
People imagine that the royal children are surrounded by an army of nannies, and teachers, and you seem so close to your children …
I certainly don’t have an army of nannies. I do have one nanny and she helps with the children, and I have a tutor that helps them …because when I want to spend time with my children I don’t want to be spending time doing homework. But I definitely make a point of having a relationship with my children, and building trust. Especially as they get older, it's important that they feel that they can come back to me if they have any issues; I really want to have that bond, not lose it. For me, it’s a top priority, because even if I succeed in everything else, and I fail at raising my children, then I feel that I’ve failed …you know? So, at the end of the day, my children are my top priority, and that’s why I try to make it, as much as I can, a natural upbringing. For the most part, at least, I try to keep our home a sanctuary. And that’s where I can sort of make sure the environment is as normal as can be.
Do you feel free to say everything you want to publicly?
Have you ever had to choose between protocol and your personal convictions?
I try to make sure that I’m never having to make a choice between the two. There’s never a conflict between the two because at the end of the day, you have to be true to yourself and you can not be comfortable if you’re not living your life according to your own values and your own beliefs. So you know, so far, and I hope it never happens, I have never found that the state protocol is in conflict with my deep convictions.
You do not wear a veil. Is that one way of demonstrating your convictions and your ideas on the status of Muslim women?
Actually, in our religion there is no coercion. In other words, you’re not forced to wear a veil and that is a personal decision on my part not to wear the veil. For me, whether you wear the veil or not, is not an expression on your views of women; it doesn’t reflect on the status of women. This is a mistake I think that many people around the world make, that they take the veil and they assume that it represents a way of thinking, or that it represents oppression of women, or powerlessness. That’s not the case, you know, I prefer to judge women on their ethics, their values, what they think, what they do, rather than on what they wear.
As Queen of a Muslim country, does this decision not to wear a veil expose you to criticism?
Obviously being in the public eye, there are some people who would prefer me to be wearing the veil and there are some people who are very happy that I am not wearing the veil, so everybody has their opinion. But at the end of the day, as I said, it’s a personal choice on my behalf, and the funny thing is I am asked about the veil far more in the West than I am in the Middle East. When I’m in Jordan or I travel around the Arab world they just accept it, and it's normal, and I never feel out of place or that it is an issue. I always say about the veil: 'We should judge women according to what’s going on in their heads rather than what’s on top of their heads!'
You are known as a fashion icon. Are you restricted in your choice of apparel? Are you subject to criticism, for example, from conservatives?
Again, you know when you’re in the public eye you get all sorts of praise and all sorts of criticism, so I would be maybe criticized for some people thinking my clothes are not as conservative as they’d like;some people criticize me because they don’t like my taste; some people just don’t like this particular hair style or this particular outfit. So you’re exposed to all of those things. But for me, I think, as with every other woman, your clothes are an expression of yourself and of how you feel, and I have found that, over the years, I’ve gotten comfortable with a particular style.
And in my situation, also, there’s the added factor that when I choose something to wear, I realize that I’m not just dressing for myself, especially when I am abroad, I’m representing my country, I’m representing my people, so I have to always make sure that, I’m representing them the best way I possibly can. And also, sometimes I’m also representing a cause or I’m going for a particular purpose so I have to be dressed appropriately for that purpose. Whether I am going to visit a Bedouin village or whether I’m attending a speech and a conference in France you always have to think of the purpose.
Through your foundation* you promote access to education for young women and girls and encourage women’s access to employment. How are all these initiatives, in favour of the emancipation of women, perceived in a society where men have determined the laws and traditions?
I found that the society is very receptive. Again, there will always be elements of society that are conservative and want to hold on to certain traditions or norms, but for the most part people are beginning to really internalize the importance of women’s role. I think it's really becoming something that people are changing. It's not just a matter of changing policies, it’s a matter of changing cultural norms, social habits and perceptions. I think that that takes a while to change, but it's happening; the change is happening.
In what way?
Contrary to some general perceptions about Jordan, women are just as well educated as men -even moreso. Many women in Jordan have the freedom to go to work, to enter politics. We have women in the army, we have women judges, we have women CEOs in the private sector, doctors, nurses, etc., so they have their freedom. But the only thing that holds them back is the cultural norms and perceptions
For example we have the culture of protectiveness of women— that you always have to protect the women, and sometimes this leads to dependency, so we have to basically encourage our children, our girls especially, to be more confident, more courageous, you know, to take strides. We should not only encourage it, we should expect it from them. There’s a saying that "A ship in the harbour is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for…",. So, for example, we find, in our part of the world, that when it comes to health and education women are just as educated and have access to health just as much as men, but that’s not reflected in the workplace. So, you have educated women, but they’re not working. You invest so much in educating them and you don’t reap the benefits of your investment.
