NEWS

A royal marriage of Islam and modernity

Queen Rania of Jordan’s style and charm come with the royal territory, but her devotion to social and humanitarian issues is very much her own agenda. Her recent trip to Greece is typical of her involvement. In Rhodes on Thursday last week, to inaugurate «Breaking the Veils: Women Artists from the Islamic World,» an exhibition co-organized by the Royal Society of Fine Arts of Jordan and the Femme-Art-Mediterranee network, which took place during the second International Forum for a Culture of Peace by Mediterranean Women Creators, Queen Rania spoke to Kathimerini’s Yiannis Chrysafis and Kathimerini English Edition’s Elis Kiss. As a queen, a mother, a wife, Your Majesty is in a unique position. I am no different from most other women who have to play many roles, except that one of my roles is very public and people know about it. Like everyone else, it is always about trying to strike a balance and making sure that it is clear which are your priorities, making sure that you are fulfilling those priorities that are very important to you and just trying to juggle and manage. How would you describe your role next to King Adbullah? Like any other relationship, the role of the wife is varied: You are a partner to the husband and that involves being a partner in all different aspects of life. First and foremost, we are husband and wife and the most important thing to us are our children and that is what we talk about most of the time. We also talk about the country and how things are going, what are his priorities and mine, how we can help each other out. It is very much an open relationship like any other relationship. People ask if I’m involved in the decision-making and whether I influence him – no more than any other wife influences her husband when you talk and you exchange ideas. It is not something political or planned. How do you achieve a balance between religion and modernity? First of all, I don’t believe there is any contradiction between the religious aspect and the way things are moving today. Contrary to popular belief, our religion grants women the right to seek education, to participate in the workplace and contribute in society in general. In fact, the role of women is very important in Islam. The family is considered the building block of our society, and the woman has a very important role within the family. So traditionally, women have always been very much respected in Jordan. We would like to create a model for the region where we take our heritage, our culture, our religion and mold that with today’s present life, the requirements, modernity and the ability to relate to 21st-century life, mold those two together and create an identity for Jordanian women and the whole country in general. It’s really striking a balance between your history, where you come from, and the future and what you want to do. One of your projects is The Jordan River Foundation, which aids women to start small businesses. I felt that this was just one way to empower women. For a woman to really advance, you need to have education. We need to create the legal environment that allows them to work. At the end of the day, the challenge is how do you take all those things and translate it into something practical that can have a tangible effect on women’s lives. Micro-finance is one of these tools, where women come and get small loans to set up their businesses and run them on their own. It is really a matter of taking charge of your life, of being able to make decisions within your world, being able to take responsibility for your children and your family life. All this sense of confidence translates into other things, sometimes taking them to political life. After starting the business, they find such confidence that they feel they want to participate in public life. It is really an effective, empowering tool. Your are also very concerned with children’s issues and education. In Jordan, we have a very low illiteracy rate, the lowest in the region, and we do believe that our human potential is one of the most powerful aspects in Jordan. We want to preserve that and we want to keep it as our competitive niche. One of the things that my husband focuses on is education, and we continuously revise our curriculum, updating it, so that it is modern, and allows our children to graduate from school and compete with other children all over the world. To be able to do that, you must be able to introduce computers, and when we talk about literacy I think that nowadays illiteracy is when you don’t know how to use the computer. We really want to empower our children with the use of these tools. My husband has taken on this initiative very personally, and so have I, not just in schools but sometimes in very remote areas and villages, he goes and sets up a computer center, and we have really seen some incredible success stories; very old men who are now sitting surfing on the Internet, for instance. It is also very encouraging to see how quickly children pick these skills up. You are constantly going between East and West, a true citizen of the world. I didn’t even realize that I was doing that until a year ago, when the gap between East and West became so prominent and was getting so much attention. That’s when I started to realize that I do, in a sense, sometimes wear two hats. This comes naturally to me. The reason why I’m able to do that is because I have interacted with both sides and it’s through this kind of interaction, through this kind of education that you are able to see things from each other’s point of view and therefore associate with both points of view and realize that there really isn’t all that much that is different and that there isn’t that much that separates us. You really find that the majority of people really are stuck on either side of the field and are not willing to come and meet in the middle and interact. The best people who can do that are, for example, Arabs living in the USA, and Europeans or Americans who are living in the Arab world. They are the ones who are knowledgeable, and they will tell you that there is no clash between East and West, because there is just too much in common. It is quite surprising these days because, on the one hand, you do have a common culture – a product of the Internet and technology, pop culture and all those kinds of things that have been exported throughout the world – but in another way, you find that people are also very suspicious of each other and other cultures. They lack fundamental knowledge about other cultures, so it is almost a contradiction, and it always surprises me, you go to children, you see youth in the USA or in Jordan and Europe, and they are all dressed the same way, with the same hairstyle, they watch the same shows on television. But they have a fundamental ignorance about each other’s cultures and are therefore not necessarily open to each other. It is a real contradiction. Why, in your opinion, is Islam so widely misunderstood in the West? First of all, in every religion there is extremism and it is always the case that extremists, although they are on the sidelines, are the minority – their voices are heard above everybody else’s. The majority tend to be the silent majority, and this is a shame, because the extremists tend to dictate the agenda for the rest of Muslims and they tend to paint their own picture. Because of extreme groups, people have been very quick to stereotype all of the Muslim world. But when you look at it, the Muslim world is made of many countries, each with different characteristics, different levels of progress and so it is impossible to look at the Islamic world as one whole. It is made up of so many different types of people, who have different accents, who dress differently. I agree that is widely misunderstood and the way to deal with that is for the West to educate themselves more about Islam and, more importantly, for Muslims to go out and speak and take charge, be proactive and make their voices heard. What about the role of women in Islam? There has been the stereotype of women and the veil, for instance. People look at anyone wearing the veil and just assume that she is backward and oppressed and that is not necessarily the case. There are many women who wear the veil and they have excellent jobs – in the army, in government, from politics to the private sector. What about women in Afghanistan? From what I hear, it is definitely better than what is was before but not as good as we would like it to be. How does it feel to have power in your hands? I actually don’t like the idea of feeling that I have power. I wish people didn’t view me as someone with power, because that immediately puts a barrier between you and the person and also it makes people behave differently, when all you want is for them to be natural. A lot of times people really misjudge you; they feel that you are so different from them when in reality you are like everyone else. You have children; you have the same fears, such as your children’s health, your husband’s safety; you worry about succeeding in life. You want to spend time with your family. You want your children to be happy. The perception of people of others who have a public position and have power is that they must be different, but that is not the case. You have the power to change people’s perception and ideas. I view that as a very good thing and a responsibility. With that kind of power comes a great responsibility to use that power in the most positive way possible, not for your own self-interest but rather for the greater good. And that is always a challenge because you don’t know how to sometimes. As I go along, I try to see what are the most important causes I can help with, I constantly evaluate myself and ask myself if I’m doing a good job. With that kind of power comes responsibility and opportunity to do good. This happens in two ways: by doing good work and by the way you do things. Sometimes just the fact that I am working, for example, is in itself an example for Jordanian women. Sometimes the power is not necessarily in what you actually do, but in what you project.