Princess Lalla Aicha: Women's-rights activist and first female Arab ambassador

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The Independent Online

Princess Aicha of Morocco fought all her life for women's rights, and was the first female Arab ambassador.

She appeared on the front cover of Time on 11 November 1957 under the banner "The Emancipation of Moslem Women". Born in 1930 to the Sultan, and later king, Mohammed V, and his first wife Lalla Abla bint Tahar, Aicha supported her father's stand for independence. When he was deposed by the French in 1953 and exiled, she stood by him. He returned in 1955 and brought about independence the following year, later achieving the informal status of Abb al-Watan al-Maghribi [Father of the Moroccan Nation].

She rose to national prominence early, following in her father's footsteps with dramatic effectiveness. In April 1947 on a visit to Tangiers – then an international zone with its own legal system – the Sultan departed from the written speech authorised by the French protectorate. Instead, he declared the unity of the Moroccan nation under his sovereignty, without any reference to the French and Spanish protectorates.

This is regarded as his first public call for independence, although he had discussed the possibility with President Roosevelt when he had hosted the allied powers' Casablanca Conference in 1943. In Tangiers the Sultan was accompanied by his heir, later to become Hassan II, and Princess Aicha. They also both gave speeches, but Aicha's was equally as explosive as her father's.

Unveiled and dressed like a modern Western woman, the young princess spoke to an audience consisting of the conservative Muslim men typical of that period. Her appearance and her words shook them. "Our Sultan, may Allah glorify him, expects that all Moroccan women will persevere on the road to education," she declared. "They are the barometer of our Renaissance." To bring home the message she emphasised how her father had encouraged her to study modern languages and classical Arabic, the lingua franca of public discourse in the Arab world.

After she, her father and brother had left the city, the traditional-minded Mandoub of Tangiers, nominally the representative of the Sultan but in fact responsible for the Arab and Berber inhabitants, was still so scandalised by the princess's words that he issued orders for the arrest of any woman who dared wear western dress. Those who resisted had their clothes ripped. "If our women wear western clothes, they'll try to become totally Western," he fumed. "They'll drink, wear bathing costumes and will lie down next to men on the beach!"

But he was too late: Aicha had come to symbolise Moroccan independence and feminism. Nationalist leaders took her at her word and sent their daughters off for a modern education, without a veil. Others soon followed. There was even a pendant worn by nationalists long after her speech with a picture of the sultan on side and one of her on the other. Modestly, she told Time in 1957 that she had not realised theimpact her speech would make. As a youngster, she hadn't yet understood the realities of life of her fellow countrywomen.

In 1957, shortly after independence, the king set up Entraide Nationale, a national support scheme to help the poor, and Aicha became its first president. It was to play an important role in the Agadir earthquake of 1960, which is said to have broken the heart of the king, who died the following year.

His son, Hassan II, appointed his ister as ambassador to London from 1965-1969 – she exercised considerable influence and got on particularly well with Princess Margaret – and laterto Athens and Rome. Although it has been said that her brother sent her abroad because she was too popular and independently minded at home and brought her home when she became too popular and independently minded abroad, she never spoke a public word against him, and was distressed when he died in 1999.

Highly cultured and intelligent, she was a keen golfer, walker and enjoyed being a hostess. She kept a Pekingese dog called Norbert, and a couple of parrots, which she used to take with her on various trips in separate cages "so that they didn't get too intimate." She headed the Moroccan Red Crescent and was the honorary president of the National Union of Moroccan Women.

In Britain, her example of female leadership in the Arab world continues: her niece, Princess Lalla Joumala, is the current Moroccan ambassador to the UK.

Princess Lalla Aicha, public servant and diplomat: born Rabat, Morocco 17 June 1930; DCVO 1980; married 1961 Moulay Hassan Al-Yaqubi (divorced 1972; two daughters), secondly, HH Moulay Hassan Al Mahdi (died 1984); died Morocco 4 September 2011.


On the day she was born...

The Lancashire fast bowler Brian Staham was also born. He played in 70 Tests for England, taking 252 wickets at an average of 24.84. He was made CBE, and died in 2000