Honour crimes, aimed at punishing a woman whose behaviour is considered insulting to her family by death, still exist in Jordan.
Yes, it exists and in Jordan, unfortunately, we have about 20 honour killings a year, but I feel that even one honour killing is too much. This is a crime that is not acceptable and it is not condoned by our religion. Islam does not allow people to take the law into their own hands and there is no honour in taking the law into your own hands and killing someone. It’s a very complex issue, and it's difficult to understand, and is in no way justifiable, but it relates to the extended family. In Jordan, the extended family is the most important social entity and there’s a very high value placed on honour, and moral conduct and all those things.
How can they be counteracted?
Through education. It's about explaining to people that it’s not part of our religion, that it's wrong to do this. Already this is happening, you know, it’s again more about changing, not just changing the law, it's more about changing mentalities and practices. We’re working very much at the grassroots through civil society organizations, through local activists, and religious activists as well. We’re finding that the country’s responding a bit more positively to this and people are beginning to we’ve seen a reduction in the numbers, but I think we just have to keep working. But I think it takes generations for these things.
You condemn all acts of terrorism. Moreover, you gave an address on the Ground Zero site after 9/11. Was that a personal decision?
Absolutely, because I felt, at the end of the day that we’re all the same you know, and I wanted to emphasise our common humanity... I think we were all horrified and completely saddened by what happened—the images of seeing those innocent civilians being killed, and those families. I met a lot of these families of victims, and, the thing that struck me most beyond the sadness and the devastation was the diversity. There were people from all over the world. This was not an attack against the United States, it was an attack against the entire world, I think. So many nations lost people and I knew it was such an horrific event and it was going to change our lives, and it really, really has changed our lives. And there were so many lessons to be learned … I’m not sure we learned our lessons yet, but I hope we can.
What do you mean by that?
I felt that our common humanity was coming under threat, because of all the suspicion between east and west. With all these perceptions against Muslims and all these perceptions against Americans and Europeans, I felt that there was so much focus on our differences that people were not looking beyond these differenced to see that at the end of the day we’re all human beings. We all care about the same things, we all worry about our children, our families and no-one should ever accept seeing this kind of murdering innocent civilians.
If you were an anonymous Jordanian, would you exercise the same liberty in speaking about women’s rights?
Well you know there are so many Jordanian women who are much tougher than me and who talk much more forcefully than me. Some of them think I’m too soft. We do have a lot of women who voice their opinions; we have a lot of feminists in Jordan. I think there is this perception that women in Jordan, and the Arab world, are all subjugated or oppressed, but although there are some women who are conservative, or who are too shy to discuss these issues, at the same time there are some women who are very, very independent.
What do you think of Benazir Bhutto’s statement that: “Being a Muslim woman is a challenge”?
I think that it depends on your perspective. I'd like to not see the challenge; I actually see a lot of opportunity in being an Arab woman, and I want to make use of these opportunities.
Is the struggle for women’s rights also something men should be involved in?
Absolutely. It’s something the whole society has to buy in to. My husband is the biggest supporter for women’s rights and not only because he believes in it from a human rights perspective, but also because he’s a good politician and a good economist and he realizes that in order for our country to develop and progress, then you have to use all your talent base— men, women— they have to be part of society.
You are Jordanian, born a Palestinian. Part of your family still lives in the West Bank. What was your perception of Hamas’ arrival in power?
Hamas came into power through free and democratic elections which reflect the wishes of the Palestinian people. Having said that, now we’re seeing that there are talks and negotiations that will lead to a unity government that hopefully will represent a broader perspective of the political parties. And I hope that they do reach that, because the Palestinians have been suffering so much. I hope that the unity government will come in, be accepted by the international community in order to relieve, and ease, some of the suffering of the Palestinian people.
The conflict between Palestine and Israel has reached very worrying levels; relations between Israel, Lebanon, Iran and Syria are very tense. Do you think that the situation might deteriorate further in the region?
Absolutely. We’re reaching new lows. I see that in Palestine, in Iraq. When you look at the Palestinian and Israeli conflict I think that we’ve allowed that to go on for far too long, and now there’s a generation of Palestinians who have never known peace in their lives and that’s a very dangerous phenomenon. Not only for Palestinians, not only for our region, but for the entire world. And it's important for the international community to really realize that they have a stake in the peace in our region and that the injustice and the suffering will, could be explosive for the whole world. It's very easy to be cynical to say that 'the Palestinians and the Israelis will never have peace'. They have to have peace. We know what it takes to have peace.
What must be done?
