It never occurred to Queen Rania not to visit Saudi Arabia with her husband, King Abdullah. The fresh-faced Jordanian royal, at 29 the youngest queen in the world, knew the kingdom to the south did not appreciate women mingling in affairs of state--women in Saudi Arabia aren't even allowed to drive. When she was made to wait in the plane on the Saudi tarmac while Abdullah was treated to a pomp-filled welcoming ceremony, the queen didn't complain. She had no intention of causing a scandal, or insulting anyone's traditions. But she wasn't about to sit alone with the kids back in Amman, either. "I didn't even think that it was not done," Rania told NEWSWEEK in a wide-ranging interview, over mint tea and cookies at one of the royal palaces. "It seemed natural to go."
The "natural" course of action for an Arab woman these days--never mind an Arab queen--is often not the most accepted one. Rania's Saudi excursion, like much of what she does and says, left her kingdom divided. Conservative courtiers griped that women shouldn't muck around where they don't belong, and a queen, more than anyone, should know enough to follow protocol. Some Jordanian women sniffed that Rania probably wore one of her many designer pantsuits under the traditional robe and veil. Yet other Jordanians, particularly among educated, younger women, cheered Rania's spirit. "This is a very strong message to Arab women," said Asma Khader, a leading women's activist, "that we are self-confident, can participate in public life and can still be rooted in traditional culture."
What is clear to just about everyone is that Jordan's queen faces challenges common to many among her generation, but on a much grander scale. Rania is glamorous, brainy and not afraid of a little controversy. She's got both the style and the smarts to be a world-class royal, with the political clout to match. She leaves regional politics to King Abdullah, who, like his late father, King Hussein, plays a significant intermediary role in the Middle East peace process (interview). Still, Rania's high profile puts her in a very sensitive position at home, where the demands of Arab and Muslim tradition remain strong. "I am an Arab through and through, but I am also one who speaks the international language," Rania told NEWSWEEK. "I feel I do represent a large segment of women in the Arab world... I share with them their hopes and aspirations and the challenges they face."
As a young woman, Rania never expected to become a queen. She was born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents who left their home on the West Bank of the Jordan River in the early 1960s. Her father was a doctor who gave his three children a Western education, but also instilled in them pride in their Arab heritage. She had the benefits of a comfortable, middle-class upbringing that brought her in touch both with the fantastic wealth of the Arab Gulf and also with the grim realities of disenfranchised Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Politics affected her life throughout, but rarely more so than when her family was forced to leave Kuwait after the PLO backed Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. She moved to Amman in 1991, took a job with Apple Computer and was introduced to the then Prince Abdullah at a dinner given by one of his sisters in 1993. Both say it was love at first sight; they were married in June that year. (At the wedding, one of Abdullah's military colleagues parachuted into the festivities and cut the cake with a sword.) The couple have since had two children, and Rania is now five months pregnant with their third. (The king seems to support Rania in all she does, often inviting her input during his own interviews.) To relax, the queen likes to drive her four-wheel drive Mercedes around Amman: "I pop in a CD and zone out," she says. But the rest of the time she's focused on the issues that most concern her.
In a low-key but determined way, Rania is chipping away at certain Jordanian taboos. She has added her voice, for instance, to a campaign against honor killings--murders committed by men of sisters or daughters who have "dishonored" their families, often by losing their virginity. The Jordanian Parliament has twice rejected a law that would treat such crimes as seriously as other homicides. Earlier this year, Rania gave her blessing to a protest march on the Parliament building over the issue.
Among Rania's critics are some who support her position, but not her high-profile politics. They argue that the royal couple should remain above the fray, quietly working for change behind the scenes. Rania disagrees. "The approach should be to talk about it, bring it to the surface," she insists, "not sweep things under the rug."
Still, Rania seems to be developing a keener sense these days of how to push reforms without offending traditionalists. When the queen talks to Westerners about schemes to give small loans to poor women, she calls it empowerment. But in male-dominated villages in Jordan, where tribal codes are strong, she avoids the language of the gender wars. She talks instead about the ability of women to help put bread on the table. Similarly, when she talks about stopping domestic violence, she couches it in a discussion about "family security."
