Women Changing the World
Rania Al-Yassin was born in Kuwait. Shortly after Saddam Hussein invaded that country in 1990, her family fled and settled in Jordan. After graduating from business school, Rania began working her way up the corporate ladder. When she was just 22, she went to a dinner party where she met Jordan's Prince Abdullah—considered one of the world's most eligible bachelors. He didn't remain one for long after that night. Six months later, Rania and Abdullah had a royal wedding and started a family. And, though they planned for a life as royals, Abdullah assumed he'd remain a military officer for life.
In 1999, while on his deathbed, King Hussein of Jordan stunned his country by announcing that his son Abdullah—not his brother—would succeed him as king. That made 29-year-old Rania the world's youngest living queen.
There are many perks to being queen, of course, but Rania stresses that there are also responsibilities. "One of the major misconceptions about this position is that people think that I might be far removed, that I might not be in touch with reality," she says. "The honest truth is that my life is very much about dealing with issues on the ground, dealing with ... the problems that our country faces. That's something I do on a daily basis."
When most people think of queens, they probably think of what they know from fairy tales. "For me, it's just real life," Rania says. "I am a mother. I care about my children. I worry about what they eat. I worry about the influences from their friends."
Rania says her family tries very hard to remain down to earth. The family has relaxed much of the ceremonial pomp and circumstance of their position. Rania prefers that people not refer to her as "Your Majesty"...and King Abdullah loves to barbecue!
The family never discusses the possibility that Hussein, their oldest child, could be the future King of Jordan, Rania says. Instead, she says that the family strives to remain like any other family. For instance, to get the things they want the children have to clean their rooms and do well in school. "The most important thing is to instill them with the right values," Rania says. "I just feel that values are the shield that you carry with you throughout life. It protects you from whatever life throws at you."
Helping others is something that Rania says she feels compelled to do. "Once you feel that others are like you, then you want for others what you want for yourself," she says. "And that way you start helping others."
Rania explains that there is a direct relationship between increasing education and eliminating poverty. "You can change the course of a nation through education," she says. "One of the most important things you can do for a girl is empower her with her education. Once she has the education, she can then have control over her income, she can change her life, she can have choices."
One woman named Muna worries about striking a balance between work and motherhood. Part of that means preparing lunch—the most important meal in Jordanian culture—for her family. Unlike in America, most children and husbands return home to eat with their families for lunch. Just like in America, Muna cooks a variety of meals, everything from traditional Arabic food to hamburgers and spaghetti.
In this largely Muslim country, one religious tradition is increasingly a matter of choice. Approximately 60 percent of Jordanian women wear a veil. Though Queen Rania says she has never worn a veil, she understands why a woman would want to. "We think it's a personal choice," she says. "Unfortunately in the West people look at the veil as a sign of oppression or weakness. This is not true as long as a woman is wearing it because of her belief. I always say we should judge a woman according to what's going on in their heads rather than what's going on top of their heads."
Rania also wants to break down the stereotypes the West holds about her culture. "I would like to dispel the misconception that Arabs are all extremists, that Arab people are violent, and that women in the Arab world are oppressed and suppressed," she says.
The struggle we feel today is not really Middle East against the West, Rania says, but rather it is between extremists and moderates of all religions. "We need to speak up," she says. "The biggest nightmare for the extremists is for us to get along, and that's why we have to get along. We have to communicate more."
Rania says solving problems that stem from intolerance—like terrorism—require cultural dialogue, education and increased opportunities. "We have to create opportunities for our youth so they have a chance in life," she says. "Whenever you're frustrated and you feel like you don't have a future or you can't get a job, then you're more susceptible to be influenced by terrorism and extremist ideology."
Eventually, he was overthrown from power and expatriate Charles Taylor was elected president. But the violence and chaos continued. Women were gang raped, their husbands were executed and thousands of children were given guns and taught to kill. Under Charles Taylor's reign of terror, more than 250,000 people were murdered. In 2003, he was forced to resign.
Today, the scars of war can be seen everywhere. The country lacks running water and electricity, and schools and hospitals have been destroyed. More than 80 percent of the people are unemployed and most live on less than one dollar a day.
In November 2005, for the first time in more than 20 years, the people of Liberia got to freely vote for a new leader. Their choice made history when a 67-year-old grandmother of nine became Africa's first-ever elected female president—President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
After graduation, she returned to her family in Liberia determined to help her unstable homeland and worked in the Ministry of Finance. After speaking out against the ruling military regime, she was thrown in jail twice. When Johnson-Sirleaf was released, she was exiled to Kenya and went to work as an economist for the United Nations.
She returned to Liberia in 1997 and made her first run for President against corrupt leader Charles Taylor and lost. Then in 2003, peacekeeping troops stabilized Liberia. Johnson-Sirleaf ran for the presidency again and on January 16, 2006, she was sworn in and became Africa's first elected female leader. Her historic inauguration was a celebration for women around the world. First Lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice were both on hand.
In many parts of the world, women who are victims of rape have little or no protection. To address this shocking reality, one of the first things President Johnson-Sirleaf did for the Liberian women was to pass a law that makes rape illegal. She says rapists will no longer go unpunished under her watch. "We're not going to have that anymore," says President Johnson-Sirleaf. "We are going to enforce the law."
One of the greatest challenges President Johnson-Sirleaf says she faces is building schools. "We can't do it with the resources the country has, we have to just be progressive—work at it," she says. "We've got partners in the country, some other donor countries that work with us. The U.S. is one of those that are working with us. The European commission is working with us. We're trying to expand the partnerships."
Nine-year-old Musu is one of the fortunate girls in Liberia. She attends a private school in Monrovia. But during the last days of the war, a rocket blast ripped off her hand. Having a daughter with a physical handicap make Musu's parents even more determined to make sure she gets an education. They make a few dollars a month growing and selling potato greens. But from year to year, they never know if they will have enough money to keep Musu in school.
Their hard work is paying off. Musu says she loves school, and has learned to write well. "When I grow up, I want to be a doctor," she says. "I want to be a doctor because a doctor helped me with my hand."
Thanks to President Johnson-Sirleaf, Musu is here to say hello—all the way from Liberia!
"I love this. ... It's about getting every one of us to look inside of ourselves to see, 'What can I do?'" says Oprah, "'How can I be of service to the world?'"