Mata Salamat Umm Habibeh

Mlle Blanche Yvette Labrousse, the widow of Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah was born on February 15, 1906 in Sete, near Marseilles. Her parent moved to Cannes when she was a baby. Her father was a tram-conductor. She always remembered her parent for the moral code instilled in her. She was granted the title of Miss Lyon and became Miss France in 1930 in a nation-wide beauty contest, and in the same year she went to Rio de Janiero to represent her country at an international event. She married to Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah at the age of 39 years on October 9, 1944 in Switzerland. She had converted to Islam before marriage.

The people called her Yvonne Aga Khan or Yak, but she added i in yak (Yaki) to make its sound better, and thus the Imam built a villa of 21-rooms for her in Cannes, called Yakimour. In 1946, Imam awarded her the title of Mata Salamat during the Diamond Jubilee in Dar-es-Salam, and also named her Umm Habibeh in 1954 and repeated the title of Mata Salamat. In the same year, she performed hajj in the company of the then Governor General of Pakistan. She 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. She also developed an active interest in painting and sculpture. She was attracted by classical music, opera and ballet. Following her husband’s death on July 11, 1957, she 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. In 1999, the Mayor of Le Cannet Rocheville unveiled a bronze statue in her honour in the Jardin des Oliviers. She worked over the years through her own Egyptian Om Habibeh Foundation to help alleviate poverty and improve living conditions in Aswan, through contributions to healthcare, education facilities and income generation programmes.

Since 1957, she had maintained continuing and close contact with the Ismaili community around the world. She participated in many official visits by the Present Imam to Asia and Africa, including those in 1982 marking the 25th Anniversary of the accession to the Imamate. She was present at the historic charter ceremony of the Aga Khan University in Karachi, as well as the inauguration by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the Ismaili Centre in South Kensington, London in 1984. Over the years, she also participated in events associated with the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. She continued to be an honoured guest at family functions including the marriage of the Present Imam in France in May, 1998.

She had no children, was survived by her step-son, Prince Sadruddin. She is also survived by three steps grand-children, the Present Imam, Prince Amyn Muhammad and their half-sister Princes Yasmin. Before her death, she arranged for Yakimour to be retained for use by the Imam’s 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, established by the Imam in 1967, and the Bellerive Foundation in Geneva, established by Prince Sadruddin in 1977.

She have had an operation in September, 1992 at the age of 86 years, and lost sight in one eye. She was in the constant company of her assistants, Janine, and Shamsy.

Mata Salamat, Umm Habibeh expired on July 1, 2000 at Le Cannet, south of France at the age of 95 years. In a solemn ceremony on Tuesday, 4th July, 2000, she was laid to rest in the same sandstone mausoleum high atop a dune overlooking the Nile in Aswan. The bier was carried on a ceremonial boat along the Nile to Noor El Salaam. Escorted by a flotilla of small craft, black mourning pennants fluttering at their masts, the boat detoured to float past a marquee prepared by the Governorate of Aswan to enable citizens to pay their last respects. Governor Kamal Ahmed Amer of Aswan represented the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak; civic leaders represented the people of Aswan; and their Mayor, Mme. Michele Tabarot, represented the citizens of Le Cannet. Borne on the shoulders of the Present Imam, Prince Sadruddin, Prince Amyn Muhammad, LIF members and villa staff, the bier made a solemn ascent under a blazing sun to the continuing refrain of the Shahada, led by Shaikh Syed Ahmed Ibrahim who has, for 37 years, recited daily from the Koran at the mausoleum in accordance with Mata Salamat’s wishes.

In December, 2003, the Imam announced a grant of US$ 320,000 for medical equipment by the Om Habibeh Foundation, as part of a series of new development initiatives to benefit the people of Aswan. These included a plan for a social development training center and programs in nursing education, pre-school education and in strengthening of civil society organizations. The new initiatives in Aswan will complement an extensive social and urban development program underway on the edge of the historic of Cairo. Governor Hassanin expressed sincere gratitude on behalf of the people of Aswan and pledged to the government’s full support and cooperation to the new initiatives, which he said, both responded to immediate and long term needs, and reinforced the warm and close historic links that bound the Imam, his family, and his community to Aswan and to Egypt.