What about the spouses of former dictators? Where are they now and how are they doing? This is a question Peter Verlinden, journalist for Belgium's national broadcaster VRT, asks in his new program 'Widows after the fall' (Weduwen na de val).
Verlinden visited Farah Diba, the widow of former Sjah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran; both of whom had to flee Iran when the 1979 Revolution began. The Sjah, an advocate for women's rights at the time, died of cancer after they left the country. What initially seemed like a fairytale for Farah ended in a nightmare.
Farah Diba would eventually become the Sjah's third and last wife.
Prior to becoming the Sjah's third and final wife, Farah Diba and the Sjah met in Paris, where Diba was studying at the time. The Sjah visited Paris and invited students from his country to meet him: "When I said goodbye to some professors and students, they told me that when I left the Sjah looked at me." Ultimately, they got married.
Diba was the one that gave the Sjah his first heir, Reza. At the time they did not know yet that an heir would not be necessary, with the upcoming collapsing of the monarchy.
Diba was his perfect bride. She was highly educated and had lived in a Western society, making her the perfect bridge for the friendship between Iran and the Western world. Iran was a poor country at the time, but the Sjah made up a liberal and progressive plan: the White Revolution.
The White Revolution
The Sjah brought an end to feudalism and tried to emancipate women. He also tried to imporve the analfabetism haunting the country: if you had a high school diploma and you had to go into the army, you got trained for four months. After that you could teach children in small villages for the rest of your army time.
In 1963 a first insurgency of religious Muslims happened. They did not agree on the changes that were made by the White Revolution. Their leader? Ruhollah Khomeini. He found his allies in the conservative landowners, the farmers and the market vendors. He was against women's emancipation and he wanted only Muslims to vote. As a result, he was banned to Iraq.
Many events played in favor of Khomeini. Although the population was poor, the Sjah coronated himself and Farah as emperor and empress and he threw a party to celebrate 2,500 years of Iran, mostly for world leaders. Both events cost a lot of money, money the population did not seem to have. The White Revolution did also not have the desired effect. Besides that, the international community turned against him, mostly because of human rights complaints.
Everything changed when the Sjah nationalized his oil and increased the price, oil being the main basis of his friendship with the West. What followed was an economic crisis in the West. Some countries saw it as a declaration of war. With what he earned from the oil, the Sjah further modernized the country.
Meanwhile Khomeini kept on gaining power. "We did not handle it very well," Farah says. "But I just did not get it, how could these people want freedom and democracy and still choose for Khomeini?" Some people clearly thought differently because the international community started supporting the religious leader.
All this and the fact that the people started coming out on the streets protesting the monarch, made it obligatory for the royal family to leave. And when they left, Khomeini came back.
"Right now women are treated badly and there is a lot of corruption and drug abuse." Farah is not a big fan of the current regime. "When the Sjah left, the Iranians lost their rights."
Shortly after leaving Iran, the Sjah died from cancer. Farah did also lose two of her four children to suicide. Still, she stays positive and hopes that one day, the whole family will be burried in Iran.
Kato Vander Sande is our Belgian correspondent. Her interest is women's issues, climate change and entertainment. She studies journalism at Thomas More University College.
The opinions expressed here by Shout! columnists are their own, not those of Shout!