Obituary: Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, twin of last shah of Iran

Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, twin sister of the last shah of Iran. Picture: AP
Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, twin sister of the last shah of Iran. Picture: AP
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Born: Tehran 26 October 1919. Died: 7 January 2016, aged 96

Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, the twin sister of the last shah of Iran, was known equally for her work with the United Nations on behalf of women’s causes and her opulent lifestyle, died on Thursday. Iranian state television reported that she died in Monte Carlo.

Princess Ashraf was a glamorous and divisive figure. As a teenager in 1934, she and her older sister, Shams, along with their mother, appeared at a public ceremony not wearing the veils that were a part of traditional dress in Iran.

This public display, part of her father’s programme to bring Iran into the 20th century, helped establish her public image: Western-oriented, modern, fashionably dressed, fluent in French and English, with a taste for the high life.

She used her privileged position as a princess to plead the cause of women in a variety of ways, most visibly as president of the Organization of Iranian Women, chairwoman of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, the Iranian delegate to the UN.Human Rights Commission and an adviser to the World Conference on Women in 1975. At the same time, Princess Ashraf gained a reputation as a steely political operator, an unashamed apologist for the despotic regime of her brother, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and a mink-draped sybarite, well known at the casinos of the French Riviera, who amassed a considerable fortune during her brother’s years in power and lived in luxurious exile after he was overthrown in 1979.

“Her supporters will celebrate her as a champion of women’s rights, a patron of the arts and a beacon of social modernity, while her detractors will dismiss her as a monstrous power monger who played a key role in reinstalling her brother’s dictatorial reign and benefited lucratively under his tyrannical rule,” Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University, wrote last week.

Princess Ashraf was married three times. Her son, Shahriar Shafiq, was assassinated in front of her home in Paris in 1979 by gunmen dispatched by the new regime. She is survived by her son from her first marriage, Shahram Pahlavi; five grandchildren; and several great-grandchildren.