Queen Soraya Of Afghanistan: The First Feminist

How easy it is for today’s feminists to preach about feminism when women’s rights have been won in the West for years and there is nothing to fight for. Equality is simply having the same rights and responsibilities, and from that point on, let the best win.

This article is about an extraordinary Afghan woman. The Taliban, her country’s current rulers, have virtually erased her from the history books. You rarely think of Afghanistan and feminism in the same breath, unless you use the country as an example of one of the worst places in the world for women to live. But buried in Afghan history is a woman who deserves to be hailed as one of the world’s first feminists: a heroine to the women of this country for what she achieved and for the future she dreamed of. She is just one part of Afghanistan’s forgotten history. It may seem that Afghanistan has always been a country of misogyny and machismo. But in the 1920s there was a woman who wanted to break the established rules and revolutionise the country with her progressive ideas: Soraya Tarzi, who, when she married, was to become Queen Soraya of Afghanistan.

She was born and died in exile. But during the 10 controversial years she spent as Queen of Afghanistan, Soraya Tarzi offered the women of her country a tantalising vision of an emancipated future that, a century later, has yet to be realised. She was born in Damascus in 1899. It was a cosmopolitan city where intellectuals from all over the Muslim world were trying to shake off the more conservative ideas of primitive puritanism. The daughter of Mahmud Beg Tarzi, an Afghan intellectual, considered the father of journalism in Afghanistan, she spent the first years of her life in exile and thus grew up in a very modern environment, with liberal ideas contributing to her education and later impulses to improve the lives of women.

When King Habinullah Khan came to power in 1901, he allowed the Tarzi family to return to the country. They had been exiled by his father. They settled in Kabul, a city of sharp contrasts, where British influence in the richer areas encouraged a more westernised way of life and clashed with the strong traditionalist sentiments of the poorer areas, where whole families were crammed into small rooms in unhygienic conditions and women were forced to wear the veil.

     Sardar Mahmud Beg Tarzi was an intellectual whose liberal, nationalist ideology was at odds with that of King (Amir) Abdul Rahman Khan, who had been installed by the British in 1880 after the defeat of his predecessor in the Second Anglo-Afghan War. As an exile, Tarzi’s travels in Europe and life in Turkey had broadened his horizons, and he was determined to do the same for his country. His opportunity came in 1901, when he returned from exile.

Although Afghanistan was never officially part of the British Empire, the government considered it a protectorate under a signed treaty. It dictated foreign policy until the third Anglo-Afghan war in 1919, which led to independence. For years, Afghanistan was treated as a pawn in a larger chess game between Russia and Britain.

Soraya Tarzi, the day she met the Crown Prince in 1910
Queen Soraya and King Amanullah

Soraya and Crown Prince Amanullah were married in 1913. Their marriage broke all traditional patterns and customs. Among other things, the marriage became an example of monogamy in a country where it was normal for men to collect wives. In addition, they both wanted to promote women’s education. Their daughters received the same education as any male.

On 20 February 1919, Habibullah Khan was assassinated. Prince Amanullah was proclaimed king. Soraya was now queen and her reformist father, Mahmud Tarzi, became the foreign minister. Events were in motion. On 3 May 1919, King Amanullah took the bold step of invading British India. He was determined to continue the nationalist policies advocated by Tarzi. Better known as the Third Anglo-Afghan War and known in Afghanistan as the War of Independence. It ended by August. Britain, depleted of men and resources by the First World War, agreed to an armistice.

On 22 November 1921, in Kabul, Tarzi and Henry Dobbs, head of the British mission, signed a treaty in which both nations pledged to “respect each other’s rights of internal and external independence”. Afghanistan had finally thrown off the shackles of British imperialism. The foreign minister opened embassies in several European capitals. With the enthusiastic support of the king and queen, he pushed ahead with the modernisation of his country.

He told the young king that the Prophet Muhammad had said that all men and women were created equal and urged them to heed his words. In this spirit, in 1923, they gave the country its first constitution, which guaranteed individual freedoms and fundamental rights: abolishing slavery, providing secular education for both sexes, classes for illiterate and nomadic adults, establishing a Supreme Court and secular courts, abolishing the privileges of kings and tribal leaders, and promoting women’s freedom to choose whether to wear the veil.  But these measures were not to everyone’s taste. At the time, Afghanistan was a country of stark contrasts. Modernity mixed with the conservative aspirations of much of the population. For example, in the same year as the adoption of the constitution, there was the first conservative uprising by the mullahs of the Mangal tribe in Jowzjan.  Although the army managed to put down the rebellion, the monarch decided to amend some points of the Magna Carta to satisfy the insurgents.

