Friday, 28 March 2008 19:00 Sami Moubayed

ImageWhen Mohammad Ali al-Abid was elected first president of Syria in 1932, his wife, Zahra al-Yusuf, asked if she could attend the official function at the presidential palace.

Her husband muttered, "You attending a state function, filled with men. It's impossible Zahra; what do you want people to say?"

The 47-year-old first lady, born into Damascene aristocracy, refused to take no for an answer. She began to slowly push the red lines and play a greater role in public affairs - well into the 1940s, long after her husband's death in 1939. She headed several charity organizations, like the Goutte de Lait, the Red Crescent and Syrian branch of the International Red Cross, in addition to an intellectual forum, and obtained the Syrian Medal of Honor (Excellence Class) after her husband left office in 1936.

Additionally, she obtained the Red Cross Medal of Honor in Gold - being the first Arab woman to win such an honor.

For over 60 years, the role of Arab first ladies was confined to just that; charity organizations, intellectual forums, and official ceremonies. These duties were new, coming out of 400 years of the Ottoman Empire where women were completely absent from public life. Things changed dramatically, however, in recent years with the coming of three young first ladies to power in Doha, Amman, and Damascus.

They enchanted Arab societies with their grace and elegance, but soon enough, began to take on increasingly active roles as businesswomen, entrepreneurs, and nation-builders. They are Sheikha Moza of Qatar, Queen Rania of Jordan, and Asma al-Assad of Syria. In addition to being leaders in their respective societies, all three ladies have several traits in common. All of them were born into ordinary families, never destined to rule. All of them are highly educated, holding prestigious university degrees - a far cry from their predecessors (with the exception of the former Queens of Jordan). All three met their husbands by coincidence - and all three married men never destined to rule their countries.

Sheikha MozaSheikha Moza

Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser al-Missned, the wife of the Emir of Qatar, is the oldest of these three remarkable ladies, born in 1964. She studied sociology at the University of Qatar and caught the Prince’s eye with her charm and intellect. He immediately asked for her hand in marriage and, after coming to power in a bloodless coup against his own father in 1995, gave her powers like no other "sheikha" ever had before. Moza’s first and greatest feat was the Education City, founded on the outskirts of Doha.

A non-profit organization chaired by the Sheikha, it houses five top-notch US universities, being Virginia Commonwealth University (School of Arts in Qatar), founded in 1998, the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar (established by Cornell University), founded in 2001, Texas A&M University at Qatar (founded in 2003), Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar (2004), and Georgetown University School of Foreign Service (2005). By the end of 2008, Northwestern University will open a school of journalism and communications in Doha as well. Students at the Doha campus can cross-register classes with the original universities in the US. Not surprisingly, she was given an honorary PhD by Carnegie Mellon.

The herculean feat has revolutionized Qatari society, brought thousands of newcomers (staff, students, and administration) to Doha and encouraged massive investment in Qatar. With a beautiful face that evokes pride and seriousness, Moza travels the world with her laptop, attending and chairing meetings both as first lady of Qatar, and a special envoy for UNESCO on Basic and Higher Education. She is also President of the Supreme Council for Family Affairs in Qatar, and Vice-President of the Supreme Education Council.

Recently, she put full weight behind the founding of al-Jazeera's Children Channel, in addition to the 24-hour news service, to promote education among Arab children. Sheikha Moza does not stop there - she works for establishing a center for embittered women in the Arab World, building non-Muslim places of worship in Qatar, and more recently, introduced the now-world famous Doha Debates to Qatar.

Hosted by veteran presenter Tim Sebastian, who presented Hardtalk on BBC, the Doha Debates address Middle East issues in a mock-parliamentary manner, marketing itself - under Moza's guidance - as "a forum for free speech in the Arab world". The high profile forum, which encourages both discussion and voting, is modeled after England's Oxford Union Society, a debate club in Oxford dating back to 1823. Additionally, under auspices of the royal couple, Qatari women were given the right to vote, in 1997.

Speaking in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Moza recently said "I have lived with my husband more than I have with my parents. I live besides him, and know his worries, his hopes, and his dreams for his nation. We believe it is our duty to make things happen!"

She has pushed her husband into modern behavior - like interaction with royal staff, driving himself around town, and calling up any minister on his cell phone to inquire on any issue or solve anything that needs to be fixed. The royal couple continue to support al-Jazeera, the leading Arab news channel, and are bidding to hold the Olympics in Doha. She also tries to keep her head steady from all the media attention, and provide her children with maximal parental attention, treating their worries, fears, and hopes like those of any ordinary teenagers and not young royals.

