Do you think that our nation from the outset needs only men to serve it? Women should also take their part as women did in the early years of our nation and Islam … we should all attempt to acquire as much knowledge as possible.Queen Soraya 1926 Speech
She was Queen Consort of Afghanistan, a title she held for a mere ten years. For that decade, she blazed a path of progressive glory, stumbled in a public and dramatic manner, only to be nearly forgotten by history a mere eighty years later. An intellectual, a reformer, a fashionista, and a powerful consort. Let’s take a look.
Soraya Tarzi – ملکه ثريا – was born in 1899, in Damascus, Syria, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. She was the daughter of the exiled intellectual Mahmud Tarzi and his feminist wife, Asma Rasmya. Soraya grew up in a learned and cultural family. Not only was her father a worldly man, fluent in eight languages, but her mother was also highly educated. In tandem with her daughter’s rise, Asma would eventually forge a career as an editor and school principal.
In 1901 the reform-minded Emir of Afghanistan, Habibullah Khan, issued a general amnesty to members of the Afghan diaspora. The Tarzi family moved back to the country and Mahmud Tarzi was offered a position in government, where he began to promote his progressive views. The family interacted frequently with the reigning Afghan royal family. Through her family, Soraya met and fell in love with Amanullah Khan, the Kings’ son.
They married on Aug. 30, 1913. Soraya was very young, yet her influence (and to be fair, that of her father and mother as well) was felt by young prince Amanullah. In 1919, after taking the reigns of the country, he dissolved the traditional royal harem and freed the enslaved women. And that was only the beginning of change.
Almost immediately Emir (later King) Amanullah, counseled by his father-in-law, invaded British India. This war, known within Afghanistan as the War of Independence and externally as the Third Anglo-Afghan War, was won by the Afghans and freed them from British rule. Amanullah and Soraya were ready to institute reforms, most particularly for the women.
In addition to campaigning against polygamy, the Queen and King advocated women come out from behind the veil. The family were conservative Sunni Muslims, but the royal women rarely wore veils in the royal complex. In public it was a different story. As a compromise between conservative requirements and her progressive ideals, the Queen initially wore wide-brimmed hats with sheer veils in public. Later, she went so far as to “tear off the veil” entirely.
Soraya was also fond of jewelry, and like many of the royal women would wear lots of jewels when not in public. There are photos of the Queen in two different tiaras and with bejeweled fingers and wrist. To the end of her life, she enjoyed adding a jewel or two to her lapels or hats. This was not well received in some quarters of the country, where people were desperately poor and women were expected to remain behind the household doors.
The Queen acted as the Minister of Education and was the patron of the first primary school for girls, Masturat School, which opened in Kabul in 1921. Eventually, fifteen students from the school were sent to Turkey to continue their education. This set off alarm bells in the conservative quarters of the country, and they would begin to toll louder and louder as more reforms unrolled. Undeterred, in 1924 the Queen opened the first hospital for women, the Masturat Hospital, and shockingly, gave a public speech in 1926 on the seventh anniversary of the country’s independence.
The reforms primarily affected wealthy and middle-class women, while much of the rest of the country remained poor. To many Afghans, there were no positives and the negatives were legion. The new order was disrupting established and traditional routines and beliefs.
In 1927 and 1928, the royal couple embarked on a six-month tour of Europe. This expensive visit was not viewed favorably by the dissenters of reform in the very poor country. The Queen, who did not hide her interest in fashion, had an extensive Western wardrobe designed, fur and sumptuous fabrics were featured prominently. In Europe, the Queen and King were greeted with delight, even rapture. Crowds in London, Paris, and even Moscow, embraced the fashionable royal couple.
Far from being a success at home, however, it was clear that the tour was an expensive and crucial miscalculation. It was too costly, it was too western. There were many complicated political and cultural issues that were debated, among them the shocking nature of Saroya’s direct interaction with men. The couple’s enemies – of which there were many, from many different factions – took advantage of their absence to incite the forces against them. The couple returned in July 1928 to a country roiled with strife. All the progressive reforms were quickly rolled back and the girls’ schools closed. Polygamy returned and the veil was seen on all women in public.
The King was forced to abdicate in January 1929. The government that replaced him lasted only 10 months, and eventually, Nadir Shah seized power. The King and Queen fled to Rome, where they lived out their lives in a much quieter manner. They had a large family, raising ten children, including six daughters and four sons.
Amanullah died in 1960 and Queen Soraya in 1968. Public opinion had softened in the 40 years since she fled. She was given a state funeral in Afghanistan and was interred in the family’s mausoleum in the Amir Shaheed gardens in Jalalabad. The woman who was born and died in exile was finally allowed to rest at home.