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Queen Rania’s Western Ideal

Does Jordan really uphold the values it preaches?

June 17, 2008

Does Jordan really uphold the values it preaches?

When the glamorous and best-dressed wives of world leaders come to visit Washington, a town generally known for its rather drab fashions, it is no wonder that they are the keen object of photographers. And they are wooed by well-endowed charities as well as by the ladies who lunch at D.C.’s most famous power restaurants.

In this regard, few women stand out as much as Her Majesty Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan. Her visits are part of a laudable campaign to build bridges between the Arab world and the West, to shatter stereotypes and to promote Muslim “moderates,” as she often describes them.

For all her dazzle, Rania is not the first dignitary to come through the nation’s capital carrying this message. In fact, bridge-building efforts to close the divide between the East and the West have almost become clichés.

But what sets her apart is that she is using the power of her feminine wiles to do so, which is unique particularly for the wife of an Arab leader.

After all, Queen Rania is everywhere these days — from YouTube (with the Stevie Wonder soundtrack “Isn’t She Lovely” in the background), to Oprah. Dressed in designer labels, silk scarves (not on her head but her neck), short dresses and sleeveless shirts, one might think that the Arab world has embraced secularism again for the first time in 30 years.

But this is where it all becomes misleading. The Queen ultimately casts herself as emblematic of Arab women. While she could easily be mistaken for a Vogue fashion model, the contrast to impoverished women in headscarves on the Arab street could not be sharper. There, you won’t find women wearing tight t-shirts and diamonds of various shapes and cuts.

To her credit, Queen Rania also works to advance the idea that the Arab world is diverse (not comprised only of suicide bombers) — and that Americans should see and appreciate this diversity. She argues that whatever extremism exists is caused by the number one grievance in the region, the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Few in the Middle East would quarrel with these messages. However, Rania could leave Americans with a wrong impression — thinking that all is well on the home front, that the problem lies in Western stereotyping and misunderstanding.

Therefore, it is time for a reality check.

If you examine her husband’s family dynasty in Jordan, the Hashemite kingdom, it appears that Rania’s wish list for the West has not been fulfilled at home, not under the deceased King Hussein, nor under her husband King Abdullah.

Does her husband’s government embrace diversity? Not if you are an Islamic activist trying to run in parliamentary elections. Often, they are imprisoned or banned from the poll.

Does her husband’s government welcome a free-flowing exchange of ideas that comes from permitting a free press? Only if the journalists’ views and reporting advance the state’s agenda. Otherwise, they are often imprisoned.

Are women liberated? It depends upon the definition. Sadly, the incidences in Jordan of honor killings — whereby women are killed by male family members if they engage in pre-martial sex — are among the highest in the Middle East.

This is what the U.S. State Department, to its credit, reported in March 2008 about Jordan’s human rights record: “The government restricted citizens’ rights to change their government. Domestic and international NGOs reported torture, arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention.

“Impunity, denial of due process of law and limited judicial independence remained problems. The government harassed members of opposition political parties and restricted freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, movement and some religious practices.”

Contrast this reality against that of Rania’s. On her YouTube video, she says she wants YouTubers “to know the Arab world unedited, unscripted and unfiltered.” I am sure many Jordanians would agree with her — but the Arab world they see is one that is run by autocrats, and it is one where the average monthly wage is about $200 per month.

To be sure, other Arab queens and highnesses before Rania have employed publicity stunts to improve their husbands’ standing at home and abroad. But Rania’s case illustrates the particular characteristics of her generation and the post-9/11 world.

She is perhaps the first Arab Queen to have an ongoing video on YouTube, in which she calls upon viewers to send in comments about their ideas of Islam and the Arab world. She then appears and discusses her reaction to the comments. The conversation is due to run until August.

The diplomatic equivalent to YouTube — the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland — over the years has also very much become her stage.

The concern I have is that Rania has apparently made a conscious decision that there is more to be gained in conducting her campaign in the West than in the East. However, it is worth remembering that when the older generation of wives — such as Suzanne Mubarak, the First Lady of Egypt — launched self-promotion campaigns, they were directed at domestic concerns, not foreign policy issues.

Even though she is widely disliked in Egypt, Ms. Mubarak has worked for years on rights for children and women, as well as the problem of widespread illiteracy in Egypt. She stands in sharp contrast to Suha Arafat, the wife of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who endured only a brief stint as First Lady before leaving the Gaza Strip forever for a luxurious, private life in Paris.

Since the Bush Administration abandoned its democracy promotion campaign in the Arab world in 2005, Middle East watchers in Washington like myself have noticed that the despotic regimes in the region have adopted more subtle and effective tactics to give the appearance that reforms are underway.

After all, Queen Rania must be commended for her clever approach that indirectly makes Jordan appear as a progressive society reaching out to a darkened Western world. Clever as that is, in the end all change has to be domestic — and it is unclear at best how her current strategy would change reality on the ground in Jordan.


The despotic regimes in the Middle East have adopted more subtle and effective tactics to give the appearance that reforms are underway.

Queen Rania's visit was part of her campaign to build bridges between the Arab world and the West.

The Queen casts herself as emblematic of Arab women, so fully Westernized that she could easily be mistaken for a Vogue fashion model.

Does her husband's government embrace diversity? Not if you are an Islamic activist trying to run in parliamentary elections.