Princess Fawzia was born into unimaginable luxury, but she would grow into even bigger scandal. Pushed into an infamous marriage, Fawzia’s messy bedroom life turned into fodder for the world stage almost overnight. Yet when it comes to this legendarily beautiful royal, that’s just the beginning.
Princess Fawzia’s upbringing was so opulent, it’s hard to even comprehend. Born on November 5, 1921, Fawzia was the eldest daughter of King Fuad I of Egypt and his second wife, Nazli Sabri. In other words, the whole world was at her feet, and her childhood was all about “adoring servants, aunts, and ladies in waiting". Or, at least it looked that way on the outside…
Fawzia’s home life was the dictionary definition of “dysfunctional". Her father and mother, to put it lightly, despised each other. Daddy Fuad all but confined her strong-willed mother Nazli to the palace, only letting her out for operas or flower shows and slapping her when she defied him. Jeez, it’s no wonder Fawzia got into her own nightmare marriage.
There was another key ingredient to Fawzia’s life: Her incredible naivety. Although her parents sent her to a prestigious boarding school in Switzerland and she was fluent in English, French, and her native Arabic, her practical education was sorely lacking. One source described her as an “over-protected, cellophane-wrapped gift packaged little girl".
When Princess Fawzia returned from her European schooling hoping to exercise the same freedoms at home, she got a very rude awakening. Her family expected her to adhere to Egyptian traditions and stay firmly inside the house. Now, that’s not too hard when your house is a massive estate, but poor Fawzia had even worse things ahead.
The moment Fawzia turned 18, her parents began casting around for an eligible husband. They finally landed on Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the son of the Shah of Iran and the successor to the throne—but it was far from a fairy tale. The move was purely a political match, as both countries benefitted from the alliance. Bet Fawzia was over the moon about that...
There were warning signs from the very beginning when it came to Fawzia and her suitor. At the time, the Iranian royal family was brand new and not necessarily used to dealing with Egyptian royalty. This led to some hella awkward moments, like when Iran sent over a bunch of wedding gifts…that the Egyptian royal family absolutely hated.
Sadly, Fawzia didn’t have much of a say in her matrimonial future. It was her brother Farouk—who was currently the King of Egypt—who performed all the decision-making and wrangling. In fact, Fawzia was so out of the picture, the couple only met once before their wedding. And, uh, that meeting didn’t exactly go well.
When Mohammad Reza visited his new in-laws, he and the young King Farouk toured around Egypt in a very public “meet the family” trip. It was so public, in fact, that people couldn’t help but notice how mismatched the men were. The young groom dressed himself in a simple military uniform, while the extravagant King Farouk wore designer suits. Was something so superficial a portent of things to come? Yes.
Need further proof that this royal wedding was a bad idea? Mohammad Reza himself was barely aware it was going on, either. Although King Farouk officially signed over his little sister Fawzia on May 26, 1938, the groom-to-be read about his engagement in a press release like everybody else in the world. Off to a great start, then.
For all this, it’s easy to see why Mohammad Reza didn’t mind marrying Fawzia: She was beyond beautiful, at least by Western standards. Famed photographer Cecil Beaton described her as an “Asian Venus” with "a perfect heart-shaped face and strangely pale but piercing blue eyes,” while others compared her to Hollywood legends like Hedy Lamarr and Vivien Leigh. Yeah, Fawzia was a stud.
On March 15, 1939, the big day finally came, and Princess Fawzia and the Crown Prince married in a lavish ceremony at Abdeen Palace in Cairo; they were both teenagers at the time. Not content with this level of extravagance, Fawzia’s brother King Farouk also threw a reception that included an incredible 20-course meal. It might have been the last time Fawzia was truly happy.
