"The Role of Women is Changing" in the Arab World: A Conversation with Queen Noor al-Hussein

American-born Queen Noor married King Hussein of Jordan in 1978.

Photo Gallery: 75 Years of U.S. News Photography

This story originally appeared in the October 10, 1983, issue of U.S.News & World Report.

"Advances have happened rapidly"

The role of women is changing throughout the Arab world. In the more conservative countries, greater opportunities for education—through university level—are being made available to women. In Egypt, women serve in Parliament and the cabinet. Recently a woman was named director of the national television stations—a very powerful position. In Syria, the Minister of Culture is a woman. In Jordan, there has been tremendous economic development, which has had an enormous impact on the status of women. In just a decade, women have won the right to vote and run for election. We now have a woman Minister of Social Development and four women on our Consultative Council, the equivalent of Congress.

All these advances have happened rapidly. While increasing the opportunities for women, we don't want to lose the valuable protections women have under Islam.

Most Jordanians "accept the working woman"

Right now we are in the midst of a five-year development plan which emphasizes the role of women in the national development of Jordan. In 1975, less than 5 percent of Jordan's workers were female. Today, it is estimated that 17 percent of the total Jordanian working force consists of women, and the influx of women into the labor force in 1982 reached over 25 percent. We did a study recently on attitudes toward the working woman and found that attitudes have changed. The majority accept the working woman for four main reasons: The shortage of labor in Jordan—just the opposite of the situation in the U.S.—the desire to give jobs to Jordanians rather than foreign workers, the high cost of living, and higher levels of education of women.

"Elementary education is now compulsory"

In 10 years, the number of Jordanian girls in school has increased in some areas by 100 percent. Elementary education is now compulsory for both boys and girls. At university level, more than half the students are female. In law school, one third are women; in medical school, one quarter. About 90 percent of the students in the school of pharmacy and 85 percent of the students of architecture are female, and in the engineering school women outnumber men. In 1972, when I chose the field of architectural planning at Princeton University, I was the only woman. Things have changed in the U.S. since then, and the same phenomenon is happening here. "Marriage endures beyond romance"

Compared to marriage in the U.S., the bond here is stronger. Marriage is a contract signed by both parties. It endures beyond romance and is accepted as a useful and practical institution. A woman has rights under Islam—the rights to an education, to control her own money and to choose her husband. All the while, a man must provide full support for his wife and his children—in marriage and divorce. Issues of inheritance and marital obligations are evolving as women become more independent. But we don't want to lose the security women have under Islam. We want to save ourselves from the experiences of many divorced women in the U.S. who find themselves alone with no support. Divorce is still relatively rare—about 7 percent of Jordanian women, and half of these remarry—and the terms of the divorce settlement are stipulated in the marriage contract. In the early years of Islam, when war left many women widows, men were allowed to marry more than one wife. Yet Islam discourages this, and the practice is now dying out. If a man takes more than one wife, he is obliged to treat them equally—financially and emotionally. Since according to the Koran this is impossible, he should marry only one. "Potential for an Arab renaissance"

More women are returning to traditional dress. This trend is not so much social or religious as political. The realities of the revolution in Iran, the continuing irresolution of the West Bank and the worsening situation of Lebanon create enormous political tensions. People are looking for security and national preservation. The trend toward conservatism is an attempt to preserve our own identity and protect the right we see being eroded away.