Ashraf Pahlavi died on January 7 at the age of 96. Read about her life, and her impact on Iranian politics, diplomacy and society.
Global and Iranian history are both closely intertwined with the lives and destinies of prominent figures. Every one of them has laid a brick on history’s wall, sometimes paying the price with their lives, men and women alike. Women have been especially influential in the past 200 years, writing much of contemporary Iranian history.
In Iran, women have increased public awareness about gender discrimination, raised the profile of and improved women’s rights, fought for literacy among women, and promoted the social status of women by counteracting religious pressures, participating in scientific projects, being involved in politics, influencing music, cinema... And so the list goes on.
This series aims to celebrate these renowned and respected Iranian women. They are women who represent the millions of women that influence their families and societies on a daily basis. Not all of the people profiled in the series are endorsed by IranWire, but their influence and impact cannot be overlooked. The articles are biographical stories that consider the lives of influential women in Iran.
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This article was originally published in October 2015.
The most recent photograph of Ashraf Pahlavi suggests nothing about her reputed wealth or the power she once possessed. Taken on Nowruz, March 21, 2015, the photograph shows her in a wheelchair, wearing a green shirt, a simple image of a 96-year-old woman.
For many years, Ashraf Palavi, the twin sister of Mohammad Reza Shah, the deposed king of Iran, has kept a low profile, and very few people know how she spends her time. But in Iran and in many parts of the world, she is still well known — once one of the most powerful, and controversial, women of the Pahlavi dynasty.
Ashraf Pahlavi was born Zahra Pahlavi on October 26, 1919 in Tehran, a few hours after her brother. At that time, their father, the future Reza Shah, was an officer in the Persian Cossack Brigade. Their mother, Taj ol-Moluk, who born Nimtaj Ayromlou in 1896, was a Russian-Azerbaijani immigrant whose family escaped to Iran following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
Pahlavi was six years old when her father ascended the throne, giving her the title Ashraf ol-Moluk. As a royal princess, she learned how to ride horses, had a French tutor and was given a stipend. In 1937, at the age of 17, her father married her off to Mirza Ali Muhammed Khan Ghavam, the son of a very influential family in the historical city of Shiraz. But Ashraf was not enamored with her husband. “I had a joint wedding with Shams [her sister],” she wrote in her book Faces in a Mirror: Memoirs from Exile, which was published in 1980. “I was wearing a white dress and surrendered to marriage — but a black dress would have been more apt.” They had one son, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1942, after the allied forces invaded Iran during World War II and forced her father to abdicate and go into exile.
She met Ahmed Chafik Bey, the director-general of the Egyptian Civil Aviation, during a trip to Egypt. They were married in Cairo in 1944 and had a son and a daughter together, and later divorced in 1960. The same year she married her third and last husband, Mehdi Bushehri, in Paris. They did not have any children together, and although they remained married, since the 1979 revolution, they have rarely seen one another.
During the reign of her brother, Princess Ashraf played an important role in both domestic and foreign policies in Iran. Islamic revolutionaries called her the most evil of Pahlavi women and accuse her of a wide range of sins and crimes, from being lewd and a spendthrift to gambling and drug smuggling. Some of the accusations are supported by accounts put forth in the memoirs of figures close to the shah. In one example, Asadollah Alam, a former prime minister, a minister of the royal court and a close confidant of the shah, wrote in his posthumously-published memoirs that when a high commander of armed forces pleaded with the minister of finance to allocate more money to healthcare for his officers, he stated: “if you compare this to the cost of the debaucheries of Her Royal Highness Ashraf, this would seem like a drop in the ocean.”
When the shah was in power, Ashraf Pahlavi was widely criticized and disliked — by the general public and the political opposition, but also among supporters of the monarchy. There is evidence that she played an important role in the 1953 coup d’état engineered by US and British intelligence agencies against the nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh after he nationalized Iran’s oil industry. The shah had originally opposed the coup, but CIA agents persuaded Ashraf Pahlavi to help convince him to accept the plot.
It was also rumored that she accumulated a huge fortune during the industrial boom under the shah, and that Ashraf Pahlavi and her son Shahram took a payment of ten percent of stock from newly-formed companies that wanted to import or export goods or do business with the government before they could would be granted a license to operate.
The Positive Side
But Ashraf Pahlavi was a complex figure, and was more than a spendthrift and a libertine princess. She founded several organizations and institutions to help children and women, including the Imperial Organization for Social Services in 1948 and the Women's Organization Of Iran in 1949. She served as the chairwoman of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in 1965 and the chairwoman of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights in 1970.
On January 11, 1980, she defended herself and her brother against accusations published in an article by the New York Times. “I will fight these accusations and slanders through judicial means if necessary,” she wrote. “If I am wealthy today, it is not through ill-gotten gains. I inherited land from my father which drastically increased in value with the development of Iran and the new prosperity that was there for all. All those who acquired real estate at the right time stood to make a fortune, and countless persons did, whether opponents of the regime or not, especially if they also chose to invest in the new industries burgeoning in Iran. Many of these millionaires are now in Iran and possess innumerable properties and immense wealth both at home and abroad, but having close connections to the clergy they stand immune to any accusations.”
“It appears highly fashionable to throw stones at those who tried to elevate their country to the level of a prosperous and peaceful nation now that they are down,” she added. “The tragedy of both my father's and my brother's careers is that they were not allowed to finish their tasks. Today, the forces of backwardness are in power and Iran has been plunged into one of the darkest chapters in its history by Khomeini 's bloodthirsty tyranny which tramples upon all international laws and ethics and upon the most sacred principles of Islam which teach us mercy and compassion.”
In September 2014 the New York Times reported that her house in New York had been sold for US$49 million. The news led to a string of negative comments on social networks, demonstrating that her popularity had not increased with the passage of time, even among those who might agree with her judgment in the paragraph quoted above.
Although it had been reported that Princess Ashraf had been living in Paris before her death, when the New York Times announced her death on January 8, 2016, it said that Pahlavi's adviser said only that she had been living in Europe, and would not specify which country in order to protect her family.
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