Bahia Hariri has long been a highly active personality in Lebanese political life. A parliamentary deputy and President of the Parliamentary Commission for Culture and Education, she is also involved in regional politics as the Vice-President of the Commission for Women at the Arab Inter-parliamentary Union.
Bahia Hariri was designated UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador in November 2000. Deeply concerned about the preservation of historical heritage, she has campaigned on behalf of the inscription of the temple of Echmoun in the ancient city of Saida as a UNESCO World Heritage site. She initiated a local UNESCO seminar, focusing on finding ways to balance urban development with cultural and ecological preservation.
A dedicated champion of woman’s rights, Bahia Hariri has consistently promoted the status of women in Arab society, campaigning for the adoption of laws protecting women and contributing to their emancipation.
· Mrs Bahia Hariri was born in Lebanon
· President of the parliamentary commission for culture and education
· Vice-president of the commission for Women at the inter-parliamentary Arab Union
· Member of numerous parliamentary commissions
· President of the administrative council of the Hariri-Saida foundation
· Has launched the appeals from Kuwait, Tunis, Algiers and Beirut between 1999 and 2000 to support the establishment of a „Day of the Arab woman" and a "Permanent Summit of the Arab Woman"
· Campaigned for the adoption of laws protecting women and helping their emancipation
· Participation in cultural and educational activities aimed at the development of Arab women and the promotion of their role public life
· Support for social solidarity projects
For nearly thirty years Her Royal Highness Princess Basma bint Talal of Jordan has worked nationally, regionally and internationally to promote a range of global issues, most notably in the areas of human development, gender equity, and the well-being and development of children. Princess Basma plays an active advocacy role through various forums, such as the United Nations, contributing to global strategies on health, education, population, the environment, and the advancement of women. Her Royal Highness is particularly involved with supporting the implementation of sustainable development programmes that address the social and economic needs of marginalized groups.
Her Royal Highness Princess Basma bint Talal was born in
Princess Basma is married to Walid Al Kurdi and has two daughters and two sons: Farah (March 25, 1971), Ghazi (July 21, 1974), Saad (November 8, 1982) and Zein Al Sharaf (June 1, 1986).
Princess Basma received her primary education at the
In May 2001, Princess Basma was awarded a DPhil degree from
If interested in visiting her web page:
His Majesty King Abdullah bin Al-Hussein (then Prince) married Queen Rania on June 10, 1993. After her marriage to then Prince Abdullah, Queen Rania channeled her energies behind initiatives that aim to improve the livelihood of Jordanians from various sectors of society. As First Lady, Queen Rania's activities encompass issues of national concern, such as the environment, youth, human rights, tourism, and culture, among others. She also has a special interest in several core issues: the development of income-generating projects and the advancement of best practices in the field of microfinance, the promotion of family safety and the protection of children from violence, the promotion of Early Childhood Development, and the incorporation of Information Technology into the educational system; and the promotion of tourism and the preservation of Jordan’s heritage.
The Queen currently heads the Higher National Committee of the Declaration of Amman the Arab Cultural Capital 2002. She heads the Higher National Committee of the Jordan Song Festival, and also annually lends her patronage to the Jordanian Festival for the Arab Child Song. In tribute to His Majesty the Late King Hussein, and on the first anniversary of his passing away, Queen Rania produced “The King’s Gift”--a children’s book about the Late King. Proceeds of the book go to the benefit of underprivileged children across Jordan.
She is also Honorary President of the Arab Academy for Banking and Financial Sciences (AABFS), a pioneering institute in the region offering technical and academic training in banking and financial services. And is also Honorary President of the Arab Women Labor Affairs Committee of the Arab Labor Organization. She is President of the Jordan Society for Organ Donation and the Jordan Cancer Society. On July 12, 2001, Queen Rania was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD) degree from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. She is fluent in Arabic and English, and has a working knowledge of French.
From schoolgirl Emma to Asma, the Syrian icon
Asma Akhras was raised in London. Today she returns as wife of Syria's leader. Peter Beaumont talks exclusively to the woman who has become a symbol of President Bashar Assad's ambition to reform his country
Sunday December 15, 2002
When Asma Akhras became Mrs Assad, new wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the doom-mongers in the British media predicted a life of subservience and isolation for the attractive British-born and educated young merchant banker. So when she dropped out of sight for a few months after her private wedding on New Year's Day 2001, they must have thought that they had got it right.
