The Eva Perón of Afghanistan

Queen Soraya Tarzi’s outsize role in modernizing Afghanistan in the 1920s

The Eva Perón of Afghanistan
Postcard of Princess Consort of Afghanistan (later Queen) Soraya Tarzi (1899 – 1968), 1920 / Rykoff Collection / Getty Images

In the mid-1920s, King Amanullah of Afghanistan stood before an audience at his palace in Kabul to give a speech on the many ways forward for his kingdom. Speaking slowly and with carefully chosen words, he said, “Islam does not require women to cover their bodies or wear any kind of veil.” He gave an example of Prophet Muhammad’s wives, who took part in battles unveiled, and he made specific reference to the prophet’s first wife, Khadijah, who was a wealthy businessperson who bankrolled his career both before and after the birth of Islam. Standing next to the king was his wife, Queen Soraya Tarzi, who was to Amanullah what Khadijah was to the prophet. As her husband finished his speech, the queen smiled and looked at the king with pride and affection as she gently tore off her veil, sending shockwaves throughout Afghan society.

The choreographed scene was not captured on film but passed on by word of mouth from one generation of Afghans to another. Many are referring to it today as the country passes through yet another juncture in its long history, with the Taliban returning to power in Kabul. Soraya’s audacious act was probably influenced by the famous Egyptian feminist Huda Shaarawi, who famously took off her veil in 1923, encouraging Muslim women to follow her example. Soraya was one of the thousands who took their cue from Shaarawi and yet her courage was exceptional, given that her father worked in the liberal field of education and she had received an Islamic education during her teens — not in Kabul, but in Damascus — the city where she was born and raised.

Soraya was the daughter of an Afghan intellectual named Mahmud Tarzi (1865-1933), often referred to as the father of Afghan journalism. He toured Arab cities and settled in Damascus in 1891 where, after the death of his Afghan wife, he married into a Syrian family.

Damascus of the 1890s was a city undergoing its own transformation, shocked out of its stuffy Puritanism by revolutionary scholars, intellectuals, artists and foreigners living in the city. One particular revolutionary was Abu Khalil al-Qabbani (great-grandfather of Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani), a turbaned actor, director and musician who established the Arab world’s first musical theater in Damascus in the 1870s. He clashed with Salafi fundamentalists who convinced Ottoman Sultan Abdul-Hamid II that acting and dancing were haram, forcing him to relocate to Egypt. Al-Qabbani eventually returned to his native Damascus and resumed his musicals, which must have been attractive entertainment to a worldly figure like Mahmud Tarzi.

Western sources indicate that Tarzi married the daughter of Saleh al-Mossadegh, the muezzin of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Local sources claim, however, that his Syrian wife (Soraya’s mother) hailed from the Fattal family of Aleppo and that her father worked at the Grand Mosque of Aleppo. Reaching out to the queen’s relatives, we were able to confirm that Soraya’s grandfather was indeed a Damascene and not an Aleppine, who worked at the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus. Saleh Fattal hailed from the Amara neighborhood of Damascus, perched within the high walls of the Old City and home of the city’s ulema. Members of the queen’s family still live in Damascus and go by the name of Tarazi (rendered so locally from Tarzi). One of them, Salah al-Din, was a former Syrian ambassador to the United Nations, then a judge at the International Court of Justice.

Soraya was born in Damascus on Nov. 24, 1899. She grew up within the cobbled alleys of the Old City and was tutored by her father before being sent to the religious classes of Sheikh Badr al-Din al-Hasani, the most respected theologian of his generation, whose son, Taj al-Din, went on to become president of Syria in 1941. The connection to Sheikh Badr al-Din might be surprising to many, since rather than indoctrinating her into wearing the veil and leading a conservative lifestyle, it had the opposite effect.

Soraya visited Afghanistan for the very first time as a teenager with her father, where she met Prince Amanullah Khan at the Qawm-i-Bagh Palace in Kabul. They fell in love and eventually married, and she became queen of Afghanistan after her husband ascended the throne in 1926. Soraya stipulated that Amanullah not take on another wife, which he immediately accepted, although polygamy is permitted in Islam and men are allowed up to four wives at a time.