Some Muslim fundamentalists see Rania as a threat. "She is attacking our ancient values, tearing at our social fabric," says a prominent member of Jordan's relatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood. But the queen has proven she can work with more traditional Jordanians for change. When a group of parents complained that the education minister, a conservative Islamist, was resisting efforts to reform Jordan's private schools, Rania "told him that it is the policy of His Royal Majesty's government to liberalize and Westernize the curriculum," says one knowledgeable source. "She was extremely tough with him." Rania is demure about the incident. "We sat down together and aired our views," she says. Whatever happened, it worked. The education minister is one of Rania's biggest fans these days.
On a recent visit to a girls school in a poor neighborhood of Amman, children welcomed Rania with traditional Bedouin greetings and shouts of "Long live King Abdullah!" Inside the dilapidated classrooms, the queen chatted with students using new IBM PCs, courtesy of a wealthy Jordanian businessman. The education minister was there, too, and glowing: "Her majesty is a very strong supporter of education," he said.
Paradoxically, some of the most stinging criticism of Rania comes from Jordan's chattering classes. The wealthy mostly live in Abdoun, a ritzy enclave in west Amman, and count themselves among the most liberal Jordanians. Yet they're the first to point out indiscretions, and gossip relentlessly about Rania's designer outfits and expensive handbags. "She's the handbag queen," says one. Rania begs to differ. She says she shuns "frilly dresses," opting for simple and modern attire. (She wore a light green pantsuit for the NEWSWEEK interview.) And she points out that 15 months into her reign, she still doesn't own a tiara.
During the interview, at first Rania seemed annoyed by the catcalling. "This Abdoun thing," she said, "it's just jealousy." But then she backed off. "The gossip goes with the turf," she said, adding that she might even learn from the criticism.
Even when Rania attempts a simple act of generosity, she can't escape the barbs of the Abdounis. Taking a page from Hillary Rodham Clinton, Queen Rania invited a handicapped woman to sit next to her when her husband opened Parliament last November. The woman had graduated at the top of her class in business administration, and presumably Rania thought she could be an inspiration. But to some, Rania's invitation was a distasteful stunt. Worse, they suspected an ulterior motive: Rania, the gossip went, needed to fill the seat to avoid giving it to Queen Noor, the American-born wife of the late King Hussein.
Since Rania's coronation, the kingdom has been abuzz with rumors of friction between the two queens, something both women have denied. But the rumors persist, and it is true that Rania's handlers occasionally intervene to promote Rania at Noor's expense. According to a source at a prominent Jordanian newspaper, the palace recently let it be known that the government-owned paper was publishing too many photos of Noor and not enough of Rania.
Other royal actions are more consequential. Both Abdullah and Rania, for instance, have tried to guide debate about Jordan's troubled economy, and both have taken criticism for it. In a country that has 30 percent unemployment, growing imports and falling exports, some believe the king and queen are out of touch. Many homes in Amman don't have water, the rural areas suffer grinding poverty and most of the country lacks the necessary infrastructure to attract serious investment, many experts say. Yet the king tours high-tech meccas like Singapore and Silicon Valley, and the queen has been a big proponent of bringing technology to schools. "We need to fix the Old Economy before we get to the New Economy," says political analyst Radwan Abdullah. "The idea of making Jordan a high-tech hub is ridiculous."
There's a thin line, of course, between being farsighted and being ridiculous, especially for a modern queen in a traditional society. But even as she presses the envelope of what is acceptable--particularly on women's rights--Rania also criticizes Western stereotypes. Many Arab mothers and workers, she says, can provide a model for women the world over trying to strike a balance between professional and family life. "People in the West view Arab women as being very conservative... not necessarily being educated," she says. "And the truth of the matter is that we have many brilliant women who are very forward-looking." Few more so, perhaps, than Queen Rania herself.