Saturday, August 28, 2010

Queen Of The Dessert: Soraya Tarzi, Queen of Afghanistan

Soraya Tarzi
24.XI.1899 – 20.IV.1968
Queen Of Aghanistan

Sorya was the Queen of Afghanistan in the early 20th century and the wife of King Amānullāh Khān. She is the only woman to appear on the list of rulers in Afghanistan, although wife of King Amānullāh Khān. Born in Syria, she was educated by her father who was the famed Afghan leader and intellectual Sardar Mahmud Tarzi. She belonged to the Mohammadzai Pashtun tribe, a powerful sub-tribe of the Barakzai dynasty. She is credited to be one of the first and most powerful Afghan and Muslim female activists

Soraya Tarzi was born on November 24, 1899, in Damascus, Syria. She is the daughter of the famed Afghan political figure, Sardar Mahmud Tarzi, and grand the granddaughter of Sardar Ghulam Muhammad Tarzi. She studied in Syria, learning western and modern values there, which would influence her future actions and beliefs.

When Amanullah's father (Habibullah Khan) became the King of Afghanistan in October of 1901, one of his most important contributions to his nation was the return of Afghan exiles, specifically that of the Tarzi family and others. This is because the Tarzi family were for the modernization of Afghanistan. Upon her family's return to Afghanistan, Soraya Tarzi would later meet and marry King Amānullāh Khān.

Afghan Royal Family

After the Tarzi's returned to Afghanistan, they were received at Court as wished by the Amir Habibullah Khan. This is where Soraya Tarzi met Prince Amānullāh Khān, son of the Amir Habibullah Khan. They struck an affinity. The prince, who was a sympathiser of Mahmud Tarzi's liberal ideas, married Soraya Tarzi in 1913. Soraya Tarzi was King Amānullāh Khān's only wife, which broke centuries of tradition. It was when she married into the monarchy that she grew to be one of the region's most important figures.

When the prince became Amir in 1919 and subsequently King in 1926, the Queen had an important role in the evolution of the Country, always close to her husband. He had her take part in all national events. He was said, ”I am your king, but the minister of Education is my wife, your Queen...”. Queen Soraya was the first Muslim consort who appeared in public together with her husband, unheard of at the time. She participated with him in the hunting parties, riding on horseback, and in some Cabinet meetings. She was present at Military Parades with the king. During the war of Independence, she visited the tents of wounded soldiers, talked to them, offered them presents and comfort. She accompanied the king even in some rebellious provinces of the country which was a very dangerous thing to do at that time.

Queen Soraya On Horseback

In England to receive an Honorary Degree from Oxford University As Queen of Afghanistan, she was not only filling a position - but became one of the most influential women in the world at the time.

Because of the reform King Amānullāh Khān brought, the country's religious sect grew violent. In 1929, the King abdicated in order to prevent a civil war and went into exile. Their first stop was India, still part of the British Empire. There, the sovereigns were applauded everywhere they went by thousands of Indian people. The Indian people felt they had lost their dream of freedom and liberation from British Emperialism with the fall of King Amānullāh Khān's reign. There was also ovation from the Indian women who were crying and shouting the name of "Soraya" without mentioning "Queen."

King Amānullāh Khān

Amānullāh Khān drew up the first constitution, establishing the basis for the formal structure of the government and setting up the role of the monarch within the constitutional framework. Amānullāh Khān was influenced and encouraged by Mahmud Tarzi in his endeavors. Tarzi was specifically instrumental in designing and implementing changes pertaining to women through his personal example of monogamy, education and employment of female family members and their unveiled public appearances. His daughter, Queen Soraya Tarzi would be the face of this change. Another daughter of Tarzi‘s married Amānullāh Khān‘s brother. Thus, it is not surprising that Tarzi‘s sophisticated and liberal intellectual ideology blossomed and concretely embedded itself in Amānullāh Khān‘s reign.

King Amānullāh Khān publicly campaigned against the veil, against polygamy, and encouraged education of girls not just in Kabul but also in the countryside. At a public function, Amānullāh Khān said that "Islam did not require women to cover their bodies or wear any special kind of veil." At the conclusion of the speech, Queen Soraya tore off her "veil" in public and the wives of other officials present at the meeting followed this example. Throughout her husband‘s reign, Queen Soraya, wore wide-brimmed hats with a diaphanous veil attached to them. Many women from Amānullāh Khān‘s family publicly participated in organizations and went on to become government officials later in life.

With the help of Queen Soraya, women were encouraged to get an education and in that attempt, 15 young women were sent to Turkey for higher education in 1928. Soraya was very instrumental in enforcing change for women and publicly exhorted them to be active participants in nation building. In 1926, at the 7th anniversary of Independence from the Brits, Soraya in a public speech delivered the following message:

“It (Independence) belongs to all of us and that is why we celebrate it. Do you think, however, 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. From their examples we must learn that we must all contribute toward the development of our nation and that this cannot be done without being equipped with knowledge. So we should all attempt to acquire as much knowledge as possible, in order that we may render our services to society in the manner of the women of early Islam.”

In 1927 and 1928 Amānullāh Khān and his wife Soraya visited Europe. On this trip they were honored and feted. In fact, in 1928 the King and Queen received honorary degrees from Oxford University. The Queen spoke to a large group of students and leaders. This was an era when other Muslim nations, like Turkey and Egypt were also on the path to modernization. Hence, in Afghanistan, the elite was impressed by such changes and emulated their development models. However, the time was not right. Not only did conservative Muslims disagree with the changes, the British distributed pictures of Soraya without a veil, dining with foreign men, and having her hand kissed by the leader of France, Germany, etc. among tribal regions of Afghanistan. Conservative mullahs and regional leaders took the images and details from the royal family's trip to be a flagrant betrayal of Afghan culture, religion and "honor" of women. One can take the circulation of such images from foreign sources as evidence of British efforts to destabilize the Afghan monarchy, the first of many international attempts to keep the country in political, social and economic turmoil. The British did not have a good relationship with Soraya's family as a whole, for the chief representative of Afghanistan that they had to deal with was her father, Mahmud Tarzi. When the royal family returned from Europe, they were met with hostility and eventually forced out of office.

In 1929 the King abdicated in order to prevent a civil war and went into exile. Queen Soraya lived in Rome, Italy with her family in exile, having been invited by Italy, which was a monarchy at that time.

She died on the 20th of April, 1968 in Rome, Italy.

The funeral was escorted by the Italian military team to the Rome airport, before being taken to Afghanistan where a solemn state funeral was held. She is buried in the family mausoleum in Jalalabad next to her husband the King, who had died eight years earlier. 


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