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Author Topic: Gulf's first ladies are breaking boundaries  (Read 6550 times)
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« on: September 23, 2008, 11:10:22 AM »

The first lady of this conservative Muslim sheikhdom walked up to the podium in and sized up the crowd of mostly wealthy businessmen.

"Do not be afraid to take risks and to try," she told them. "Think out of the box."

Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser al-Missned may have been wearing a traditional black headscarf and robe, but she took on a very untraditional role in rallying the men to support a $100-million initiative to tackle unemployment. Like her counterpart in Dubai, Oxford-educated Princess Haya, Mozah is taking up the Western "first lady" model - activist, globe-trotting and involved in public affairs.

It's a change in a region where a ruler's wife is rarely seen. She might be one of several; many emirs and kings in the Gulf have multiple wives. In some cases, the ruler will pick one to be the public "first lady."

The emergence of high-ranking wives on the public stage is part of the booming Gulf states' efforts to appear more in sync with the West as they seek investment and political clout.

In recent years, Qatar - like the other small Arab countries lining the Persian Gulf - has transformed its desert landscape into a financial and media hub.

Mozah, believed to be in her 40s, has taken a starring role in the transformation. She is one of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani's wives, and the only one who makes public appearances.

Her most prominent role is as chairperson of the Qatar Foundation, which launched Education City, a campus outside Doha that's home to branches of several prominent US universities.

Mozah is rivalling the globe-trotting of Jordan's Queen Rania, giving speeches at institutions in the US and Europe. Last year, she claimed one of the spots on Forbes magazine's list of the world's 100 most powerful women.

"No Gulf royalty stands out as Mozah does," says Rima Sabban, a Dubai-based sociologist. "She broke all cultural barriers and shaped an image of a woman that is fully modern, fully confident and fearless of a backlash from the society."

In Dubai, Haya (34) is also breaking the rules - giving speeches on public welfare, working on public projects, appearing in magazines, keeping up websites and travelling the world. Haya, daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan, is married to the United Arab Emirates' powerful leader, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

Like Mozah, Haya has taken on public roles, including chairing the Dubai International Humanitarian City, a cluster of Western and Islamic charities.

But she pushes the traditional boundaries even further. She is rarely seen wearing a headscarf and is a sports enthusiast, a rarity in the male-dominated region. She represented Jordan in equestrian showjumping in the 2000 Olympic Games in Australia and even has a truck-driving licence.

Other wives of Gulf rulers are active in campaigning for women's rights, charity and humanitarian issues, but they have not sought foreign attention or assumed highly public roles. Qatar and the UAE both have women cabinet ministers, and the Emirates recently appointed its first female judge.

"It's a domino effect. Success in one country has spilled over into other countries in the region. When a ruler in one country appoints a woman to a high-level post, others follow. Everyone wants to show they are democratising," says Rola Dashti, a Kuwaiti economist.

Not every country in the region is eager to change.

Saudi Arabia still keeps its royal wives under wraps and remains the only country in the Middle East to bar women from voting. No women sit in the kingdom's cabinet, and women can't drive or travel without permission from a male guardian.

The views of one 20-year-old Qatari student, Fawzia, reflect both the change for women in the Gulf and the restrictions that still hold them back. Fawzia did not want her last name used because it would be regarded as immodest for a young woman to speak out. Yet she says the ruling women are opening doors that were closed to her mother's generation.

Mozah has "challenged tradition that wanted women to be restricted to the domestic field", and made it possible for women to have "a role in society while also being a wife and mother". - Sapa-AP

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