First Published November 03, 2017
In its October 31 issue, the French weekly Point de Vue published an exclusive interview with Iran’s former Empress Farah Pahlavi to mark the 50th anniversary of her coronation.
In the course of the interview, Empress Farah credited Crown Prince Reza, who had a bad cold on the day of the coronation, for being the true “hero” of the ceremony. The 57-year-old Reza Pahlavi has only faint memories of that day, however.
The following is a translation of Point de Vue’s interview with Empress Farah:
Did you ever think that you would be part of a significant historical event?
We were guided by Shah’s visions for Iran. Everything had a special meaning. The Shah was very particular about the changes he wanted to implement in the country. Our coronation was part of a bigger plan which included easing many restrictions on women. It was certainly a historical day.
How did the day unfold?
The coronation took place at around noon. It lasted about an hour. At the time, we weren’t living at Niavaran Complex [a complex of buildings in Shemiran, Tehran, dating back to the Qajar era.] Our official residence was a smaller complex which was situated directly across from Marmar [marble] Palace [the royal residence in the center of Tehran.]
It was a long carriage ride to where the ceremony was being held. It took 45 minutes to get there. The royal coach was moving very slowly. People were lined up on both sides of the streets. I had woken up very early that morning to make the necessary preparations.
Do you remember the first time Shah spoke to you about the event?
The Shah didn’t make any special announcement to me about the event. I wasn’t particularly surprised by the news. But it was truly an extraordinary event.
One of its unpredictable outcomes was the fact that we were able to save Golestan Palace from falling into ruins. The building was the royal palace during the Qajar dynasty in the 19th century. It is one of the most impressive buildings in the capital.
We rehearsed the ceremony twice — once in our normal clothes and the second time in our formal wear. During the first rehearsal, we noticed that the ceiling of the palace was water-damaged. We quickly repaired it.
We also decided to have Iranian music for the ceremony. The Shah’s brother-in-law, Mr. Pahlbod, who was married to Princes Shams, was the culture minister at the time. He oversaw the entire project. They did the planning while we had dinner with the Queen Mother. We also hired a choir for the event.
How did you choose your royal gown for the ceremony? This was unprecedented. You also had to have a crown made.
We had a rather easy time deciding on the design for the crown. The Iranian crown jewels include a vast collection of precious gemstones. We asked a number of prominent jewellers to submit their designs. We eventually gave the project to the French jeweller Van Cleef & Arpels. They created a beautiful crown.
Mr. Francois Arpels and his colleagues traveled to Iran and selected the jewels. They couldn’t take the gems out of Iran, so they made plaster casts of each stone. Once the crown had been made, they traveled back to Iran and set the real stones. Visitors can see the crown at the National Jewels Treasury inside the Central Bank of Iran in Tehran.
How did you select your white gown and embroidered cape?
Marc Bohan of the house of Dior designed the white gown. He also designed the cape, but it was made by Iranian tailors and seamstresses. The cape was so long that they had to make it at an officers’ club. It was the only place in Tehran that had tables big enough for sewing a large piece. I chose the color green and opted for open sleeves. I didn’t want a shawl. All the embroideries were done by the renowned Iranian artist Mrs. Pouran Doroudi.
Iranian National TV broadcast the coronation. The Shah seems to almost mess up your chignon when he places the crown on your head.
I remember that moment real well. My Iranian hairdresser had done a wonderful job. When the Shah placed the crown on my head, he messed up my chignon. Fortunately it was covered by the crown and no one could actually see it. I think my hairdresser must have fainted at that moment.
You have always said when the Shah placed the crown on your head, you felt that all Iranian women were crowned. Why?
As far as I was concerned, the ceremony celebrated all Iranian women. I still have the letter that Shah wrote to his father, Reza Shah, in 1938. In it he congratulates his father for taking a number of bold steps to emancipate women and safeguard their rights. Both my husband and his father were adamant in raising the profile and role of women in Iranian society. The coronation was a symbolic move in this direction.
Reza Shah’s lifting of the chador in 1925 was another significant measure to empower women. My husband’s White Revolution in 1963 also ushered in an age of progress for Iran. The White Revolution introduced land reform which dismayed many Ayatollahs who were worried about losing their wealth. The right to vote and the ability to run for office were two of the major achievements for women during that period. Since then we’ve had women in senior posts, including MPs in the Majlis (Iranian parliament), lawyers, presidential advisers, judges and a Nobel Prize winner Mrs. Shirin Ebadi. Iranian women have excelled in business and management. They occupy posts that have traditionally been filled by men.
Can we really claim that Iranian women have achieved the same rights as men?
There were a few areas that we couldn’t change. For instance, women couldn’t travel abroad without their husband’s written consent. But that was more like a formality. There was also the issue of inheritance. Women’s share is half that of men. I’m certain that we could have changed these in due course. The coronation aimed to start a process of restructuring our society. It also held some personal meaning for me.
Looking at the photographs from that period, we see young people especially girls wearing Western clothes in streets, universities and other public places.
Girls were free to dress any way they wanted. It was their choice to cover themselves or wear European clothes. In rural areas, women wore traditional local attire. One of the first things the Islamic Republic did was to force Hijab on all women. One of the first marches organized after the Revolution was by women protesting the forced Hijab.
Hasn’t the situation taken a turn for the worse since then?
It is hard to believe the state of affairs in Iran. The authorities in Iran make outrageous and stupid assertions. Religious leaders argue that women should wear the headscarf because men would become sexually aroused if they saw their hair. An ayatollah in the city of Isfahan has blamed the drought and the dried up riverbeds on women who do not wear a proper hijab. Another ayatollah has said that a woman’s infant becomes illegitimate if she listens to music while nursing the child. People are publicly flogged for violating some ethical code.
The most heinous crimes were committed against young girls who were publicly flogged and raped by their interrogators before being hanged. Their jailers justified their monstrous acts by claiming that virgins would go to heaven, hence the guilty girls had to be raped in order to prevent them from entering paradise.
Why does the regime oppresses women so much?
Human beings have been engaged in some form of power struggle since the dawn of time. Patriarchal cultures have always tried to diminish the role of women in society. They assert their authority by oppressing women and minorities.
You tried extremely hard to raise women’s profile and role in Iranian society between 1961 and 1971.
I’ve been very fortunate. My grandfather was an ambassador in Saint Petersburg. My father studied at the Ecole Militaire de Saint-Cyr in France. I was very young when he died. He was a progressive thinker. My mother and our family pursued his ideals after his death.
Being a female never stopped me from following my dreams. My mother encouraged me in my studies. I was the captain of the basketball team at the Ecole Jeanne d’Arc in Tehran. I played in shorts like all other French girls. My mother had studied at the same school. The school was run by French Catholics. I was very close to Sister Claire, who was a member of the faculty. She died only a few years ago. Another teacher, Sister Mar, is still alive. She is 104 years old. My entire family were Muslims, but they sent me to a Catholic school because it offered a high quality education.
What is the current condition of Iranian women?
Women in my country are capable and courageous. They have excelled despite the restrictions and pressures. They are MPs, doctors and athletes. They shine in a variety of fields. If Iran is to change one day, women will most likely play a major role in that transformation. I admire Iranian women and have the greatest respect for them.
What bothers you the most about the current plight of women in Iran?
The fact that they are victimized by an archaic, chauvinistic and ignorant regime that views women as worthless, weak and stupid.