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At a critical time in the Middle East, Queen Rania of Jordan is facing the challenges of fundamentalism, the refugee crisis and rights for women and children with a rare combination of grace and guts

Rare voice

Jordan’s Queen Rania, longtime champion of women and children, speaks up for refugees

By Zainab Salbi on September 28, 2015

While accepting an award in Germany this month, Queen Rania of Jordan called for extraordinary acts of compassion and global cooperation in addressing the Syrian refugee crisis. German Chancellor Angela Merkel presented the queen with the Walther Rathenau Prize for fostering peace and understanding between East and West. Addressing the hundreds of gathered dignitaries, Queen Rania stressed that “denying refugees their basic rights risks creating a defeated and disillusioned generation who, at their most desperate, could be susceptible to extremists’ ideology.” Her tiny country of 6.8 million has taken in some 1.4 million Syrian refugees — or 20 percent of Jordan’s population — despite it’s own poverty and unemployment woes.

At the same time, her region is struggling with an unfathomable expansion of fundamentalism. Which means that voices such as hers — calling for development, stability and progress — have become all the more critical, and rare. For Arab women in particular, Queen Rania is one of a scant handful of role models at a time when many young women throughout the Arab world are desperately seeking inspiration from within their own culture. So when Queen Rania speaks, her voice is heard loud and clear.

She is vaunted by the international media for her active role in promoting youth through the World Economic Forum and The Clinton Global Initiative. She has the beauty, the eloquence, and the title. Not so enviable, though, are the dual positions she must sustain as a queen with conviction in a region where every small step forward for women is seen as a threat by large segments of society.


Queen Rania awards The Leadership in Civil Society to Malala Yousafzai, at the Clinton Global Citizen Award ceremony in 2013 in New York City. (Ramin Talaie/Getty Images)
Queen Rania, with education activist Malala Yousafzai, at the Clinton Global Citizen Award ceremony in 2013. (Ramin Talaie/Getty Images)

While walking the walk for her values, at times she had paid the price for her moral backbone, as when she campaigned for legal child-protection reforms — no trifling matter in Jordan and the broader Middle East, where secrecy and a culture of shame keep families from talking about their “dirty laundry.” When the Queen insisted that children be legally protected from abuse, police officials who had originally rejected any policy that would question a father’s authority over his children — even in cases of abuse or rape — were persuaded to collaborate with her campaign.

But then there are the setbacks. When she advocated for equality of citizenship for men and women, she took the flack when the cause backfired. In Jordan as in the rest of the Arab world, when a woman marries a foreigner, her children are not necessarily granted citizenship Palestinian/Jordanian origin is a major point of contention in Jordan, and the queen’s advocacy aroused old fears and tensions between Palestinians and Jordanians.

Despite such pressures, Queen Rania has taken on charged issues including the spirit of Islam and the deformities foisted on it by groups such as ISIS, expressing what most Arabs believe but are afraid to say out loud.

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إننا نعيش في زمن الأحداث المضطربة والمربكة. وبغض النظر عن الشكل الذي تأخذه، تلقي بنا تلك الأحداث خارج الإطار المريح المعتادين عليه. وهناك نشعر بأننا أحياء. هناك نطلق العنان لإبداعاتنا، ونوسع مداركنا ونفتح قلوبنا. من هناك، لنتخيل جميعاً حلاً مستداماً للأزمة التي نواجهها اليوم، حلاً يعزز مصداقية مصطلح أسرتنا العالمية #الأردن #المانيا #برلين #حب_الأردن We live at a time where disruption is a defining feature of our world. Regardless of what form it takes, disruption pushes us outside our comfort zone. That is where our creativity is unleashed, our vision expanded, and our hearts opened. From that place, let us all imagine a sustainable solution to the crisis we face today, one that honors the phrase global family #Jordan #Germany #Berlin #LoveJO #rathenau2015

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In particular, she has won the hearts of the youth. “We call her the ‘Queen of Hearts,’ said Ala’a, a 33-year-old Jordanian man, when asked about what he thinks of Queen Rania. “We love her! She is of the people, with the people. She visits us in our own context, be it the market or our schools. She is humble and we love her.”

Fatima, a 29-year-old Jordanian, opened up her Instagram account to show me a photo of Queen Rania with her children, and a comment posted by the queen: “Kids are getting older.” The expression she used, al ayal kebro, is borrowed from a famous Egyptian comedy of the same title, lending a familiar tone to the royal’s social media feed. “Do you know any Queen that is that accessible to the people? She is unique in her approach and reach. She invests a lot in the youth and gives us lots of opportunity with her attention, which is so helpful. She is loved,” Fatima says.

Queen Rania inspires young women who are excited about her active role in social media, poor women who benefit from her charitable work with the Jordan River Foundation, and young Arab designers whose careers skyrocket when she appears in one of their creations. And she provides hope to Juliana, a former prisoner in Lebanon, whose spirits were lifted by the sight of Queen Rania wearing a bag she had made while taking part in a rehabilitation workshop run by the Lebanese firm Sarah’s bags. Says Juliana, “When I saw her carrying a purse that I had embroidered while I was in prison, it made all the difference for me. It gave me dignity and pride and made me lift my head up knowing that I can still be respected in society.”

As one of the very few women in the region who is truly heard, Queen Rania of the Hashemite Kingdom carries a great weight of responsibility in the Arab world, attracting both praise and criticism. Yet she is holding her own, with a rare combination of grace and guts, as a critical voice for a very critical time in the Middle East.

Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan will appear in an exclusive interview at the Women in the World London Summit, October 8-9.

Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World who travels around the Middle East and North Africa, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit