Sunday, November 13, 2011

Queen Soraya Tarzi

Today's Awesome Woman is Soraya Tarzi (1899-1968), who after being born in exile and returning with her family to Afghanistan in the early 20th century, married Prince Amanullah. She became Queen when her husband gained his ascendancy in 1926, but their reign lasted only three years before she found herself living out the rest of her life the way she began, as a woman without a country. But she made a mark during those three short years as the first Afghan queen to promote women's rightful place in public life, and she took significant personal risk in acting as the first public role model of a modern Muslim woman.

During the three years that Soraya was Queen of Afghanistan, she took bold steps to modernize the position of Mulsim women in general, and Afghan women in particular. Her husband was receptive to the egalitarian philosophy Soraya had received from her liberal, intellectual family (the reason they had been exiled to begin with). Soraya set many "firsts" -- the first woman to be the only wife of an Afghan King, the first Afghan Queen to accompany her husband as an equal at public events, the first queen to wear Western style clothing, and the first to openly champion the right of women to education and employment. 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.

Influenced by Soraya and her father, King Amanullah campaigned  against the veil, against polygamy, and for the education of girls. At a public function, after her husband said that Islam did not require women to hide behind veils, she tore hers off right at the table. Other women at the event followed suit. While her husband was in the process of having the nation's first Constitution drafted and passed, Soraya publicly exhorted women to take their part in the nation's political life and future.

In 1926, Soraya delivered the following message in a speech commemorating the seventh anniversary of independence from England:
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 1928 honorary degrees were conferred upon both Amanullah and Soraya by Oxford University, and Soraya spoke to a large audience of students and leaders.  However, the British government had an interest in destabilizing Afghanistan, and distributed in the Afghan countryside photos of Soraya having dinner with men other than her husband, having her hand kissed by a Frenchman, and the like.

The British goal of destabilizing the Afghan monarchy was achieved. When the royal family returned from their trip to Oxford, a violent uprising broke out among religious sects and Amanullah was compelled to abdicate to avoid a civil war. After three short years on the throne, he and Soraya left their country for good. Their first stop was India, where they were applauded by thousands. Indians were still under the colonial thumb of Great Britain, and they gained and lost hope for their own cause as the watched Amanullah gain and then lose power to truly make changes happen in Afghanistan. It is said that Indian women gave Soraya a special ovation, calling out "Soraya! Soraya!" without mentioning "Queen."

Soraya Tarzi lived out the last 40 years of her life in Italy, with her family who were living there in exile once again. She only returned to Afghanistan in a coffin in 1968, where she was given a state funeral and buried next to Amanullah.