Moza says, "We bring them up as normal individuals. When I go back to the house we talk about everything; what I did, what I have seen, what they think, and what their ambitions are. Its refreshing to hear the point of view of young minds because this is what we are building here - for them and people like them."

Five years ago, in a gesture of appreciation towards Moza, Sheikh Hamad chose their child Tamim, as Heir Apparent. The young man is a graduate of Sandhurt Military Academy in the UK, just like his father, is deputy commander of the armed forces, and chairman of the Qatar Olympic Committee.

Moza does not try to discard her Arab identity, nor does she encourage Qataris to become over-Westernized. On the contrary, she champions national identity, and says, "People tend to believe that to be modern you have to disengage from your heritage. But it's not true. We don't see the global citizen as someone with no identity, but rather, someone who has confidence and is proud of his culture and history - and open to the modern world." This is another trait that unites her both with First Lady Assad and Queen Rania.

Queen RaniaQueen Rania

Just like Hamad, Queen Rania's husband King Abdullah, was not destined to be a regent. The post of Heir Apparent in Jordan had been held by his uncle Prince Hasan from 1965 until 1999. On his deathbed, the veteran King Hussein appointed Abdullah, his oldest son, as Heir Apparent. And when Hussein died in February 1999, Abdullah replaced him as the fourth King of Jordan. When Rania (born in 1970) met the young prince in 1993, she was only 22 years old, have recently moved to Jordan from Kuwait with her Palestinian parents, due to the second Gulf War.

She studied business administration at the American University in Cairo, and worked at Citibank and Apple Computers before obtaining a degree in management from HEC University of Paris. A commoner like Moza, she married a royal who was never destined to become king - until Hussein died in 1993.

In her own words, Queen Rania described the situation by saying: "Following the sad passing of His Late Majesty King Hussein, and the ascension of His Majesty King Abdullah, we were faced with enormous responsibilities and challenges. Fortunately, we had had a taste of public life in our roles as Prince and Princess, but still the adjustments to King and Queen were considerable. In fact, we are still learning. I think we always will."

Since becoming Queen - the youngest in the world in 1999 - Rania has equally revolutionized Jordanian society and enchanted the world with her eloquence and elegance. Representing a tribal yet modernizing society - just like Qatar - the Queen of Jordan has been awarded the honorary rank of colonel in the Jordanian Army by King Abdullah.

She has also been ranked as third most beautiful woman in the world by Harper's & Queen Magazine, and number 80 in Forbes' list of Most Powerful Women in the World. She too has toured the world speaking on behalf of Jordan and defending women's rights in the Arab and Muslim World. She made world headlines by appearing on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2006, breaking stereotypes of Arab women.

Domestically, she is active in promoting education reforms, mandatory English at schools, and micro-finance for entrepreneurs with ideas, but no money to implement them. In 2003, she was elected to the Board of Directors of the International Criminal Court's Trust Fund for Victims. She is also deeply involved in the Arab Academy for Banking and Financial Sciences (AABFS), the Jordan Cancer Society, and the The Queen Rania Center for Entrepreneurship.

Queen Rania adds, "While respecting our traditions, we are determined to build Jordan into a modern civil society and model for the region by ensuring sustainable levels of economic growth and social development. In addition, I work in areas related to child protection and family safety, women's empowerment, the creation of opportunities for youth, and culture and tourism. Daunting? Yes. Impossible? No. In fact, such challenges energize me!"

Just like Moza, she sounds very proud of being a mother – more so perhaps, than being a queen. "As a working mother, juggling the demands of the job and four young children is not easy. Like all parents, I strive to achieve the right balance. My official activities take account of the children's school day and their plans and programs, and extensive periods of time on overseas engagements are limited. Spending a couple of hours each night with the children doing homework or reading to them in bed gives them, and me, a sense of security."

First Lady AssadFirst Lady Assad

The First Lady of Syria is youngest of the "Big Three", born to a Syrian family in London in 1975. Growing up under the guidance of her father, a cardiologist and Harley Street Consultant, she studied computer science at King's College and graduated with honors and a diploma in French literature. She began her professional career as an analyst in the Hedge Fund Management section at Deutsche Bank.

She toured the Far East and Europe for work, boasting of her Syrian origins, and landed a job in 1998 at JP Morgan, London, specializing in mergers and acquisitions. Fate interfered at this point, cutting short her early career, when she got married to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria in December 2000, five months after he had come to power in Damascus. They were the youngest couple ever in Syrian history. The president was 34, the First Lady was 25. Speaking to ABC's Dianne Sawyer, Assad was asked in 2007 whether he decided to propose to her during his medical studies in the UK. The president laughed and replied, "We decided together. I didn't decide, we decided."

