Sunday, December 19, 2010

Style Icon: Princess Fawzia of Egypt

The Polyglot begins a new series exploring iconic faces that defined an era in the Middle East
Princess Fawzia of Egypt by Cecil Beaton, 1942

She was born Princess Fawzia Bint Fuad, on November 5th 1921 at Ras el-Tin Palace in Alexandria, to Sultan Fuad I of Egypt and the Sudan and his second wife, Nazli Sabri. One of her more intriguing ancestors is Sulieman Pasha, a French colonel who served under Napoleon, converted to Islam, and stayed in Egypt to oversee the overhaul of the Egyptian army under Muhammad Ali.

During her lifetime Fawzia would witness changes within the royal family that would alter the course of her life. Shortly after her birth, her father dropped the title of Sultan in favor of King and enacted a new constitution to limit the power of parliament. King Fuad next embarked on a program of modernization to overhaul Egypt’s image abroad. For the first time the Queen, as well as the women of the royal family, were allowed to appear in public unveiled and participate in philanthropic work. A teenage Fawzia was expected to play a part in these changes, and was engaged to the future Shah of Iran, crown prince Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (a union meant to link two of the Middle East’s most powerful dynasties).

They were married in Cairo on March 16th 1938, followed by another lavish wedding in Tehran. Not long after, in 1941 the crown prince succeeded his father to the throne, and Fawzia became the Empress of Persia.

Overnight she would become an instant celebrity, not just in the Middle East but around the world. Publications such as Vogue and Town & Country would report on “Persia’s beautiful and glamorous queen,” as she traveled around the world dressed in the latest Paris couture. When Cecil Beaton came to photograph Fawzia for the cover of the September 1942 issue of Life magazine, he described her as an “Asian Venus” with “a perfect heart-shaped face and strangely pale but piercing blue eyes.”

Yet the marriage was not to last. Although language did not pose an immediate barrier (at the time it was the custom to speak French amongst the royal families), Fawzia found it difficult to adapt to life in Tehran, which was different from the royal court in Cairo. Tensions soon developed, and shortly after the birth of their only child Princess Shahnaz, Fawzia obtained a divorce and moved back to Cairo in 1945. It was there that she met her second husband Colonel Ismail Hussain Shirin Bey, whom she married on March 28, 1949. The couple had two children: Nadia (born 1950-2009) and Hussain (born 1955).

For a while Fawzia was one of the few members of the royal family to remain in Egypt, following the revolution in 1952. Today she is the family’s most senior member and resides in Switzerland. Her death was mistakenly reported in January 2005, when a journalist had confused her with her niece, Princess Fawzia Farouk, one of the three daughters of King Farouk.

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