What we need now is real courage, we need the international community to be engaged and we need honest brokers—for people to not be taking either side, but to really look at this in an honest way and try to come up with a solution. Having honest brokers and honest dealers is the only way you’re going to have both sides comfortable with the deal, and therefore more likely to stick to it and not violate any terms of it. So I can’t overemphasise how important it is for us to resolve this conflict because so long as this conflict continues I think the tensions in our world will continue. And I feel that the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is the root cause of even the problems between East and West, the religious conflict, all of those! I’m not saying that they will disappear, but they will tone down a little bit if we can resolve this. If we solve the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, Bin Laden will not disappear tomorrow, but his power will be greatly diminished if we solve this problem, because he will not be able to rally people and convince them to follow him. He thrives on anger, so if we take away the sources of the anger, then he’ll be weakened.
How do you explain the fact that so many Muslims, including numerous young people, join terrorist and fundamentalist groups?
Well, when we say so many, I think we have to be careful. We have 1.2 billion Muslims all over the world— the vast majority of them are moderate and the vast majority of them will state very clearly that the Islam of Osama Bin Laden is not the real Islam. However, you do have a minority of people who do follow him, but they are a potent minority because they are able to use the modern communication tools to further their message and to get their voice out, and they’ve been very effective at doing that. And sometimes you find that these groups that are on the fringes, they’re very organized because they have an agenda, they have a mission and so they make sure that they get their message out there. And that’s why it’s important for people to know that although they are the loud ones, they’re the loud element, but they are still the minority. The silent majority, let’s say of Muslims, is definitely moderate Muslims. It’s very important to realize that from the West’s point of view, you can not judge an entire religion by the actions of its worst followers. I think that would be very unfair, and it would be completely wrong. Unfortunately we are seeing this phenomenon of people judging Islam according to people like Bin Laden or Zarqawi or these people, it’s unfortunate and misleading, I think.
“This mutual fear and mistrust and suspicion is the worst thing for our world because it builds walls between people, it doesn’t allow them to get together, to talk to each other.
Should this silent majority not express itself?
The Muslim majority of people who are moderate, they have to. They can’t afford to be complacent; they have to speak up for who they are. They have to. My husband and I always say in order to defy stereotypes we have to define ourselves. That’s why Jordan issued the ‘Amman Message’. Muslim scholars from all over the world came together and agreed on some core values which represent Islam and spoke clearly against people like Bin Laden. So we need to do that more, and at the same time we need to have partners on the other side. We need the rest of the world to reach out as well, and to not try to shield themselves by having these walls of suspicion all around them, just relying on stereotypes when they look at the Arab world.
How do you explain women committing suicide attacks?
There’s no way we can ever justify anybody taking the lives of innocent civilians. Having said that, it’s important to understand why this phenomenon takes place. Gender is not important, whether it takes place by man or woman is not important, the fact that it takes place in the first place is something that we should try to understand not justify.Just yesterday there was a report actually released by UNWRA, that there’s over one million Palestinians living below the poverty line so they are being exposed to a tremendous amount of suffering—lack of access to health or education, lack of mobility, fear for their own lives—so the tension and stress that they are under is tremendous and can not be described. I mean I know that women are struggling to feed their own children now and I’ve heard some particularly saddening stories of women leaving their children in clinics because they don’t have food back home – or all they have back home is sugar and tea. So it’s definitely sad, but in regards to the suicide bombings it’s very important no matter how much we look at this, to say that it's never justified to kill innocent civilians. Never.
You are worried, you often say, about the gap that is widening between the Arab world and the West.
I don’t think we’ve taken the time to really understand each other and there is this mutual fear, mistrust and suspicion. I think this is the worst thing for our world because it builds walls between people. It doesn’t allow them to get together, or to talk to each other. As I said before, living in the same neighbourhood is not multiculturalism. You have to invite people into your homes, into your hearts, into your minds. It’s important for us to break down those walls, to focus on our commonalities, our common humanity and stop focussing on the differences. And this is what we do. There is a quotation from Khalil Gibran that states, 'Your neighbour is your other self behind the wall, and in understanding all walls will fall down,' so once you understand, the walls start to break down. So, what we need is a revolution of acceptance
You also emphasise the West’s ignorance concerning Islamic women…?
When I travel abroad, I'm always astonished and touched by the wrong interpretations concerning Muslim women. For example, being a feminist and a Muslim is not a contradiction in terms. In the history of Islam, for example - and many Westerners will not be aware of this - there are numerous examples of influential women in the political, scientific, military, business and industrial domains. Islam gives women many rights. Nowadays, the greatest challenges for Muslim women with regard to rights and equality are not situated in the religi