Queen Rania, Asma al-Assad, and other Middle Eastern rulers' wives who have become symbols of inequality.

Queen Rania, Asma al-Assad, and other Middle Eastern rulers' wives who have become symbols of inequality.

Queen Rania, Asma al-Assad, and other Middle Eastern rulers' wives who have become symbols of inequality.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
March 23 2011 5:14 PM

The Middle East's Marie Antoinettes

How a handful of rulers' wives became fashion magazine darlings here and symbols of inequality back home.

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In many ways, Rania's appearance also meshes perfectly with Western ideas of what an enlightened Arab woman might look like: Not only does she speak her mind, she's unveiled, and she wears pretty much whatever she wants. The writer of the Vogue profile half-acknowledged this part of her appeal, writing: "I can look at Rania … and not make assumptions. But, as a Western woman, I do make assumptions when a faceless woman is hidden under a niqab or burka."

Rania's image doesn't play as well at home, however. Muslimah Media Watch blogger Sana Saeed put the problem this way in an email: "Rather than speaking to the very people she seeks to represent, Rania speaks beyond them." Nor do they like her spendthrift ways: The lavish clothes that land her on best-dressed lists rankle in a country where an estimated 25 percent of people live in poverty. During the recent Jordanian protests, a group of the country's Bedouin tribesmen wrote an unpredecented open letter criticizing the monarchy and accusing Rania of corruption and extravagant spending. (For an example of which, see the queen's 40th birthday party, which the Spectatordescribedthus: "Six hundred guests were flown in from all over the world. Two giant figure '40's were beamed on to mountainous outcrops – although the neighbouring villages don't even have electricity. Locals still speak of the water used to dampen down the sand so that the guests could walk more easily, though there were desperate water shortages nearby.") The tribesmen's letter went on to compare Rania to the unapologetically spendy Leila Trabelsi, wife of deposed Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and so-called "Imelda Marcos of the Arab world." Whether or not there is merit to the comparison, or to the corruption charges more broadly, even the suggestion draws attention to the contrast between her personal habits and the values she advocates publicly.

And yet it's hard to imagine, even amid the current turmoil, that Queen Rania and her peers will fall out of fashion globally, at least not as long as they remain in power. Glossy magazines are addicted to royalty, and while there aren't many queens to be found in our parts these days, the Middle East is still thick with them. That Vogue profile of Rania was very clear on this point: "In truth," it explained, "there are very few women movers and shakers at her global level, and they aren't queens." It's an almost wistful sentiment, a longing for the days of Jackie O. and Princess Diana (who still regularly grace Vanity Fair covers, years after their deaths). But here's the irony: The same extravagant lifestyle that vaulted these women to the global stage is what's getting them booed off of it now. We idealized them as models of the female empowerment we've been rooting for, that we're certain will help bring change to the Middle East—but we failed to see that they are also symbols of societies holding back not only their women, but also the vast majority of their men.


Noreen Malone is a senior editor at New York magazine.