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Aiglemont, Gouvieux, France, 1 July 2000 -- The Begum Om Habibeh, widow of Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan, 48th Imam (Spiritual Leader) of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, grandfather of the present Aga Khan, died on the first of July at Le Cannet, South of France, in her ninety-fifth year.
Born Yvette Blanche Labrousse in 1906, in Sete near Marseilles, she was the fourth and last wife of the late Aga Khan III. The couple were married in Switzerland on October 9th, 1944.
The late Begum, following travels to Egypt, had already converted toIslam before her marriage. Throughout her life she demonstrated a strong attachment to the faith and to its traditions of philanthropy and concern for the less fortunate. In 1954, she performed the Haj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) in the company of the then Governor General of Pakistan. The years after the war were busy with activities associated with the Aga Khan's role as hereditary Imam of the culturally diverse and widely dispersed Shia Ismaili community.
Their home welcomed a regular flow of delegations from China, Iran, the Middle East, the Indian sub-Continent, East and South Africa and countries of Central Asia which were part of the former Soviet Union. The couple, in between visits to the Ismaili community around the world, lived in Switzerland, Egypt and France. The late Aga Khan III, whose ancestors the Fatimid Caliphs built the city of Cairo in the 10th Century, was buried in Aswan following his death in July 1957.
The Begum accompanied her husband on his many extensive travels, including those commemorating the 60th anniversary of his accession to the Ismaili Imamat. As the 48th hereditary Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims in direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad, through his cousin and son-in-law Ali and his daughter Fatima, the Aga Khan oversaw, during his 72-year long Imamat, important developments affecting the Ismailis. In this period the Middle East, the former Soviet Union, South Asia and Africa witnessed many changes, particularly in the post-war years with the emergence of newly independent nations. For the first time in their 1400-year history, the Ismailis had, in the first half of the 20th century, settled in East and West Africa, as well as Europe and North America, resulting in the establishment of new institutions providing religious and socio-economic support. These ranged from social governance institutions such as the National Councils, health and education boards to co-operative societies, investment trusts and insurance companies. He also founded an extensive international network of hospitals and schools, serving peoples of all faiths and backgrounds, without distinction. He was particularly concerned about the quality of life of women.
These institutions, which today form part of the Aga Khan Development Network overseen by his grandson and successor as Imam, Prince Karim, have, over the years, been expanded and extended within, and far beyond, the Ismaili community, into numerous countries of East and West Africa, and Central and Southwest Asia. The late Aga Khan was also active in international affairs, and served as the first President of the League of Nations in the late 1930's in Geneva.
The late Begum was very supportive of her husband in his work during their thirteen years together. She took a particular interest in issues affecting women's welfare.
Secrétariat de Son Altesse l'Aga Khan
With her husband's encouragement, she also developed an active interest in painting and sculpture, herself becoming an accomplished artist and sculptor. She was attracted by classical music, opera and ballet. She was closely involved in the design of Yakymour, the home she shared in the South of France with the late Aga Khan after their marriage, as well as in the design, along traditional Fatimid architectural lines, of his mausoleum on the banks of the Nile at Aswan where she too will be buried, in accordance with her wishes.
Following her husband's death in 1957, the late Begum moved between Geneva, Aswan, Paris and Le Cannet. In Le Cannet she was held in particular esteem and was known for her generosity towards the elderly, through the establishment of a retirement home. Only last year the Mayor of Le Cannet Rocheville unveiled a bronze statue in her honour in the Jardin des Oliviers.
Through her own Egyptian Om Habibeh Foundation, the late Begum contributed to the alleviation of poverty and the improvement of living conditions in the area around Aswan.
Since 1957, the late Begum had maintained continuing and close contact with the Ismaili community around the world. She participated in many official visits by the current Aga Khan to Asia and Africa, including those in 1982 marking the 25th Anniversary of his accession to the Imamat. She was present at the historic charter ceremony of the Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan as well as the inauguration by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the Ismaili Centre in South Kensington, London in 1984. Over the years the late Begum also participated in events associated with the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, the world's largest architectural prize. She continued to be an honoured guest at family functions including, most recently, the marriage of the current Aga Khan, in France, in May 1998.
The late Begum, who had no children, is survived by her step-son, the late Aga Khan's younger son, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan. She is also survived by three step grand-children, Prince Karim, the current Aga Khan, his brother Prince Amyn and their half-sister, Princess Yasmin, who are the children of the late Prince Aly Khan, who died in 1960 and who was the eldest son of the late Aga Khan.
Before her death, the late Begum arranged for Yakymour, the home of which she and her husband were so fond, to be retained for use by the Aga Khan family. She also planned that a large part of her estate be donated to two foundations closely associated with the family: The Aga Khan Foundation, Geneva, a non-profit organisation established by the current Aga Khan in 1967, which oversees and supports major international programmes in health, education and rural development, in some of the poorest regions of Asia and Africa, and the Bellerive Foundation in Geneva, established by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan in 1977, which is devoted to the protection of the environment, conservation of natural resources and the safeguarding of human and animal rights.
Photos are available from AFP, AP and Reuters
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