Farah Pahlavi (born Farah Diba; 14 October 1938) is the widow of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and the former Shahbanu (Empress) of Iran.
Farah Diba was born on 14 October 1938 in the Iranian capital Tehran, to an upper-class family. Born as Farah Diba, she was the only child of Captain Sohrab Diba (1899–1948) and his wife, Farideh Ghotbi (1920–2000). Pahlavi’s father’s family is of Iranian Azerbaijani origin. In her memoir, the former Shahbanu writes that her father’s family were natives of Iranian Azerbaijan while her mother’s family were from Lahijan on the Iranian coast of the Caspian Sea.
Through her father, Farah came from a relatively affluent background. In the late 19th century her grandfather had been an accomplished diplomat, serving as the Iranian Ambassador to the Romanov Court in Moscow, Russia. Her own father was an officer in the Imperial Iranian Armed Forces and a graduate of the prestigious French Military Academy at St. Cyr.
Farah enjoyed an extremely close bond with her father and his unexpected death in 1948 deeply affected her. This situation furthermore left the young family in a difficult financial state. In these reduced circumstances, they were forced to move from their large family villa in northern Tehran into a shared apartment with one of Farideh Ghotbi’s brothers.
The young Farah Diba began her education at Tehran’s Italian School, then moved to the French Jeanne d’Arc School until to age of sixteen and later to the Lycée Razi. She was an accomplished athlete in her youth and became captain of her school’s basketball team. Upon finishing her studies at the Lycée Razi, she pursued an interest in architecture at the École Spéciale d’Architecture in Paris, where she was a student of Albert Besson.
Many Iranian students who were studying abroad at this time were dependent on State sponsorship. Therefore, when the Shah, as head of state, made official visits to foreign countries, he frequently met with a selection of local Iranian students. It was during such a meeting in 1959 at the Iranian Embassy in Paris that Farah Diba was first presented to Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
After returning to Tehran in the summer of 1959, the Shah and Farah Diba began a carefully choreographed courtship, orchestrated in part by the Shah’s daughter Princess Shahnaz. The couple announced their engagement on 23 November 1959.
Farah Diba married Shah Mohammed Reza on 20 December 1959, aged 21. The young Queen of Iran (as she was styled at the time) was the object of much curiosity and her wedding received worldwide press attention. Her gown was by Yves Saint Laurent, then a designer at the house of Dior, and she wore the newly commissioned Noor-ol-Ain Diamond tiara.
After the pomp and celebrations associated with the Imperial wedding, the success of this union became contingent upon the Queen’s ability to produce a male heir. Although he had been married twice before, the Shah’s previous marriages had given him only a daughter who, under agnatic primogeniture, could not inherit the throne. The pressure for the young Queen was acute. The Shah himself was deeply anxious to have a male heir as were the members of his government. Furthermore, it was known that the dissolution of the Shah’s previous marriage to Queen Soraya had been due to her infertility.
The couple had four children:
Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi of Iran (born 31 October 1960)
Princess Farahnaz Pahlavi of Iran (born 12 March 1963)
Prince Ali Reza Pahlavi of Iran (28 April 1966 – 4 January 2011)
Princess Leila Pahlavi of Iran (27 March 1970 – 10 June 2001)
The exact role the new Queen would play, if any, in public or government affairs, was uncertain. Within the Imperial Household, her public function was secondary to the far more pressing matter of assuring the succession. However, after the birth of the Crown Prince, the new Queen was free to devote more of her time to other activities and official pursuits.
Like many other Royal consorts, the young Queen initially limited herself to a ceremonial role. She spent much of her time attending the openings of various education and health-care institutions without venturing too deeply into controversial issues. However, as time progressed, this position changed. The Queen became much more actively involved in government affairs where it concerned issues and causes that interested her. She used her proximity and influence with her husband, the Shah, to secure funding and focus attention on causes, particularly in the areas of women’s rights and cultural development.
Eventually, the Queen came to preside over a staff of 40 who handled various requests for assistance on a range of issues. She became one of the most highly visible figures in the Imperial Government and the patron of 24 educational, health and cultural organizations. Her humanitarian role earned her immense popularity for a time, particularly in the early 1970s. During this period, she travelled a great deal within Iran, visiting some of the more remote parts of the country and meeting with the local citizens.
Her significance was exemplified by her part in the 1967 Coronation Ceremonies, where she was crowned as the first shahbanu (empress) of modern Iran. It was again confirmed when the Shah named her as the official regent should he die or be incapacitated before the Crown Prince’s 21st birthday. The naming of a woman as regent was highly unusual for a Middle Eastern or Muslim monarchy.
From the beginning of her reign, the Empress took an active interest in promoting culture and the arts in Iran. Through her patronage, numerous organizations were created and fostered to further her ambition of bringing historical and contemporary Iranian Art to prominence both inside Iran and in the Western world.
