M Ali Siddiqi looks at a tragic life
Empress Farah of Iran – Empress Farah Pahlavi of Iran was once the most sought after personality of the world and she moved with tremendous grace and poise from country to country. From the 1960s to the end of the 1970s, this lady was one of the most illustrious in the world and was the epitome of glamour and grace. She was the third wife of Iranian monarch Mohammed Reza Pahlavi who elevated her to the position of Shahbanu or Empress after she bore him a male heir. Born as Farah Diba in Tehran on 14 October, 1938 she grew up in an upper-class Iranian family. Farah was the only child of Captain Sohrab Diba and his wife, Farideh Ghotbi. The wealth in the family came from her father’s side. Her paternal grandfather had been the Persian Ambassador to the Romanov Court in Russia. Her father was an officer high up in the Iranian Imperial Armed Forces.
Her family held a good deal of influence and was known to be rich. In 1948, when she was just 10 years of age, Farah’s father unexpectedly passed away. In addition, the financial situation of her family deteriorated as from a large villa, they had to move into a shared apartment with Farah’s uncle. The young Farah Diba went to primary and secondary schools of international allure. She then went to Paris for a study of architecture at the École Spéciale d’Architecture. Despite the family’s fall from affluence she could live quite a comfortable life.
Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was almost 40 when he met the 21-year-old Farah at the Parisian embassy. Known to be a womanizer, Mohammed Reza had been married twice. The first marriage had been geopolitical in nature when he married, Princess Fawzia, the sister of the Egyptian king and the Shah allegedly cheated on her a lot. His second wife Soraya, then, was forced to divorce the Shah because she could not give him children. They really loved each other and she never remarried. The Shah’s 19-year-old daughter, a child from his first marriage, took a liking to the beautiful young woman and allegedly encouraged her father to marry Farah. When the Shah made a state visit to France in 1959, Farah and a few other Iranian exchange students met with him in the Iranian embassy in Paris and the affair between them began. She was really still just a college kid, 21 years catapulted from the university to the imperial palace.
In December 1959, Farah Diba married Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. She wore a spectacular dress by designer Yves Saint Laurent. The whole world followed the glamorous wedding. Farah now had the title ‘Queen of Iran,’ as was common for the Shah’s wife. Later she would be upgraded to shahbanu (empress), which was a first in modern Iranian history. The Shah liked tall women like Farah, but he did not want them to tower over him. He reportedly wore elevated shoes to look taller. The couple’s photos were often taken on a staircase with the Shah standing one step higher than the Queen. With the Shah, the young Farah led a luxurious life filled with travels, sports, arts, and designer clothes.
Farah Pahlavi was fashionable, wearing the latest styles in hair, makeup, and clothing. She could easily be compared to Jackie Kennedy. Both Farah and her husband were much oriented toward the Western world. They wanted to live like Americans and Europeans and they wanted Iran to resemble Western societies. The relief at the court was great when in 1960 Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi was born. He was a healthy boy and could continue the Pahlavi dynasty. Having delivered on her most important task, providing an heir, Farah Pahlavi could now begin to think of the other things she would like to do as the Queen of Iran.
Farah was not allowed to take a political stance in the country’s affairs, but she did influence society by founding an American-style university in which more Iranian women could pursue a degree. A modern woman, she advocated a more important position for women in Iran. Besides the US, France was very important to the Shah and his wife. Farah and Mohammed Reza were said to speak French to their children instead of Farsi. Farah’s increasing influence at the Iranian court did not appeal to everyone. Shah Mohammed Reza’s twin sister, Princess Ashraf, wanted her brother to limit the social activities of his wife. Still, Farah continued to be one of the best-known members of the Persian court. She worked at several charities and visited people across the country.
Behind the image of glamour and modernity, the Shah built an increasingly authoritarian government in Iran. He was seen as an authoritarian leader, somewhat of a macho man, and a strongman against communism in Western Asia. Six years earlier, he had overthrown the elected prime minister, Mossadegh with support from the CIA. He disposed of the two-party system in 1975. In addition, according to Amnesty International, he oversaw the highest number of executions in the world. After years of mounting dissent from the working class, religious groups and the merchant elite, Shi’a Islamists led by Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the monarchy in January of 1979. Its incredible decadence and lack of understanding of its people had finished off the Persian dynasty. To avoid execution, the Pahlavis had to flee the country immediately.
There were only a few friendly countries willing to offer temporary asylum to the Shah and his family. The disgraced monarch got sick and died on 27 July, 1980 in Egypt. Farah and the children were left to fend for themselves. Farah, Leila, and her son Reza (the former Crown Prince) went to the United States to build their new lives there. In 2001 Farah suffered a hard blow. Leila, her youngest daughter had struggled with anorexia and depression for a long time and was found dead in a hotel room. Leila was only 31 years old. Ten years later, Farah’s third child, Ali, would take his own life near his house in Boston, Massachusetts. The Pahlavi family, banned from their empire in 1979, exiled and rejected by countries all over the world, was still dealing with great hardships in the 21st century. Farah Diba Pahlavi recovered, though, and has become a familiar face at high-society events in Europe and the US. Her book, the memoir ‘An Enduring Love: My Life with the Shah,’ came out in 2003 and was an instant best-seller in Europ. The Weekender