Under the patronage of Queen Soraya, who was appointed Minister of Education in 1926, the first primary school for girls, the Masturat School, was opened in Kabul in 1921. Other schools followed, and in 1928, 15 girls from Masturat Middle School, all daughters of prominent Kabul families, were sent to Turkey for further education. Together with her mother, she founded Afghanistan’s first women’s magazine, Guidance for Women, and her whole family dedicated to improving the lot of women: her sisters founded a women’s hospital and a women’s charity. Sadly, the religious conservatives considered all these measures a provocation.

In the words of the scholar Shireen Khan Burki: “The sending of unmarried girls out of the country was viewed with alarm in many quarters as yet another sign that the state was prepared to violate social and cultural norms in its quest for westernisation”.

The queen initiated a great revolution. She succeeded in implementing it through the king. She appeared in public and travelled widely to inform women of their rights and that they should be educated. She also influenced the king, who created new laws that outlawed child marriage, gave women the right to choose who they wanted to marry, made education compulsory for all children, and imposed taxes to discourage polygamy. Queen Soraya also set up an organisation, under the leadership of Amanullah’s sister, to defend women’s rights and provide them with a place to complain about mistreatment or abuse. She was unique for her time: an extremely powerful and exceptional woman. “I am your king, but the Minister of Education is my wife, your queen,” the monarch said in a public appearance in 1926.

Queen Soraya was the first Muslim wife to appear in public with her husband. This was unheard of at the time. She attended hunting parties, horseback rides, and some cabinet meetings with him. With the king, she was present at military parades. During the War of Independence, she visited the tents of wounded soldiers and talked to them and gave them gifts and comfort. Even in some rebellious provinces of the then very dangerous country, she accompanied the king. In a public speech, the king said: “Islam does not require women to cover their bodies or wear any special veils. At the end of the speech, Queen Soraya removed her veil in public, and the wives of other officials present at the meeting followed suit.  In front of the astonished tribal and religious leaders, the queen made another speech. She said the burqa was not an Afghan garment and not even an Islamic garment. Her example created opportunities within Afghan society in the capital that did not exist before, although her influence in the countryside was much more limited. Conservative sectors led by the religious elite did not like it at all.

Queen Soraya broke many rules including being a very good rider
HM Queen Soraya. This portrait was considered scandalous by the fundamentalist religious zealots and the conservative tribal chiefs

In 1926, on the seventh anniversary of Afghanistan’s independence, the queen made a characteristically provocative and inspiring speech: “It (independence) belongs to all of us and that is why we celebrate it. But do you think, however, that our nation needs only men to serve it from the beginning? Women must also take their part as women did in the early years of our nation and of Islam. From their examples we must learn that we must all contribute to the development of  our nation and that this cannot be done without being endowed with knowledge. So we must all try to acquire as much knowledge as possible, so that we can render our services to society in the manner of the women of the early days of Islam.”

In December 1927, the king and queen embarked on a six-month tour of European capitals.  On this trip they were honoured and entertained. Indeed, in 1928 they received honorary degrees from Oxford University. The queen spoke to a large group of students and leaders. It was a time when other Muslim nations, such as Turkey and Egypt, were also modernising. Thus, in Afghanistan, the elite were impressed by these changes and emulated their models of development.

     In England, the couple were met at Dover by the Prince of Wales and transferred by royal train to London, where they were greeted at Victoria Station by King George and Queen Mary. The royal party then travelled in horse-drawn open carriages to Buckingham Palace, passing through streets thronged with cheering crowds. The reception in other European capitals – and in Moscow, a distinctly political stop for the kings of a country that the British saw as a buffer against Soviet ambitions in the region – was equally enthusiastic.

     The fundamentalist tribal leaders took the images and details of the royal family’s trip as a blatant betrayal of Afghan culture, religion, and women’s honour. The circulation of these images from foreign sources can be taken as evidence of British efforts to destabilise 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 the queen’s family, as the main Afghan representative they had to deal with was her father.