In addition to her own efforts, the Empress sought to achieve this goal with the assistance of various foundations and advisers. Her ministry encouraged many forms of artistic expression, including traditional Iranian arts (such as weaving, singing, and poetry recital) as well as Western theatre. Her most recognized endeavour supporting the performing arts was her patronage of the Shiraz Arts Festival. This occasionally controversial event was held annually from 1967 until 1977 and featured live performances by both Iranian and Western artists.
The majority of her time, however, went into the creation of museums and the building of their collections.
In Iran by early 1978, a number of factors contributed to the internal dissatisfaction with the Imperial Government becoming more pronounced.
Discontent within the country continued to escalate and later in the year led to demonstrations against the monarchy. The Shahbanu could not help but be aware of the disturbances and records in her memoirs that during this time “there was an increasingly palpable sense of unease”. Under these circumstances most of the Shahbanu’s official activities were cancelled due to concerns for her safety.
As the year came to a close, the political situation deteriorated further. Riots and unrest grew more frequent, culminating in January 1979. The government enacted martial law in most major Iranian cities and the country was on the verge of an open revolution.
It was at this time, in response to the violent protests, that Mohammad Reza and Farah decided to leave the country. They both departed Iran via aircraft on 16 January 1979.
The question of where the Shah and Shahbanu would go after leaving Iran was the subject of some debate, even between the monarch and his advisers. During his reign, Mohammad Reza had maintained close relations with Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat and Farah had developed a close friendship with the President’s wife, Jehan Al Sadat. The Egyptian President extended an invitation to the Imperial Couple for asylum in Egypt which they accepted.
Due to the political situation unfolding in Iran, many governments, including those which had been on friendly terms with the Iranian Monarchy prior to the revolution, saw the Shah’s presence within their borders as a liability. Although a callous reversal, this was not entirely unfounded as the Revolutionary Government in Iran had ordered the arrest (and later death) of both the Shah and the Shahbanu. The new Iranian Government would go on to vehemently demand their extradition a number of times but the extent to which it would act in pressuring foreign powers for the deposed monarch’s return (and presumably that of the Empress) was at that time unknown. Regardless, the predicament was complex.
The Imperial couple were far from unaware of this complexity and cognizant of the potential danger which their presence carried to their host. In response, the Imperial Couple left Egypt, beginning a fourteen-month long search for permanent asylum and a journey which took them through many different countries. After Egypt, they traveled to Morocco, where they were briefly the guests of King Hassan II.
After leaving Morocco, the Shah and Empress were granted temporary refuge in the Bahamas and given use of a small beach property located on Paradise Island. Ironically, Empress Farah recalls the time spent at this pleasantly named location as some of the “darkest days in her life”. After their Bahamian visas expired and were not renewed, they made an appeal to Mexico, which was granted, and rented a villa in Cuernavaca near Mexico City.
After leaving Egypt the Shah’s health began a rapid decline due to a long-term battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The seriousness of that illness brought the now exiled Imperial couple briefly to the United States in search of medical treatment. The couple’s presence in the United States further inflamed the already tense relations between Washington and the revolutionaries in Tehran. The Shah’s stay in the US, although for genuine medical purposes, became the tipping point for renewed hostilities between the two nations. These events ultimately led to the attack and takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran in what became known as the Iran hostage crisis.
Under these difficult circumstances, the Shah and Empress were not given permission to remain in the United States. Shortly after receiving basic medical attention, the couple again departed for Latin America, although this time the destination was Contadora Island in Panama.
By now, both the Shah and Empress viewed the Carter Administration with some antipathy in response to a lack of support and were initially pleased to leave. That attitude, however soured as speculation arose that the Panamanian Government was seeking to arrest the Shah in preparation for extradition to Iran. Under these conditions the Shah and Empress again made an appeal to President Anwar El Sadat to return to Egypt (for her part Empress Farah writes that this plea was made through a conversation between herself and Jehan Al Sadat). Their request was granted and they returned to Egypt in March 1980, where they remained until the Shah’s death four months later on 27 July 1980.
After the Shah’s death, the exiled Shahbanu remained in Egypt for nearly two years. President Sadat gave her and her family use of Koubbeh Palace in Cairo. A few months after President Sadat’s assassination in October 1981, the Shabanu and her family left Egypt. President Ronald Reagan informed her that she was welcome in the United States.
She first settled in Williamstown, Massachusetts, but later bought a home in Greenwich, Connecticut. After the death of her daughter Princess Leila in 2001, she purchased a smaller home in Potomac, Maryland, near Washington, D.C., to be closer to her son and grandchildren. Farah now divides her time between Washington, D.C, and Paris. She also makes an annual July pilgrimage to the late Shah’s mausoleum at Cairo’s al-Rifa’i Mosque.
Farah supports charities, including the Annual Alzheimer Gala IFRAD (International Fund Raising for Alzheimer Disease) held in Paris.
Farah Pahlavi continues to appear at certain international royal events, such as the 2004 wedding of Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark, the 2010 wedding of Prince Nikolaos of Greece and Denmark, the 2011 wedding of Albert II, Prince of Monaco and the 2016 wedding of Crown Prince Leka II of Albania.