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Monday, July 2, 2007

Queen Rania talks about Jordan and the challenges facing Arab women today

What can European society learn from Jordanian society?
 
You know, in the current troubling world climate of misunderstanding, suspicion and mistrust between cultures, I don’t think it’s just a question of what European society can learn from Jordanian society, it’s more a question of what we can all learn from each other… how willing we are to learn…and how much time we are prepared to take to really get to know our co-workers who dress differently…the parents at the school gates who worship differently…our neighbors who have just arrived from a foreign country. Is it enough to nod or smile courteously, or will we take the time to listen to, talk with, and learn from each other? Will we invite that co-worker, or parent, or neighbor into our homes, our heads, and our hearts? 
 
We claim to live in a multicultural environment, but multiculturalism isn’t just about multiple cultures living alongside each other. It means respecting cultural diversity… recognizing how it enriches our community, and reaching out to people different from us. I always find that looking at the world from someone else’s perspective adds texture and depth to my own insights. It’s a bit like a mosaic: the bits of glass or ceramic shine on their own – but when they are combined, a larger, richer, more multifaceted picture is revealed. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. 
 

What will it take to achieve equal rights for women in the Middle East? And in what way do you personally work with this issue in Jordan?
 
You know, whether it’s in the domain of the home, the community, or the workplace, women all across the Arab world are, increasingly, playing a greater – and more diverse- role. Arab women have registered outstanding progress in education; made their mark through their merits and skills in work and business; asserted their capacity to assume leadership positions; increased their participation in economic activity; and pushed forward their role in national public affairs in all Arab countries.
 
It’s no coincidence that the latest Arab Human Development Report is entitled ‘Towards the Rise of Arab Women.’ It illustrates that women are making some important gains and moving towards greater participation.
 
Nonetheless, the report outlines the many challenges facing Arab women today: from female illiteracy and unemployment, to gender discrimination, cultural constraints and restrictions of personal liberties. It acknowledges varying levels of discrimination in applying and interpreting some legislation, but equally it commends Arab countries for making considerable progress in gender equality within the legal framework.
Crucially, the report asserts that Arab public opinion firmly supports equal rights. I’ve always said that laws alone are not enough--to instigate real change we need to challenge cultural mindsets, and implant strong awareness of gender equality amongst legislators, implementers, and society as a whole.
 
For my part, in Jordan, I try to spotlight women at the grassroots who are making their mark, empowering others, and activating change in their communities--and I can tell you there’s a lot of them…from mothers helping out in their children’s schools, to women with small businesses that are regenerating communities…to innovative CEOs breaking paths in the market place. I try to encourage them and boost their self-confidence, so that with their innate ability and determination they can assume their position as natural and fully fledged partners of men in society.
 

Why do you support the idea of microfinancing?
 
Because I have seen, firsthand, how a small loan – say $100 – can enhance and change the lives of the disadvantaged – poor people with no access to financial services. Their resourcefulness is incredible… $100 might buy a few chickens to start an egg business; a sewing machine to begin a tailoring project, or some seeds to grow tomato plants. It helps unlock the productive capacities of millions around the world by giving them the means to turn a good idea into a job—and it’s especially effective for women, who make up the majority of the world’s poor. And it’s been proven, many times over, that microfinance has the power to break the cycle of inter-generational poverty.
 
Poverty is the scourge of our global family…it lies at the heart of so much despair and lost opportunity. On the national level, poverty robs us of the talents and untapped capabilities of those mired in want. On a global level, it deprives the rest of the world of the contribution of poor countries towards global growth, productivity and prosperity. Microfinance is one of the most effective tools out there for alleviating poverty. 
 

What do you see as the main solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians? And what role can Jordan play in the peace process?
 
We know what needs to be done. The Arab states recognized that reality in 2002, when we unanimously approved the Arab Peace Initiative--and this was reiterated recently. It puts forward a path for both sides, to achieve what people want and need: a collective peace treaty with Israel and normal relations with every Arab state; collective security guarantees for all the countries of the region, including Israel; an end to the conflict; a solution to the refugee problem; a withdrawal from Arab territories occupied since 1967, and a sovereign, viable, and independent Palestine. There is no doubt that the wellspring of regional division, the primary source of resentment and frustration, is the denial of justice and peace in Palestine. But such peace requires courage, vision, risk-taking, global commitment and honest brokers. If it is to last then it must be built on a solid foundation of understanding, agreement and compromise. 
 
The recent increased tension within the Palestinian territories is an inevitable symptom of people in despair…people who have lived in conflict for decades, and endured its accompanying heartbreak. I fear that the Western world has become inured to the tragic realities on the ground in Palestine, so let me take this opportunity to remind people: humanitarian conditions in Palestine have been pushed to the brink of collapse. Two thirds of the population live below the poverty threshold and more than one million Palestinians - one in four - suffer from extreme poverty and are unable to provide their basic needs of food, shelter and clothing. 
 
