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Soraya Tarzi’s biggest distinction and the impact she had during the time she and her husband, Amanullah Khan, ruled Afghanistan can be judged by the fact that she is the only woman mentioned in the list of rulers of Afghanistan. She was more than just a queen — she was the Minister of Education and actively worked to educate and liberate the women of Afghanistan. She was known just as much for her social activism as she was for her unconventional, and often risqué, style.

Born in Damascus, Syria, on November 24, 1899, Soraya Tarzi was the daughter of a well-known and respected Afghan intellectual and poet, Sardar Mahmud Beg Tarzi. They belonged to the Muhammadzai tribe — a sub tribe of the powerful Barakzai dynasty. As one of Afghanistan’s great thinkers, Mahmud Beg Tarzi was known as the father of Afghan journalism.

His father, Ghulam Muhammad Tarzi, an Agfhan poet and head of the Muhammadzai royal house was exiled in 1881 by Emir Abdur Rahman Khan, then ruler of Afghanistan at the time. Ghulam Muhammad Tarzi and his family moved to Turkey.

In 1901 Emir Abdur Rahman Khan’s son, Emir Habibullah Khan, succeeded him and invited the Tarzi family back to Afghanistan. It was when the Tarzis were received at Habibullah’s court at the royal palace in Kabul that Soraya met the man she was going to marry: Habibullah’s son, Amanullah Khan.

Historians describe Amanullah and Soraya’s relationship as a loving one. They married in 1913 and Soraya was Amanullah’s only wife — something that was previously unheard of. A documentary on the life of the couple described them as “the darlings of Europe in the 1920s — the perfect couple working together to build a new, post-war Afghanistan.”

Amanullah became Emir of Afghanistan in 1919 and king in 1926. Together, along with the guidance of Mahmud Tarzi, they set about trying to modernise Afghanistan. Everywhere Amanullah went, Soraya accompanied him — from cabinet meetings, military parades, visits to conflict zones, etc.

Soraya had been brought up on modern lines by her progressive parents and this background showed up in her lifestyle. She was one of the first women to wear western dress outside of the royal palace in Afghanistan but kept within the bounds of Islam, making sure every part of her body was covered modestly. Initially she also wore a very light veil attached to a flapper hat but when her husband declared at a public event that “Islam did not require women to wear any kind of veil” Soraya, tore off her veil. The wives of the ministers, who were a part of the royal entourage, mimicked her gesture and tore off their veils as well.

Soraya worked actively to liberate the women of Afghanistan, grant them their rights and encouraged them to participate in nation building. She set up the first women’s hospital and girl’s school in Afghanistan. As minister of education, she also arranged to send 18 young women to Turkey to seek higher education in 1928.

In one of her more famous speeches she gave at the seventh anniversary of Afghanistan’s independence from the British, she said, “It (independence) belongs to all of us and that is why we celebrate it. Do you think, however, that our nation from the outset needs only men to serve it? Women should also take their part as women did in the early years of our nation and Islam. From their examples we must learn that we must all contribute toward the development of our nation and that this cannot be done without being equipped with knowledge. So we should all attempt to acquire as much knowledge as possible, in order that we may render our services to society in the manner of the women of early Islam.”

Soraya Tarzi also received an honorary degree from Oxford University. King Amanullah was greatly influenced by Mahmud Tarzi who wanted to bring about change to Afghanistan in the form of monogamy, education, employment and no purdah. But the reforms he introduced and the changes he desired were too much too soon. The religious right in Afghanistan were growing increasingly unhappy with his ‘westernised’ administration and the couple’s own relatively liberal lifestyle.

In 1927 and 1928 King Amanullah and Queen Soraya visited Europe where they received a warm reception. They spoke to heads of states, addressed groups of students, were shadowed by the press and so on. But while they were in Europe, trouble was brewing back in Afghanistan. Allegedly photographs of Soraya dining with foreign men and having her hand kissed by foreign leaders, etc., were circulated among the tribal region. This was seen as an affront and outright betrayal of Afghan cultural values and concept of honour. It further fuelled suspicion and discontent among the more conservative parts of the country.

King Amanullah’s reign came to an abrupt end following a rebellion by the conservative Shinwari tribe, led by Habibullah Kalakani, in 1928. They called for the banishment of the royal couple from Afghanistan. King Amanullah abdicated his throne in 1929, leaving his brother Inayatullah Khan in charge as the Emir, to prevent civil war and went into exile to Europe.

Soraya Tarzi spent the rest of her life in Rome, Italy. She passed away on April 20, 1968. Her coffin was escorted by the Italian military before being flown to Afghanistan for a state funeral. She was buried next to Amanullah, who had died eight years earlier, in the family mausoleum in Jalalabad. One of her daughters, Princess India D’Afghanistan, is also an honorary cultural ambassador of Afghanistan to Europe.

In a country dominated by men, where women’s voices are almost never heard, Soraya Tarzi was one woman who left her mark. She was, truly, a queen among men.