Instead, as they will find out this week, they got it very wrong indeed. So what happened in the months after the wedding, when she seemed to disappear from view? In her first-ever interview, Mrs Assad told The Observer that she did not disappear. Instead, she spent the first weeks of her marriage in jeans and T-shirt, travelling incognito around the rural areas of Syria. After a wedding in which only the closest family members had been invited to a private service, she wanted to get a handle on the country.
'To be honest,' she says, 'I wanted to meet [ordinary Syrians] before they met me. Before the world met me,' she adds. 'I was able to spend the first couple of months wandering around, meeting other Syrian people. It was my crash course. I would just tag along with one of the many programmes being run in the rural areas. Because people had no idea who I was, I was able to see people completely honestly, I was able to see what their problems were on the ground, what people are complaining about, what the issues are. What people's hopes and aspirations are. And seeing it first-hand means you are not seeing it through someone else's eyes. It wasn't to spy on them. It was really just to see who they are, what they are doing.'
Tonight Asma Assad - the girl once known as Emma at her Church of England school in west London, where she grew up - will be back in Britain for only the second time since her wedding two years ago. But this time it will not be for a visit to her parents' home in Acton, but to accompany her husband to Downing Street for Syria's first official visit.
In three days, she will be presented to the Queen at Buckingham Palace and later meet Prince Charles, not as the submissive consort that some glibly predicted, but as an equal partner of her husband, Bashar. How equal is made clear when President Assad, a 35-year-old former doctor who trained in London as an opthalmologist, comes in at the end of this interview with his wife in Damascus.
The President asks for the microphones to be turned off and my notebook to be put away. He wants to chat, but it is not an interview. And for a moment, with the constraints of protocol and diplomacy stripped away, as they sit together on a sofa, you have an insight into their life together: a lively, humorous dialogue in which they lob ideas between them like a tennis ball.
This week Asma Assad will continue on her rapid learning curve. Not that her visit will be without controversy. Even before an interview in Friday's Times, in which President Assad said he 'understood' why young Palestinians became suicide bombers, and expressed his deep reservations over the United States' rush to war against Iraq, Israeli and Jewish groups were protesting at the visit, accusing his country of sponsoring terrorism. Others challenge his country's record on human rights, in particular the violent suppression of Islamic radical groups under his father, Hafez. And for decades
Syria was identified in the West with Iraq as one of the most despotic regimes in the region, banning dissent and independent media, and virulently opposing the existence of the state of Israel. Things have changed since Bashar's succession, insist British officials. But it has been a mixed picture so far. While Assad has invited criticism of his regime, shut prisons linked to rights abuses, and freed prominent opposition figures, other dissidents were arrested this year. Access to the internet is permitted and there has been some liberalisation of the media. But his desire to 'reform and modernise' his country has so far had only mixed results against the opposition of hardliners who preferred his father's tough approach.
All this has had the effect of thrusting Asma Assad further into the limelight. In just two years, she has been transformed from being unknown to ordinary Syrians to being a kind of icon of both her husband' s policy to modernise and reform his country, and Syria's wider engagement with the West.
This has been achieved without the kind of personality cult that surrounds her husband and his family. In Damascus, posters of Bashar compete with pictures of his father, who led Syria in its darkest times, and Bashar's brother Basil, his father's heir-apparent, who died in a car crash in 1994.
But there are no posters of Asma. Instead she is known almost universally as al akilatu al rais: simply the President's wife. Her new prominence has been achieved while avoiding interviews, avoiding the kind of meaningless feel-good statements of what she plans to do, and while protecting her privacy.
And when she does talk, it is not in generalities. It is about the specifics of the schemes that interest her and that she has initiated: about the intricacies of micro-credit schemes tailored to Syrian society and rural life, about her country's social capital, and about her ambitions to bridge the gap between Syria's information-rich and information-poor. FIDROS, the NGO she founded in July 2001, is the result both of those first months of incognito research and of the realisation that Syria faces a demographic problem. Forty-five per cent of the population is under 15. Fearing the destabilising impact of a massive influx to the cities, her NGO is aimed at improving village communities through sustainable development and interest-free loans.