     When the royal family returned from Europe, they were met with hostility. The more conservative tribal chiefs revolted and among many demands asked the king to divorce Soraya and send her into exile. The king rejected this demand but tried to appease his critics: secular schools were closed, including girls’ schools, family laws prohibiting polygamy and granting women the right to divorce were repealed, secular courts were dissolved in favour of Sharia courts, and much more. To no avail. By November 1928, Afghanistan was engulfed in a civil war, with opposition forces led by Habibullah Kalakani, the so-called bandit king who was the equivalent of a modern-day Taliban.  King Amanullah abdicated in 1929 to avoid casualties, which his abdication did not prevent. He moved with his queen to British India.

The King visiting the Vatican in 1928
Queen Soraya and Lady Humphry visiting Olympia (London) 1928
Queen Soraya in exile (Rome)
The resting place of the King and Queen

British India. Thousands of Indians applauded the king and queen wherever they went. There was a sense among the Indian people that, with the fall of King Amanullah’s reign, their dream of freedom and liberation from British imperialism was at an end. There were also cheers from Indian women. They wept and shouted the name Soraya”.

After their stay in India, they moved to Rome at the invitation of the Italian royal family. She lived there until her death in 1968.  The funeral cortege was escorted by members of the Italian army to Rome’s airport before being taken to Afghanistan, where a solemn state funeral was held. Queen Soraya was buried in the family mausoleum in Jalalabad. She lay next to the king, who had died eight years earlier.

The radical Kalakani, ruled for only 10 months.  Prince Mohammed Nadir Khan, Amanullah Khan’s cousin, defeated and executed Habibullah Kalakani in November 1929 and was proclaimed king. He began the consolidation of power and the regeneration of the country but did not restore Amanullah Khan’s reforms, though a gradual approach to modernisation was encouraged. In 1933, however, he was assassinated by a Kabul student. His 19-year-old son, Mohammad Zahir Shah, succeeded him on the throne and ruled from 1933 to 1973. Afghanistan regained most of the reforms begun by King Amanullah and Queen Soraya during the last 10 years of his reign.

During his reign, the enlightened King Amanullah took enormous personal and political risks. He failed to reform the Afghan state and society. The king succeeded in placing Afghanistan on the international stage, together with Queen Soraya. He was also a pioneer. He challenged his countrymen to break away from the medieval political and social structures. Unfortunately, the social realities of his extremely conservative, mainly tribal, and geographically remote country were completely divorced from the king’s gender policies.

The tragedy of the reign of Amanullah and Soraya is the same tragedy that befell Shah Reza Palhevi and Empress Farah in Persia fifty years later. They had failed to understand the backwardness of their country. It was a traditional and conservative society. They both acted rashly. This provoked the people and eventually led to revolution. The king was a great reformer, but Soraya was the driving force behind his programme.

The Taliban have reimposed Islamic Sharia law, as they did in the late 1990s. They continue to abuse the human rights of Afghans as they had done in the past, especially against women and girls. They will once again be subject to the will of men.

The two kings: Zahir Shah and Amunallah in Roma in the 50s

They will have no say in any aspect of their lives, condemned to silence and constant harassment. Today, 3.7 million aged between 7 and 15, 60 per cent of them girls, remain out of school.  Ninety years after her attempt to liberate Afghan girls and women ended in an insurgency and a return to a time-honoured system of oppression, Soraya would be saddened to see her beloved country revert to the dark days before her reforms, with the criminal Taliban in power.

Today, Afghans, opposition leaders and especially the youth, need to study King Amanullah rigorously and continuously. The man and his reign embody Afghanistan’s long struggle with modernity. His genuine efforts and sincere words should inspire a new generation to complete the task, even if he did not achieve his dream of a modern Afghanistan. Queen Soraya’s vision and legacy should live on and be an example to many young women leaders today, both in Afghanistan and in other Muslim countries. It should stand strong for generations to come. And to return to the new feminists of the world: If they really believe what they preach, they would do well to loudly denounce the Taliban for their excesses and the Islamisation of our Western societies, which goes against our fundamental values, including women’s rights.  Real feminists would take the example of Queen Soraya of Afghanistan. She was the first feminist in the Muslim world for a reason.

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