Life had changed considerably in Syria since the days of Zahra al-Yusuf. Assad did not need to convince her husband of playing a greater role in society; it came by nature since both she and the President were strong advocates of women's empowerment. He, too, was something new in Syria; he drives around in his own automobile, dines with friends, goes to amusement parks with his children, attends concerts and plays, and mixes easily with regular citizens. He listens to Phil Collins and has an iPod - as said during his interview with ABC.

Asma al-Assad was equally dazzling for Syrians and Arabs in general. Charming, well-spoken, and very intelligent, she toured the world with her husband, showing what a real Syrian woman looks like in the royal courts of London, Morocco, and Spain, and the palaces of Istanbul and Moscow. At home, the First Lady focused on economic development, rural development, micro-finance, culture, arts, ICT development, and children with special needs.

In July 2001, she established the Integrated Rural Development of Syria (FIRDOS), the first rural development NGO in Syria. The Syrian Trust for Development followed in 2001, targeting education and culture, and so did the Women and Education Conference, held in Damascus. She gathered six Arab First Ladies - Sheikha Moza and Queen Rania included - and delegations from 22 Arab countries to jumpstart educational reform in Syria.

That same year, she held the largest conference ever on women in business, also in Syria, and put full weight behind the Syrian Businesswomen Committee in Damascus. By 2002, she was representing Syria at economic talks with the Bank of England, and initiating the Mobile Information Center (MIC), targeting IT education in rural districts of Syria. She also founded and headed the Syrian Organization for the Disabled (AAMAL) and the Children Discovery Center (MASSAR).

The First Lady created the first National Children's Fair in Syria, and in 2004, received an honorary PhD from La Sapienza University in Rome, in addition to nomination for the First Arab Lady Award in 2008. Additionally, she played a major role in preparing and planning to host the UNESCO honor of naming Damascus as Capital of Arab Culture for 2008, a title that goes on to Jerusalem in 2009.

When a poll was conducted in Damascus on the "Most popular current or former First Lady in the Arab world", Asma al-Assad came in with an impressively high 96%. Wherever she goes she is greeted with an entire generation of Syrians who feel inspired by her dedication, will, and charm.

In addition to her work with non-governmental organizations, which she creates, supervises, and invests in, the Syrian First Lady has toured Syria's underdeveloped areas bringing hope and encouraging developmental projects. In 2007, for example, she was the first senior Syrian to visit the Neirab Refugee Camp near Aleppo, established for refugees in 1948. For 59-years the Neirab Camp has been the largest and most highly populated refugee camp in Syria, with an estimated 89 residents per 1,000 meters and conditions that UNRWA describes as "deplorable".

From Neirab, she went to the Jabal al-Hoss to inspect the United Nations Development Program programs of rural social development. The district is considered one of the poorest and most underdeveloped in Syria. Assad stressed the importance of expanding the network of small funds in Syria to the most underdeveloped regions, in order to improve income, and create job opportunities.

In 2008, the First Lady went to the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, to attend a Syrian musical recital on the occasion of Damascus as Capital of Arab Culture, with Queen Sophia. She gave an interview to a Spanish news agency saying, "I am lucky that my responsibilities are exactly where my passion is. My passion is to help my country develop and realize its full potential. In so many areas, I see as-yet untapped opportunities for Syria to develop and prosper - that is what drives me every day."

She continued, "If I have learned anything in the past couple of years, it's that for any type of development to be successful, for it to be sustainable, it's got to include the direct beneficiaries as a core part of the process. They need to be actively involved. This not only ensures local ownership, which is vital for sustainability, but it also ensures that needs and priorities are properly addressed and clearly identified."

When asked about her role as First Lady, which she was never raised to become, Assad said, "Both roles didn't come with a guide book or a manual you can read and implement the next day! One of the major differences is that most women hope to become mothers, but I doubt that most women expect to become First Ladies! Having said that, being First Lady is not who I am, but rather what I do and how I influence and support the development process in my country."

Speaking of her children, the First Lady added, "I think what we need to do as parents, one thing I try to do as a mother, whether my children are writing, playing sports, playing music or a computer game - is to do everything possible to help them fall in love with what they're doing. So focusing less on how successful they were (or are likely to be) and show more interest in the task itself. That's just another way of saying we need to encourage more, judge less and love always."

Article Provided By Faysal Ruwayha
Images: Top - NFP Files
Sheikha Moza - Courtesy of
Qatar Living
Other Images Courtesy of WikiMedia

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