Jordan's Queen Of Hearts

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 harshly conservative kingdom did not appreciate women's mingling in affairs of state--that women in Saudi Arabia weren'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, divided her kingdom. 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 pant suits 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 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 (following story). Still, Rania's high profile puts her in a 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," she says. "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 be 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 all of his three children a Western education, but also instilled in them feelings of Arab pride. 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 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 in 1993. Both say it was love at first sight; they were married in June that year. 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 that she does, often inviting her input during his own press 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 concern her most. 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 and daughters for "dishonoring" 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. But 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. Sometimes that entails adjusting her pitch to her audience. 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 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."

But even as she presses the envelope of what is acceptable, 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 Rania herself.