50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Farah Pahlavi

Many have compared the life Farah Diba to fables and fairy tales: A simple girl who was studying architecture in Paris, babysitting to pay her way, and then she suddenly became the queen of Iran. Her happy ending, however, came to an end with the Islamic revolution of 1979.

She was born Farah Diba on October 14, 1938 in Tehran to an upper-class family. Her father was a graduate of the French military academy at St. Cyr and served as an officer in the Iranian military. She was the couple’s only child.

She was immediately accepted into the École Spéciale d’Architecture in Paris after graduating from the French high school Razi in Tehran in 1958, where she was the school’s top student.

The shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, had been married twice. He had no male heir, only a daughter from his first marriage to the Egyptian princess Fawzia Fuad. His daughter Shahnaz was married to Ardeshir Zahedi, later a foreign minister, and it was he who introduced Farah to the shah. In his memoir, he wrote that Farah had gone to him because of a problem with her scholarship and he had been impressed by her. Zahedi knew that the shah was looking for a wife and arranged a meeting between them at his villa in northern Tehran.

Mohammad Reza Shah and Farah Diba were married in December 1959. They had two sons, Reza and Ali-Reza, and two daughters, Farahnaz and Leila.

In 1961, the shah began implementing a process to change the constitution so that if the crown prince were to become the king before he turned 20, his mother would function as the viceroy until he came of age. In 1967, she was crowned Empress Regent.

Farah Pahlavi was committed to promoting arts and culture in Iran. Under her patronage, numerous organizations and festivals were launched, including the Shiraz Arts Festival which, became an international event in the 10 years leading up to the revolution; a vibrant Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults; the Tehran Museum of Modern Arts, which even now hosts one of the best collections of twentieth-century art; Tehran’s City Theater, and a long list of other institutions and museums designed to preserve Iranian cultural heritage and introduce Iranians to contemporary arts and culture.

Farah Pahlavi also made efforts to improve the lot of Iranian women. It is believed that she was instrumental in passing the 1975 Law to Protect Families which, although far from perfect, gave more say to women in courts when it came to matters of divorce and a husband’s decision to take multiple wives. After the Islamic Revolution, this law was the first law annulled by the new government.

Farah Pahlavi’s circle of acquaintances mostly comprised of young people and some of her classmates from Paris. This did not meet with the approval of courtiers, or with the shah himself. In his memoirs, Asadollah Alam, a former prime minister and a confidant of the shah, recalls that in many of his conversations, the shah dismissed his wife’s friends as “mere intellectuals” who had no understanding of political reality.

Alam, who was the Minister of Royal Court from 1967 to 1977, was a competitor of Amir Abbas Hoveyda, the prime minister from 1965 to 1977. He wrote that Farah Pahlavi supported Hoveyda, along with the shah, keeping Hoveyda in his job even though Alam believed he was ineffectual.

As the revolution was picking up momentum, the shah decided to declare a state of
emergency and appointed a military government. According to the memoirs of Ahmad-Ali Masoud Ansari, a cousin of Farah Pahlavi, his wife forced the shah to choose a general other than the one he wanted, and asked him to read a statement on television that contained the now-famous sentence “I heard the voice of your revolution, too.” Ahmad-Ali Masoud Ansari wrote that afterwards, the shah told Farah repeatedly that she had forced him “to commit my biggest political mistake in life.”

A short while before the fall of the monarchy, Farah Pahlavi left Iran with the shah. After his death, she took up residence in the United States and France. Her memoirs, An Enduring Love: My Life with the Shah (2003), was a best-seller in Europe and, as expected, led to strong reactions around the world, both positive and negative. Elaine Sciolino of the New York Times wrote: “Farah Diba is so full of anger and bitterness that her memoir distorts more than it enlightens.” Publishers Weekly, however, called it a “candid, straightforward account.”

In exile, Farah Pahlavi lost two of her children to suicide. First, her daughter Leila, who was suffering from severe depression, took her life by swallowing 270 sleeping pill in 2001. In 2008 she gave an interview about her daughter’s suicide to the US network NBC. Then, in 2010, her son Ali-Reza, also suffering from depression, shot himself.

In spite of her personal tragedies, Farah Pahlavi is still active. She regularly agrees to interviews, contributes and promotes charity causes and, once in a while, she is invited to royal events in Europe, such as the 2004 wedding of Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark.

She has a comfortable life, but as she told one interviewer, “It is a beautiful home, but not my home.”

The Empress (far left) and her family today

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