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Queen Rania, Oprah and the Post-Colonial ‘Other’ (Part I)

May 25, 2010

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What do people in the ‘post-colonial third world’ think of their leaders? In an age of increasing inequality between rich and poor, colonial and post-colonial, the dimensions of what it means to be ‘modern’ versus ‘authentic’ is not an easy line to draw, and many leaders are having trouble finding a way to represent and identify their societies and people.

While some, from Mugabe to Qaddafi, opt for more traditional guises of autocracy, others, such as the monarchies of Jordan and Morocco, choose to represent themselves as the embodiment of (arguably) Western ideals of modernity. But where then is the line, if indeed one exists, between ‘modernity’ and Westernisation? And to whom should these leaders be speaking to: their own people, or the people of the world?

Queen Rania is an interesting character to explore. There has already been criticism about her image and portrayal of what it means to be Arab on other blogs. We asked two Jordanians to talk about their perceptions of Queen Rania’s media image, and we got two very different responses. Below is the first response from a Jordanian who is not too happy with the way Queen Rania has chosen to present herself. In another post, found here, another Jordanian argues that Queen Rania in fact is making a positive contribution to ‘cross-cultural dialogue’.  Decide for yourself who you think is right.

Queen Rania as the Post-Colonial Arab: When Public Persona Backfires

Her Majesty Queen Rania of Jordan has been touring the United States doing book readings and media interviews to promote her children’s book “The Sandwich Swap”.  The book, supposedly inspired by Her Majesty’s own experience, tells the story of best friends Lily and Salma, dispute over their culturally specific sandwiches.

As part of her promotional tour Her Majesty appeared on the Oprah show to talk about her book, and how it represents a metaphor for the acceptance of cultural differences. There, she spoke about how she saw herself as a ‘normal’ woman and mother rather than a Queen, assuring Oprah and her viewers that she makes her kids’ sandwiches in the morning, gets them ready for school, and even carpools. She also spoke about her heavy online presence: how she uses Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and blogs to communicate with the world.

Now here’s the thing: I’m an Arab, a Jordanian of Palestinian origin, just like the Queen herself. Yet, instead of being proud of what she has accomplished, I found myself getting really upset. I felt the Queen was on the show to encourage cultural acceptance and understanding, yet she ended up representing and encouraging the exact opposite.

It is no coincidence that the Queen almost exclusively appears only on Western media (she rarely speaks with Arabic media and never about daily personal issues), where she stresses on how ‘normal’ her life is. The Queen does this in an attempt to communicate the message to Oprah’s audience, which is predominantly made up of western women, that she is in fact like them; which theoretically snowballs to ‘if this Arab woman is like me then other Arabs must be like me too’, and by extension ‘Arabs and Westerners are similar is some way’, which mean the cultural divide is bridged thanks to Queen Rania of Jordan.

This extends to her online presence, which in her words help make her ‘accessible to the public’. The thing is, which ‘public’ is she speaking about? Let’s face it, Tweeting and YouTubing in English are not the best way to communicate with your average Arab. Nor do these activities represent a normality for the Arabs the Queen says she represents. What they do represent is a Western understanding of what it means to be ‘modern’ and ‘integrated’.

Through her claims, her online presence, even her chosen fashion aesthetic, it becomes clear that the Queen ensures that she is relatable to western audiences because her image is actually constructed around their notion of ‘modern’, their notion of ‘acceptable’, of ‘normal’. The Queen’s performance of modern women, which makes her ‘normal’ in western eyes, is very different from the ‘norm’ for your average Arab woman.

The Queen actually articulates this idea by sharing with Oprah that she strongly believes in the importance of cross-cultural dialogue because she sees herself as “a bridge between both cultures, a combination of both!”

The fact is, Queen Rania is in no way a combination of both cultures since she is in fact very culturally Arab, upper-class post-colonial Arab, in such a way that this specific Arab culture is built on mimicking western mannerisms and lifestyle, since it views modernity and westernization as signifiers of forwardness and success.

This cultural performance in fact makes the Queen a very ‘normal’ post-colonial Arab. Yet according to the statement above she sees herself as something beyond her own culture, she declares that she possesses an ‘added value’ over your average Arab. By uttering that statement the Queen declares a hierarchy within Arab society, placing westernized Arabs like herself as superior to all others.  The woman who has been preaching acceptance and tolerance of other cultures ends up communicating this prejudice and this hierarchy to the western audience, essentially making it acceptable for them to also judge Arabs with the same prejudice the Queen herself has made.

Through this interview the audience of the Oprah Winfrey show is presented with the ‘right’ kind of Arab, a ‘modern’ Arab that they relate to, making them believe that by identifying with this person’s performance of western culture they are actually becoming culturally accepting! Queen Rania fails to communicate how accepting cultural difference, not sameness, is the basis of real cultural dialogue.

It would be a lot more productive if the Queen points her energies to engaging with her own people, addressed there concerns and issues, viewing herself as their representative and passing along their actual concerns while embracing and celebrating cultural differences, instead of attempting to cover them up. It is then that she really can become a spokesperson for cultural dialogue.

For part II of this post, go here.

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