Money can’t buy happiness, and it also can’t buy romantic connection. Princess Fawzia didn’t know Persian before her betrothal, and although she studied furiously to learn it, she was still only “competent” when she and Mohammad Reza met. Likewise, he didn’t know her native tongue. The couple got through by speaking French to each other, but that wouldn’t help her once she was in Iran…
After the wedding, Fawzia departed with her mother for Iran—and immediately experienced a dark omen. The royal women had decided to go by train, only to experience a myriad of technical difficulties on the ride over. Apparently, the electricity went out so many times, they joked they were on a camping trip. I think the universe was trying to tell Fawzia something.
Sure, everything seemed wonderful when Fawzia entered the country. She had a second wedding ceremony at Tehran’s beautiful Marble Palace, while the streets of the city bloomed with festive banners and arches. The Iranian royal family even threw an enormous public celebration for her that was bursting with expensive French food. But somehow, Fawzia still had a sinking feeling.
From her first moments at the Iranian court, Fawzia felt unsettled—and her reason was chilling. Few people get along with their in-laws, but Fawzia quickly found out her husband’s family was more than just “quirky". They were downright horrific. Her father-in-law, the Shah Reza Khan, was a domineering, violent man who loved to attack people with his riding crop. Unfortunately, her husband wasn’t much better.
With a father like his, it doesn’t take a Freudian to know that Mohammad Reza was one messed-up prince. The old Shah actually thought that showing affection toward his son would instill gay tendencies in the boy, and he couldn’t have that. As a result, the Crown Prince was more “dumpster fire” than “husband material,” and barely knew how to show Fawzia any true emotion. Oh, but we haven’t even got to her mother-in-law…
Mohammad Reza’s sisters and mother did not take kindly to the Egyptian newcomer, and they did the exact opposite of make her feel welcome. In particular, the Queen Dowager Tadj ol-Molouk saw Fawzia as a rival for her son’s love, and she sniped constantly with the mere teenager. Then, the simmering family feud turned violent in the blink of an eye.
Fawzia fought to maintain her composure in this brave new world, but even an absolute angel wouldn’t have the patience to deal with her husband’s family. One day, Fawzia and her sister-in-law got into such a row, the woman full-on broke a vase over Fawzia's head in a fit of rage. Still, this all paled in comparison to Fawzia’s real problem.
Maybe—just maybe—Fawzia could deal with broken vases and a borderline psychotic father-in-law if she had any support from her new husband. Well, she didn’t. Mohammad Reza always seemed to take his mother and sisters’ side of things, and left Fawzia out to dry when it came to defending her. As if that weren’t enough, he soon dealt her a heartbreaking betrayal.
If Fawzia had any illusions about her “prince charming” Mohammad Reza, those were all destroyed in a matter of months. She soon realized he was a womanizer, and the prince carried on a handful of extramarital affairs. To rub salt in the wound, he wasn’t the least private about these dalliances, and people often saw him driving around town with his latest mistress. However, some say Fawzia got her own revenge.
A persistent rumor from this time claimed that an incensed Fawzia soon got very comfortable with a particularly handsome and buff member of her security detail. Still, her friends claim these whispers were just malicious gossip, and insist that Fawzia was "a lady and never veered from the path of purity". Hey look, I wouldn’t blame her.
Eventually, Fawzia’s cold relationship with her husband, her mother- and father-in-law, and pretty much everyone else associated with the Iranian royal family drove her into seclusion. She lived like a hermit for much of her time at the palace, and would often refuse to attend official functions, even after her husband begged her to come.
This mental anguish eventually took a devastating toll on the princess, and by 1944, she went and saw a doctor to deal with her overwhelming depression. Eventually, the unsettling state of affairs reached her home country of Egypt, and her worried family sent an envoy to check up on her. What he saw chilled him to the bone.
When the ambassador reached Tehran and visited Fawzia, he witnessed just how much her emotional turmoil had manifested physically. As he reported back, the princess was mere skin and bones, and her shoulder blades “jutted out like the fins of some undernourished fish". Clearly, someone had to do something—but it would take a long while.
