One of Afghanistan’s great, real-life female legends is Queen Soraya Tarzi. She is my hero and one of the most successful Afghan women activists from the last 100 years. She devoted her life to changing and improving women’s conditions in Afghanistan and the entire Islamic region, and she continues to inspire women today.
Soraya was born in Damascus in 1899, the daughter of Mahmud Tarzi. He is considered the father of journalism in 20th century Afghanistan. She died in 1968 in Italy. She was the wife of King Amanullah Khan in the early part of the 20th century and was widely known as Queen Soraya.
Queen Soraya was an outspoken reformer whose influence is still seen across Afghanistan. She was the first woman to take the bold step of appearing without the hijab in the ultraconservative society of Afghanistan at that time.
When she accompanied her husband King Amanullah Khan on a trip to Iran in 1928, she did not cover herself. This was so unacceptable in Iran that Iranian clergy insisted that Raza Shah, their king, order Queen Soraya to cover herself from head to foot with the hijab. She was the first Afghan woman who publically refused to wear the hijab in the region.
Queen Soraya also played a major role in trying to change the uneducated society of Afghanistan at that time.
When I first read about Soraya in my history books I wondered how brave and gallant she must have been to raise her voice in a dark and illiterate community, in a country that was threatened inside and outside by enemies. Since then I have done more research.
In his 2005 book Afghan Women Under Pressure of Tradition and Modernization, Dr. Said Abdullah Kazem, a former Kabul University professor, tells the story of Queen Soraya’s travels to Paris where she attracted the world’s attention.
She strongly believed in a role for women in the community and she struggled because of her beliefs. She wrote the governmental “Muslim Woman” brochure, established the first women’s magazine that was known as “Arshadalnsvan” (“Women’s Guide”), opened two girls’ schools, and founded the “Women’s Support Association,” which defended women’s rights and prohibits violence against women at home and in society.
A journalist from the French magazine La Vie once said of her: “Of all the many women and queens that I have interviewed, the Queen of Afghanistan, Soraya, is the smartest and the most talented, full of knowledge, who would lead her country to progress and bring the country in line with progressive countries in the world.”
I learned that Queen Soraya encouraged women and girls to go to school and to not stay inside but to take part in society along with men. In one speech, she told girls and women how prior to Islam women had to obey their father, brother and husband, but Islam gave them equal rights.
She observed that customs and traditions get wrongly changed into religious practice, and that wearing a burqa is only a custom, but gradually became accepted as an Islamic principle. She believed women and girls were not obligated to cover themselves and that women should remove the hijab and be visible in society.
She removed her own veil when she attended the Afghan traditional meeting, the Loya Jirga, in 1928 and this made her a pioneer of reform and women’s rights across all Islamic countries.
Queen Soraya gave courage to many women by backing the battle to gain their rights—rights that she explained Islam has given them. This revolutionary step not only woke up women at that time, but it continues to have an impact on women’s awareness in Afghanistan now. She showed that women will never win their rights unless they continually fight for them.
She is meaningful to us today because she was the one who first opened women’s eyes to the need for education. She founded two schools for girls with her own money: Mastorat School and Hasmath School, which later changed its name to Malalai High School. Since Malalai High School was established it has produced thousands of women politicians, poets, writers and leaders, many of whom have worked in government, parliament, civil society, and political parties.
The more I have learned of Queen Soraya’s fascinating character, the more I am inspired to see her dreams fulfilled.