Iran · Pocket Profiles

Pocket Profile – Princess Fawzia

I’ll tell you upfront, it’s not an entirely happy story we embark on here. Princess Fawzia lived both a charmed life and a cautionary tale, and her story is a mirror on the changing roles of Egypt and Egyptian women throught the twentieth century.

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Princess Fawzia was born in 1921 to Sultan Fuad I, the King of Egypt (among other titles). She had three sisters and a brother, who was the eventual King Farouk I. Her mother was Nazli Sabri, the second, much younger wife of Sultan Fuad. Princess Fawzia was brought up in a sheltered and protected environment, and by all accounts was a happy child, with a lively interest in sports and the outdoors.

Below, Princess Fawzia and her family on vacation in Switzerland in 1938.

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Princess Fawzia was identified as a potential bride for Iran’s Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi by the latter’s father, Reza Shah. The union was considered revolutionary in that the bride was a Sunni Muslim and the Iranian royals were Shia royals. The Pahlavis were relatively new to royaling, having come to power in the coup of 1921. The Egyptian royals were much more established, and that, coupled with the bride’s dazzling beauty, made Fawzia a royal catch.

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King Fuad died in 1936, and Fawzia’s brother Farouk became King. The young king was initially uninterested in having his sister marry into the parvenu Iranian royal family. His ministers eventually persuaded him that the alliance would be advantageous politically, and Fawzia was engaged to Reza at the age of 17. They were married in Egypt a year later, in March 1938. King Farouk was a big spender, and for this important political moment he splashed out on a splendid wedding with a twenty course dinner.

Below, Princess Fawzia is shown at her wedding celebrations in Cairo and Tehran. In spite of the events being described as lavish in the western press, it’s interesting to note these dresses are more restrained than the Dior creations of the Shah’s second and third wives.

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The young couple are shown below at a state dinner in Egypt, in 1939. Pictured with them is King Farouk’s wife Queen Farida. Fawzia is wearing the Van Cleef & Arpels tiara commissioned at the time of her wedding, and worn at the celebrations in Iran. Queen Farida is wearing her floral tiara.

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Almost immediately, Fawzia experienced issues with her new home. The couple were essentially strangers to each other, having met only once between the engagement and wedding. At the time of their marriage, Reza spoke little Turkish, Fawzia’s primary language, and she was barely competent in his native Persian. They spoke to each other, rather formally, in their second language, French. The Iranian food was strange to her, and the young princess took an immediate dislike to her new father-in-law, who she found violent and frightening. When he died two years later, Reza became king, but the family situation did not improve for Fawzia. Reza’s sisters and mother competed with Fawzia for Reza’s attention, and the situation became so fraught that there was a story of one sister breaking a lamp over Fawzia’s head.

The royal couple had a daughter, Shahnaz, in 1940, but it was not enough to cement their relationship. Fawzia grew increasingly unhappy and withdrawn, attending few court activities, which in turn made her relations with the public in her new country difficult. The Shah was also rumored to be unfaithful, increasing the tensions between the pair. Fawzia lived in constant homesickness for her home country and the situation eventually grew unworkable.

Fawzia, Reza and Shahnaz, 1942

In 1945, Fawzia retreated back to Egypt and her family. She pushed for a divorce, and one was granted in Egypt that year. The divorce was not recognized in Iran, but Fawzia held firm in her conviction that the marriage had to end. In 1948, the Shah bowed to the inevitable, and the marriage was dissolved in Iran. As a result of the divorce, Fawzia had to allow Shahnaz to be raised in Iran, a situation which caused intense personal unhappiness for the Princess.

Below, Fawzia in 1947 with her sister, Faiza, after leaving Iran and Shahnaz.

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Fawzia’s brother Farouk also divorced in 1948, and Fawzia became the de facto female head of the Egyptian court. In 1949, she married for love, to Ismail Chirine, a Cambridge educated Egyptian and an accomplished man in his own right. Eventually, they had two children. She and Ismail spent some summers in Switzerland, where she was able to see her daughter Shahnaz.

Rather incredibly, there was more tragedy to come in Fawzia’s life. Her mother and sister, Fathia, moved to the U.S. in 1950, converted to Christianity, and were stripped of their titles by King Farouk. Fathia had defied the royal family by marrying a Coptic Christian, and Nazli had supported her. As a result, they were estranged from the rest of the family for many years. In 1976 Fathia was murdered by her ex-husband.

Fawzia and Ismail, 1950. Wikimedia Commons

In 1952, the Egyptian revolution unseated King Farouk whose ineffectual governing, wild spending and dissolute lifestyle had caused great political unrest. The King and his family went into exile, but Fawzia and her husband rode out the revolution. Fawzia retired to a private life, residing in Alexandria until her death in 2013.

It’s no exaggeration to say she was the Princess Diana of her time. She was on the cover of magazines, most notably Life, and if Instagram had been around she would have been the Queen of that platform. She had a happy, untroubled childhood. She was beautiful, rich and glamorous, but her trajectory proved that arranged marriages are often not fairytales, or even workable arrangements. Ultimately, she proved herself to be a survivor, evolving over the years from pampered princess to shrewd operator who managed to navigate successfully through personal scandal, child custody battles, family tragedy and political revolutions. Not an unrelieved happy story, but one for the history books.