by Sinem Cengiz
I was quite impressed when I took a long walk at the Effat University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, during my visit in March 2014. It was not only the university and the warm welcome I received from its staff and students; but the story behind the creation of this university impressed me more. The university, which was the kingdom’s first private college for women, is one of the most significant legacies of Queen Effat Al-Thunayan, spouse of the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia (r. 1964–75).
After my return to Turkey, I developed a great interest in Queen Effat, also spelled ʿIffat, not just due to her Turkish roots, but owing to her fascinating life – quite different from the other spouses of the Saudi rulers. She was a towering figure in the kingdom who pioneered women’s education and promoted the idea of modernisation through educating the new generation. Her educational and cultural legacy still continues to open doors for Saudi women trying to break patriarchal glass ceilings. The best example of this is the current Saudi Ambassador to the US, Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, who is the granddaughter of King Faisal and Queen Effat. Princess Reema refers to her grandmother as her ‘hero’ and ‘ultimate idol.’
However, little has been written on her thus far. Joseph Kéchichian, an American scholar, wrote the first-ever biography of a Saudi king’s wife – Effat – in December 2014. I was surprised by how little such a significant figure in Saudi history was discussed. Kechichian says: ‘As the book is now being translated to Arabic, my hope is that many Saudi women – and Saudi men – will discover their queen as well.’ Indeed, even when asking some Effat University graduates about her, I found that little is known about the late queen despite her great endeavours in the kingdom. As such, this review seeks to introduce Kéchichian’s book and Effat’s works in general, which have paved the way for today’s Saudi women to strengthen their place within the kingdom.
Effat was born in Istanbul in 1916. Her father, Mohammad bin Saud Al Thunayan, a military officer in the Ottoman army, was an Arab from the Al Thunayan cadet branch of the Al Saud, while her mother, Asiye, was of Turkish origin. Under the care of her paternal aunt, Jawhara Al Thunayan, she completed elementary and secondary school education in Istanbul, where she spent her formative years. She was well educated for her time and her dream was to become a school teacher. However, her life was to take a different turn. In 1925, Effat’s aunt wrote a letter to the Saudi ruler saying they wanted to return back to the kingdom and asked for financial assistance for a pilgrimage. In 1931, at the age of 15, she set foot in the kingdom for the first time to perform Hajj with her aunt. Some say that during this pilgrimage Prince Faisal saw Effat for the first time, while others contend that they first met in Istanbul when Faisal stopped in the city following an official visit to Moscow in 1932. Robert Lacey also writes that when arriving in Istanbul in 1932, Faisal brought with him a ‘new wife.’
According to Kéchichian, ‘it was truly love at first sight.’ In 1932, Faisal married Effat as his third wife. In marked contrast to his brothers, Faisal was monogamous for the rest of his life. As Mark Weston notes, it is still unknown whether this was due to Effat’s insistence, Faisal’s desire, or both. While Faisal divorced one of his wives, another had died and Effat remained as his most prominent wife, whom the people began to call ‘Queen’ – a title never given before or since to any other Saudi women.
Effat wasn’t able to speak Arabic and Faisal did not know Turkish. Remarkably, both taught each other their respective native tongues and four of their children learned Turkish at home. They had nine children – five sons and four daughters. She eventually learned Arabic but retained traces of her distinct Turkish accent, which distinguished her with the nickname ‘Al-Turki.’
Based on interviews conducted with members of the Al-Faisal family along with friends and acquaintances of the late queen, Kéchichian’s work is a significant resource for social scientists, and of interest to all who wish to learn about prominent Arab women in general, and Saudi women in particular. In the book, there is not a single photograph of her, honouring the wishes of her family to keep her visage private. Effat never appeared on television or allowed herself to be photographed in public. Weston remarks that in private, her husband and children took a few pictures, ‘but to everyone else her beauty remained hidden.’
Effat was a queen particularly interested in international political affairs. Kéchichian refers to her as a ‘politically conscious spouse’ given her leading role in attending state functions and receiving female state guests, which was quite uncommon for the kingdom at that time. She is even known to have ordered maps to track local and international affairs during the Second World War, and she also travelled extensively, especially in Europe and the US.
Despite her husband’s death in 1975, she remained publicly active and her passion for teaching and learning found full expression in her lifelong efforts to establish schools and philanthropic societies. Initially, it was not easy for the queen to introduce her reforms in the kingdom, with some opposition from advocates of traditional values. However, through the opening of several health and education institutions with the support of elites within society, she inspired a path for Saudi women to follow. These stood as her two lifelong passions: education and gender equality.
Months before her death, this extraordinary lady founded Effat University, an English-language women’s college with a Western-style curriculum. For her, a woman’s education was her weapon, and strong women would form the pillars of a society. Today, Effat’s visionary leadership still resonates in Saudi Arabia and continues to guide the kingdom’s women changemakers. Kéchichian sheds light on an understudied but crucially important figure who left her mark on contemporary Saudi history.