Fawzia was nothing if not proper, and she knew her duty was to provide Iran with an heir. So in October of 1940, a little more than a year into her miserable marriage, she gave birth to Princess Shahnaz Pahlavi. It was not the boy her husband had been hoping for, but the baby girl would have to do; they never had another child.
If you think Fawzia’s despair at her marriage was one-sided, you’d be very wrong. Mohammad Reza likewise found himself incredibly dissatisfied with his choice of bride, and once wrote in his memoirs Mission for My Country, that the “only happy light” of his entire marriage to the princess was the birth of their daughter. Ouch.
In 1942, a mixed blessing came to Fawzia: Her father-in-law passed, making Mohammad Reza the new Shah and her the Queen of Iran. It was the culmination of her royal destiny, but it must have felt like ash in her mouth. With a baby on her bosom and a crown on her head, Fawzia was even more tightly bound to a marriage that was destroying her. She’d have to give up everything to save herself.
Even as her life unraveled around her, Queen Fawzia had to put on a perfect façade for the public. The same year her husband became Shah, she appeared on the cover of Life magazine, a spread that acted as her introduction to the West and made those uncanny blue eyes famous the world over. Inside, though, she was faltering.
In the end, Princess Fawzia was a fundamental mismatch for the Iranian Court. Yes, it was flashy, but the Princess grew up in the eminently cultured Cairo, and she never gained any respect for Tehran or the Iranian palaces. She even disliked the food at the court. In other words, Fawzia was snooty “old money,” and she found Iran embarrassingly “new money".
In May 1945, Fawzia executed the first stage of her escape plan, and it makes Katie Holmes’ special ops split from Tom Cruise look like child’s play. That year, Fawzia left Iran for her beloved Egypt under the PR-friendly pretense of missing Cairo’s cosmopolitan atmosphere. The truth, however, was much more complicated.
Theories abound to this day about the final straw that made Fawzia flee Tehran, but it definitely wasn’t just a desire to change up the scenery. In her memoir, the Shah’s sister affirms that it was Fawzia who wanted to end the marriage, and that the Shah begged her multiple times to return and reconcile. But CIA documents reveal a more scandalous story.
The American government was keeping a very close eye on the Middle East at this time, including, apparently, Fawzia’s bedroom life. According to declassified documents, the real reason Fawzia left Iran was a lot uglier than the official story. These files claim that the marriage dissolved after Fawzia wouldn’t stop degrading the Shah for his impotence. Yikes.
During this period of separation before the storm, Fawzia’s husband seemed to repent his mistakes, or at least he became an iota more self-aware. In 1945—after Fawzia had firmly and defiantly camped herself in Cairo—the Shah told a British Ambassador that his mother was "probably the main obstacle to the return of the Queen". You think?
By the end of 1945, it was all over. Fawzia’s years with the Shah had turned her from a naïve little girl into an iron-willed woman, and she was finally going to fight for her happiness. She succeeded in getting an Egyptian divorce from Mohammad Reza at the end of the year. Case closed, right? Well, not exactly.
It took three long years for Iran to officially recognize Fawzia’s wishes and grant her a divorce in their country. Moreover, the former Queen of Iran had to give up her cushy title and lands, and re-install herself back in the Egyptian court. In the end, though, this was nothing but paperwork. The real price was heartbreaking.
One of the only conditions the Shah made on his ex-wife was also his cruelest: She had to give up custody of her daughter Shahnaz. The five-year-old girl had to stay at the Iranian court, and Fawzia could only expect rigid visitation times with her only child. Sadly, this was far from the last sacrifice Fawzia would ever make.
Fawzia didn’t wait around to start her second life after her divorce from the Shah, and this time, she was determined to get things right. While living in Egypt away from her no-good husband, Fawzia met Colonel Ismail Chirine, a strapping, intelligent man who was a prominent member of Egyptian society. AKA, everything Fawzia ever wanted. She wasted no time locking him down.
