Soraya Tarzi – A champion of women’s rights




(public domain)

“Soraya was the first Afghan lady and queen who began to promote women, educate them and try to give them their rights.”1

The future Queen Soraya of Afghanistan was born as Soraya Tarzi on 24 November 1899 as the daughter of Mahmud Tarzi and Asma Rasmiya Khanum. Her family was living in exile at the time – the Tarzi family had been expelled from Afghanistan after Emir Abdur Rahman Khan came to power in 1881. The future Queen was thus born in Damascus in Syria, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire.

Her father was a noted intellectual, and he introduced her to the Western ideas of education and culture. She would take these ideas with her back to the more conservative Afghanistan when the family was invited to return when Habibullah Khan succeeded his father as Emir in 1901.

Soraya eventually met the Emir’s third son Amanullah, who was 7 years her senior, and they were married sometime in the summer of 1913. He had been married twice before. His first marriage had been at the age of 16 to a girl whose name is not left to us. The marriage lasted just a few days and ended in divorce. At the age of 18, he married Shahzada Khanum, who died giving birth to their only son Hidayatullah. Both had been arranged marriages. At the time of his wedding to Soraya, his older half-brother Inayatullah married Soraya’s sister.2

Amanullah was installed as the governor of Kabul, and he had control of the army and the treasury, and he also gained the allegiance of most of the tribal leaders. Soraya gave birth to at least ten children, though not all would live to adulthood.

His father was assassinated in 1919 during a hunting trip. Amanullah had two older brothers and an uncle who also had a claim to the throne, but Afghan tribal customs did not recognise primogeniture – though it was customary for younger sons to defer to older ones – and so Amanullah decided to seize power for himself. As governor of Kabul, he was in quite a powerful position to do so, and he was successful.3

Despite his rocky road to the throne, Amanullah was initially popular with the Afghan people. Both he and Soraya promoted economic and social reforms. Unusually, Soraya was his only wife, and they both actively denounced polygamy. Soraya accompanied her husband and public, and she did not wear a veil. She established the first school for girls in the country and also provided scholarships for older girls to go and study abroad. Her husband even appointed her as minister of education. However, their rapid plans for modernisation backfired some as well and led to the Khost rebellion, which was suppressed in 1925. In 1926, Afghanistan became a Kingdom, and Amanullah was declared King, with Soraya as his Queen.

Queen Soraya, her mother and various other members of the royal family actively campaigned for the rights of women. One of this King’s sisters headed the formation of the Women’s Protective Association, and women were encouraged to protest against any injustices suffered at the hands of their husbands or other men.4 Queen Soraya also became known for her speeches, much to the horror of the more conservative tribes.5 In 1926, she said, “Do not think… that our nation needs only men to serve it. Women should also take their part as women did in the early years of Islam. The valuable services rendered by women are recounted throughout history, from which we learn that women were not created solely for pleasure and comfort. From their examples, we learn that we must all contribute toward the development of our nation and that this can not be done without being equipped with knowledge.”6 Soraya appeared in public without a veil and even attended a session of parliament with her daughters, all without veils.7 She also founded the first magazine for women, and her mother became its managing editor.

In 1927, the new King and Queen went on a grand tour of Europe and the Middle East. During this tour, Soraya was granted an honorary degree from Oxford University. They also met with the Pope and several leaders from various European countries. However, their absence from Afghanistan led to an uprising. Shortly after their return in 1928, Jalalabad fell, and the army deserted Amanullah. The tribes demanded that Amanullah would divorce Queen Soraya and banish the entire Tarzi family, among other things.

He was eventually forced to abdicate, and the family went into exile in India, where Soraya gave birth to a daughter she would name for the country of their first exile – Princess India. They eventually moved to Italy, where they settled. However, not much is known about their life in exile. The New York Times reported in September 1929 that the royal couple had converted to Catholicism8, though this was later confirmed not be true with Queen Soraya reportedly saying, “We were born Mussulmans, we will die Mussulmans.”9 In 1979, long after they were both dead, the New York Times wrote, “King Amanullah bought a villa in Rome’s Prati district near the Vatican. For years people in the neighbourhood said he had arrived with ‘crates of jewels’, which he was slowly selling. King Amanullah was said to have manoeuvred to regain his throne with Nazi help during World War II. Hitler’s defeat ended that dream. Relatives of King Amanullah still live in Italy, including a daughter who is married to an Italian and lives in Rome.”10

Her husband died in 1960, and Soraya outlived him for just eight years – dying on 20 April 1968. They are now buried together in a mausoleum in Jalalabad.11

  1. Arab News
  2. Reform and Rebellion in Afghanistan 1919-1929 by Leon B. Poullada p.40
  3. Reform and Rebellion in Afghanistan 1919-1929 by Leon B. Poullada p.11
  4. Reform and Rebellion in Afghanistan 1919-1929 by Leon B. Poullada p.85
  5. Reform and Rebellion in Afghanistan 1919-1929 by Leon B. Poullada p.85-86
  6. Women for Afghan Women: Shattering Myths and Claiming the Future edited by Sunita Mehta, Esther Hyneman, Fahima Danishgar, Batya Swift Yasgur, Andrea Labis p.107
  7. The Middle East: A Guide to Politics, Economics, Society and Culture
    by Barry Rubin p.606
  8. New York Times
  9. New York Times
  10. New York Times
  11. See also: Afghanistan at War: From the 18th-Century Durrani Dynasty to the 21st Century edited by Tom Lansford






About Moniek Bloks 2055 Articles
My name is Moniek and I am from the Netherlands. I began this website in 2013 because I wanted to share these women's amazing stories.

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