What is clear is that this is not some Evita-like first lady's 'hobby horse'. Asma Assad regards it as her work.
She explains her reticence until now to talk about her life and work: 'I let actions speak for themselves, rather than saying "I want to... I will" and so forth. The results are much larger and much bigger than any words that anybody can say, and that's the philosophy I've had from day one. I think that's probably something I took from the UK. Let the actions speak for themselves.
'I obviously am not going to speak on his [the President's] behalf, but he did know from day one that I was a working woman. He knew JP Morgan took up a lot of my time. So he knew that work for me was a big priority and still is. So it never really came up in conversation.'
And although she denies it, it still seems a remarkable journey. Three years ago Asma Assad was working in mergers and acquisitions at the bankers JP Morgan. She had been accepted for a Harvard MBA. The daughter of Syrian parents - her father is a cardiologist - they insisted on speaking Syrian at home. 'I didn't realise until I was seven that they could actually speak English,' she says. But for all the annual holidays in Syria, she had an English childhood and education, culminating in a degree in computer science at King's College.
She casts some light, too, on how she came to know Bashar, an issue much speculated on, although with little accuracy. 'It is not quite as grand as the British press is trying to make out. We have been friends for a very long time. I came to Syria every year since I was born. It is really through family friends who knew each other since childhood.'
So their friendship became something else while he was studying in England? 'We hardly saw each other at all. And, if we did, it was more on a friendly basis and nothing else.' I ask when she knew they would be married. 'The day before,' she laughs.
Our meeting is in the Presidential Palace in Damascus, a place of vast halls and marble floors. But when I ask about the transition from the London suburbs to life in a palace, she laughs again: 'We don't live in a palace. We live in a house in the city. This is just an official place for meeting people.' Indeed, she goes out of her way to insist on the normality of her life. The couple dine in public restaurants, visit the theatre and have no nanny for their toddler, Hafez. I ask her, as a mother in a country next to Iraq, if she is not afraid of these dangerous times.
'I think the Middle East has always had this feeling. We are constantly aware of it, and we live in the situation. Am I aware of it specifically? I think it is part of our life. It exists. The question here is how long do we live with that? And how do we ensure we keep moving?'
And to keep moving - they both insist - a dialogue is necessary. This week's visit to Britain is part of that dialogue.
I ask her about her sense of identity, about being Emma the English schoolgirl and Asma the Syrian daughter; about being the British banker and the Syrian President's wife.
'I can't say I was "Emma". No. I wasn't Emma. I was "Emma", as you call somebody sweetheart or sweetie or darling or so forth,' she insists.
'I was born in London. I spent 25 years in London. But I also know that I am Syrian. I speak the language fluently; I read and write it. I am British and I am an Arab,' she says emphatically. 'I am not one or the other. I am part of both worlds.'
It is an issue of identity that concerns both her husband and herself, conscious that, against the background of the activities of Osama bin Laden and the threat of war with Iraq, being an Arab or Muslim has become suspect to many in the West.
Bashar Assad is understood to be concerned that, in the West, there is at the moment a 'narrowing of the mind' when it comes to those who live in the Middle East, a view shared by his wife, who blames Western media for many of the current problems. 'I think it's just living with different faiths, different beliefs and ideas,' she says. 'You cannot, like children, say "the Arab world, the British world". Is there someone who is artificially British like that? I doubt that.
'It is not accurate to label the Arab world as one big block. It is not accurate to label Islam, the Islamic world, as one big block, as I'm sure that Europe is not labelled. It is just Europe - made up of several countries, various cultures, various civilisations, histories and even languages. The Arab world is very similar.
'The Arab world is not just one block. We're all human beings, we all wish for prosperity, we all wish for better health for our children, better education for our children; for better standards of living and quality of life regardless of where we live, and that is really what unites us. The differences - if you want to call them differences - are just a misunderstanding. Civilisation is humanity. I think we all want the same thing.'