On March 28, 1949, just a year after her Iranian divorce was official, Fawzia married the colonel. In contrast to her first royal wedding, the princess made sure this event was intensely private, with the Egyptian government only releasing a boilerplate congratulations and giving zero details about the big day. In the months that followed, however, Fawzia’s personal emotions became very clear.
Whoever Princess Fawzia had been with the Shah of Iran, she wasn’t that girl anymore. She seemed relentlessly happy with her new husband, and the pair had two more children together, a girl and a boy. Not that Fawzia ever forgot Shahnaz; she insisted on summering in Switzerland to see the girl when she wasn’t heading the Egyptian court. But immense heartache was on her horizon.
It seemed that the moment Princess Fawzia sorted her personal life out, everything else fell apart. For the first years of her marriage, she once again lived in the lap of luxury in Cairo’s many roomy palaces. But then in 1952, a coup not only toppled her brother King Farouk, it toppled the entire monarchy. Which meant Fawzia was next.
After the 1952 revolution, Princess Fawzia of Egypt was no longer even Princess Fawzia. The revolutionaries stripped her of her titles, and she lost most of her remaining property. Instead, she was now simply Fawzia Chirine, and (supposedly) indistinguishable from everybody else. Yet there was one way she was very much not like everybody else.
In these twilight years of Fawzia’s royal life, the former princess didn’t back down, even when the rest of her family did. Although her brother Farouk sailed on his yacht to Italy after the coup, Fawzia had spent too long away from her beloved Egypt to leave it now. Steadfast and stubborn, she stayed—and years later, something magical happened.
In 1976, decades after the coup that destroyed her royal privileges, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat reached out to Fawzia’s family with an olive branch. First, he invited her daughter Princess Shahnaz and a friend to stay at one of the old royal palaces, and they then paid a visit to Fawzia herself in her private villa. They may have expected some latent hostility, but that wasn’t what they got.
Fawzia served the group tea, had a pleasant conversation, and then made a surprising suggestion. Just as they were leaving, Fawzia astonished the whole room, announcing, “Of course because you have called on me, I should call on you in return". Why was this astonishing? Because it meant she’d be returning to her old palace…for the first time in 24 years.
In the end, Fawzia’s visit to her childhood stomping grounds was nothing short of heartbreaking. Her old servants heard about her visit and rushed out to meet her on the palace grounds, many of them with tears in their eyes. Fawzia reportedly embraced them all as she looked around at the world she had lost. Then she revealed her palace secrets.
That day, Fawzia took the group on a private tour of her onetime home, and her reminiscences were acutely personal. At one point, she gestured to the verses of the Quran written on the palace wall and said, “I am afraid I think my brother did not read carefully all the verses. If he had, we would still be here as the ruling royal family". And she had more to say.
In the end, after a lifetime of personal and political upheaval, the erstwhile Queen Fawzia had no room left for bitterness. As one of the witnesses reported, some of her later words that day were, “Twice in my life, I lost the crown. Once I was the Queen of Iran, and once I was the princess here". She then said with a smile, “It’s all gone now. It doesn’t matter". Fawzia was classy until the end.
By the 2000s, Egypt had seen ever more turmoil, and Fawzia seemed like a thing of the past more than ever. Indeed, in 2005, with the royal now well into her 80s, the media falsely reported that she had passed. They had mistaken her with her niece, Princess Fawzia Farouk. In actuality, Fawzia’s end would happen much later, and in much different circumstances.
In the last years of her life, Fawzia made certain she would never again get caught up in the firestorm of international attention that her divorce from the Shah had instigated. As a result, the princess went from being on the cover of Life magazine to shunning any and all public events. After all, she knew what the spotlight had cost her.
Fawzia lived until the ripe age of 91, and if she seemed like a relic in 2005, she was even more of one in 2013, when she passed peacefully of natural causes. Much like her later life, her funeral was a quiet affair, with the papers barely reporting on the princess who once was. It was a far cry from the tragic drama of her first marriage, and that’s probably just how Fawzia wanted it.
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