What is particularly distressing is the effect such conditions have on Palestine’s children…growing up, as they are, in an environment of extraordinary violence, insecurity and fear. They have little to hope for, and much to fear. Too many of these children are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder—a common affliction for those who grow up in conflict. Imagine if your child was too scared to sleep at night, couldn’t concentrate in school, or was too insecure to leave your home? We owe the children of Palestine a better start in life than that.
 
That’s just one of the reasons my husband works so tirelessly to find a solution to this conflict. His days are spent listening to, talking with, and mediating between all parties committed to peace.
 
Many Iraqi refugees have fled to Jordan the last couple of years. How do you handle that massive pressure and urgent situation? What can you do in your position as the Queen of the nation?
 
Yes, as we all know, the humanitarian situation in Iraq is worsening steadily and civilians are bearing the brunt of the relentless violence and poor security conditions. It is estimated that around 750,000 Iraqis have fled to Jordan. Our country has always been a safe haven in the region for those who have had to escape conflict or hardship, and we’re happy to offer the Iraqis sanctuary in their time of need, but their well-being is a responsibility that cannot be shouldered by any one country.
 
Jordan is a small country, and we are at full capacity in terms of our ability to provide services. Inevitably, there is pressure on our infrastructure, natural resources and environment. We need a multi-dimensional international response that focuses on resettlement and that helps host countries ensure a reasonable life for their Iraqi guests.
 
I am pleased that a detailed study is underway in Jordan to assess the dimensions of the Iraqis' presence in our country to see how we can best serve everyone. Of course, the best way we can serve Iraqis is for the international community to work together and ensure that security and stability in Iraq are restored.
 
Last month, I was proud to join UNICEF to launch their report on children, and call for $42 million of funding to secure safe drinking water…sanitation…vaccinations…and school equipment…Iraq’s children need us to throw them that lifeline.
I understand you practice your religion actively. How come you don’t wear a veil? Is that fully accepted by the conservatives?
 
Yes, I do. I am a spiritual person by nature and thus faith plays an important part in my life…it is both a guiding and comforting source. 
 
I think in Islam, the relationship with God is a very direct and personal one, and as such, it enables us to make our own choices. Jordan is a very tolerant and moderate society…some women wear the hijab (the headscarf), some choose not to wear any form of veil. Both co-exist happily and naturally. For me, the veil is all about modesty, piety and devotion to God. Unfortunately, too many people in the Western world mistakenly perceive it as an expression of powerlessness and oppression. And today, sadly, I fear it’s being turned into a political tool.
 
I always say that when more attention is paid to what is going on inside our heads rather than what is worn on top of them…then that’s when we’ll start making real progress.
 
What is it like being a queen, for real? What are the challenges?
 
Well, it entails some ceremonial obligations…for instance, state visits… accompanying my husband to the opening session of parliament among others…
 
But actually, I never think of my work as a duty per se. I feel blessed because this position allows me not only to connect with so many people…but to listen to their aspirations…understand what they need, and do what I can to make a difference in their lives. 
 
One of my most important duties, along with my husband is to communicate the message of Jordan and its people to the rest of the world. We want people to know what I like to call ‘the other Middle East’. They would not see a region full of the negative images which too often fill the television screens. Rather, they would see in Jordan a land rich in culture, full of potential and populated by peace-loving, citizens. This is the Arab and Islamic world which I know and cherish.
 
The main challenge is being a working Mom…as many Moms here in Sweden will tell you! Achieving a balance between work and motherhood is quite a feat. And I’m not sure after 13 years that I’ve got it right yet… I never feel particularly “sure-footed.” With four young children, each of whom has their own interests and activities, my days generally comprise of a lot of organization followed by a lot of re-organization. It takes hard work, a sense of humor, and flexibility.
 
What were your plans for the future before you met your husband?
 
I think I was probably like many other fresh graduates in their early 20s…relieved that exams and study were over; excited about a new phase of life; a little bit daunted by my new responsibilities (I had a job in the banking sector); happy to be meeting new people and making new friends…and not really very sure about where life was going to take me--but content to roll with it. I didn’t have a grand plan!
 
Soon the Swedish Crown Princess will marry her boyfriend Daniel, a person without any royal background, just like you. What are your personal pieces of advice to him?
 
Being in the public eye certainly takes some readjustment! I grew up in a very ordinary, private family…doing pretty regular things….cinema…gym…restaurants… and I liked that anonymity and privacy, and I sometimes miss that. Of course, I still manage to do those things, but it’s never quite as straightforward or spontaneous! I also had to learn a lot of new, quite daunting skills like public speaking, for example. My greatest teacher was my husband whose advice, support and encouragement was, and still is, invaluable. At the end of the day, it’s about partnership and teamwork.
 
It’s also important to realize the many pluses to being in the public eye. It’s an incredible opportunity to spotlight everyday heroes and worthy causes that need publicity and fundraising…and to empower those who can activate change in their communities.
 
 

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