Kabul at the time was a strange mix of splendor and wealth on the one hand and extreme poverty on the other. Having gained independence from the British Empire in 1919, it still enjoyed much of the European ways of life brought to Afghanistan by the British, from cafés, photography studies, fashionable shops and palatial hotels to sports clubs and cinemas. As in the homes of most of the city’s aristocrats, Amanullah’s large and spacious two-story mansion was itself a work of art; brimming with lemon trees, an extravagant courtyard and gushing crystal water from fountains, it reflected the fabled beauty of Kabul.

Although women were allowed to appear in public without the veil, many continued to wear one out of respect for tradition. They had no say in family budgeting, politics or social affairs, living invisibly and yet seemingly willingly, in the shadow of their fathers, husbands and brothers — until Soraya graced the scene with her husband.

As queen, Soraya played an instrumental role in modernizing the country, becoming to Afghanistan what Eva Perón was to Argentina. Amanullah would often joke, “I am your king, but my minister of education is my wife.” They went horseback riding and on hunting trips together, and she would often attend cabinet meetings to advise on women empowerment and education, which became her two hallmarks. She worked with Amanullah on Afghanistan’s first constitutions in 1921 and 1923 while campaigning strongly against both the veil and polygamy.

Soraya was an advocate for the education of girls. She sent 15 Afghan girls on government scholarships to study in Turkey and established Afghanistan’s first primary school for girls, Masturat, in 1920. Another school followed in 1921, along with the Masturat Hospital for Women, which was inaugurated in 1924. She also founded Afghanistan’s first women’s magazine, Ershad-I-Niswan (Guidance for Women) as well as an organization for women’s rights called Anjuman-i Himayat-i-Niswan (Protection of Women). Meanwhile, her Syrian mother, Asma Rasmiyya Khanom, edited the Afghan women’s magazine Ishadul Naswan, to which Soraya would often contribute articles on women’s rights and empowerment. In 1928 Soraya was awarded an honorary degree from Oxford University. As part of a project to spotlight the achievements and influence of women, in 2020 Time magazine recognized Saraya for her advocacy of women’s rights.

As part of her campaign for women’s rights, Soraya sent a delegation of Afghan women to Damascus in 1930 to attend the first conference for Oriental women. The event was chaired by Safwat Mardam Bey, the wife of Jamil Mardam Bey, who went on to serve as prime minister of Syria for two terms. Soraya was two years Safwat’s junior, and they had first met in Damascus as children in the early 1900s.

The conference was held at the Azm Palace in the Bzurieh Market, home of the 18th-century Azm governors of Damascus. It was attended by two Afghan women named Yousra Adib Khan and Maasumah Khanom. They lodged at the Mardam Bey Palace in the Hamidieh Market, facing the old Damascus Bourse. Maasumah Khanom stayed in Damascus, marrying a relative of Soraya’s mother from the Fattal family. In 1927, Maasumah Khanom gave birth to a son named Diaullah Fattal, who went on to become Syria’s ambassador to the U.N. in the 1990s.

Amanullah was forced to abdicate the throne in 1929. The royal couple went first to British India and then settled in Rome. He died in Zurich in 1960, eight years before his wife.

To many, Soraya’s story might sound like intellectual history, perched comfortably in the past and unrelated to what is happening in Afghanistan today. A closer look, however, shows plenty of relevance, not only to Afghanistan but also to Syria. After once positioning themselves as beacons of modernity and progress, both countries have been knocked off track by years of war, poverty and chaos, and women’s rights have suffered. If Soraya were to see Kabul or Damascus today, she would not recognize either city.

Last week, the Taliban overran the capital of Afghanistan and pledged to restore the veil. Much debate is currently underway within the Taliban on whether to allow women to study and join the workforce or to keep them secluded behind the high walls of their homes. Both rights, granted under Soraya and Amanullah, had been famously prohibited by the Taliban during their previous tenure in power from 1996 to 2001. Under the first Taliban regime, Afghan women were forced to wear the burqa — a far cry from how Soraya had appeared in public, exactly 100 years ago. Soraya’s story is that of Afghanistan, of how it should have remained rather than what it has become.

But the story of this queen of Afghanistan isn’t only a story of a young woman’s journey from Damascus to Kabul and eventually to Rome. It’s a story of two countries desperate to remake themselves during the interwar years. In the 1930s, they shared a desire to write a new history. For both countries, it has become a story of dreams dashed, reborn and then amputated probably for good.

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