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How privilege helped this wealthy white woman get away with murder

Julia Métraux

Julia Métraux

Julia is a health and culture writer whose work has appeared in Narratively, Verywell, Bitch Media, Insider, Poynter and others.

In 1923, white French woman Marguerite Alibert killed her Egyptian husband Ali Fahmy Bey during a vacation in London. While the trial was over a hundred years ago, it helps show that a wealthy white woman can get away with murder if she uses racist and xenophobic tropes to paint a dead man as a villain.
 
In July 1923, Marguerite Fahmy and her husband, Egyptian “aristocrat” Ali Kamel Fahmy Bey (Ali’s family was not of nobility, but they were considered aristocrats due to their wealth), were vacationing in London and staying at the Savoy Hotel, posh lodgings on the shore of the River Thames. Marguerite (née Alibert), a white French woman, had just seen the operetta “The Merry Widow” alongside her husband in the evening on the eighth day of their trip. The title would soon be eerily appropriate. When Ali’s back was turned during, or following, one of their volatile arguments in their hotel room, Marguerite shot her husband in the head, neck and back. This is according to former judge and writer Andrew Rose’s book The Prince, the Princess and the Perfect Murder. Ali died of his wounds an hour after being transported to the hospital, and Marguerite was arrested by the Metropolitan Police later that morning for murder. Unlike many wealthy white people today who are released on bail for violent crimes – like Harvey Weinstein – Marguerite was held in custody for a murder charge. (1)

Marguerite and Ali, who ran in the same social circles, were formally introduced just a year earlier in Paris, where Marguerite lived. While the decade-younger Ali was infatuated with Marguerite from the start, Marguerite swooned over his wealth and status, according to Lucy Bland, professor of Social and Cultural History at Anglia Ruskin University and whom we interviewed for this Culturico article. After the wedding in an Islamic ceremony in January 1923, Marguerite moved to Egypt to be with her husband. After this move, there was a power shift in their relationship which affected it. Bland said that Marguerite was under a “level of control that was inconceivable for her” by her husband in a country that was foreign to her.

In England, Marguerite easily bested Ali when it came to mobilizing public sympathy. Egypt, formerly colonized by Britain, had just declared its independence from the United Kingdom the prior year. This led to Egyptians being “seen as political upstarts and troublemakers,” Bland says, by white upper-class people. Books like Richard Francis Burton’s “The Sotadic Zone” shaped the narrative that polygamy in the Middle East, particularly in Egypt, was associated with sodomy and then-illegal homosexuality (2). This created the perfect combination for Marguerite to be seen as a poor white woman, the victim of a person of color.

This was in no little part due to the depiction of Marguerite in the press. When the trial began, newspaper reporters played a key role in shaping public perception of Marguerite as a victim. Reporters were the “main conduits of information,” Bland says. When Marguerite took the stand at the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales – commonly known as the Old Bailey – a few months after her husband’s death, reporters cast her as sympathetic and Ali as a brute who may have had an affair. The Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, published in North East England, for instance, reported that Marguerite “sobbed violently while detailing her husband’s unkind treatment” (2). This included allegedly causing her to develop external hemorrhoids from violent sexual intercourse, according to Bland.
 

Marguerite Alibert
Marguerite Alibert circa late 1910s or early 1920s @Wikimedia Commons

The press played by the rules laid out by Marguerite’s lawyer, Sir Edward Marshall Hall. He sought to ensure that details about Marguerite’s first marriage and her stint as a sex worker were inadmissible in court. Marguerite’s past was also allegedly swept under the rug due to her affair with the Prince of Wales and future Edward VIII, which is detailed in Rose’s The Prince, the Princess and the Perfect Murder (1). Hall was “a theatrical figure” who “played to the audience and played to the press,” Bland says—and reporters abided by his requests to exercise discretion in writing about Marguerite, discretion they did not afford to Ali. In court, Hall reenacted scenes in a way that generated sympathy for his client: “Producing a pistol before the jury,” The New York Times reported, the lawyer depicted “a terrified, desperate woman cowering before her brute husband” (3). Hall also fed onlookers and reporters “totally untrue and deeply racist” assertions about Ali, according to Bland. In addition to accusations about Ali’s sexual preferences, Marguerite’s defense claimed that Ali wanted multiple wives, which, according to his family, was not true. For this English court and its spectators, possible lies about Ali confirmed their deep rooted prejudice about Middle Eastern men.

Though the justice told the jury that a man’s “depraved and despicable” behavior was not a defense for murdering him, according to The New York Times (3), Marguerite successfully presented herself as a victim, something Professor Bland attributed to her cleverness. “It really helped that she could not understand any English because it left her completely mute. She was kind of a poor little frightened creature.” With the need for support in court from an interpreter, in addition to her dressing all in black, Marguerite appeared as a fragile, desperate white woman who needed to be saved from the clutches of an abusive husband. I think that Marguerite knew that if she appeared as a victim, other white people would feel sorry for her and want to avenge the abuse she faced. If Marguerite killed Ali today, she would definitely still have defenders, but she would fall under the archetype of a dangerous “Karen” – a white woman who weaponizes her power to put people of color in danger.

Marguerite’s own testimony was steeped in racism. She sought to elevate her own reputation by tarnishing Ali’s—and to do it, she claimed that one of Ali’s acts of cruelty was forcing her to interact with other non-white people, including Black servants. In her book Modern Women on Trial, Bland described Sir Marshall’s claim that Ali “had once sworn on the Koran to kill her” (2). Whether or not Sir Marshall was telling the truth, he may have known that even the act of swearing on the Koran would have generated an Islamophobic response. Even in 2020, people falsely accused U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar of committing treason for using a Koran when taking the oath of office.

An Egyptian lawyer, A. Ragi represented Ali’s sister and brother-in-law in court. Ragi’s evidence, according to Bland’s book, included a sworn statement from two peers of the Fahmy family claiming that Marguerite had a plan “she was going to carry out in Europe that would result in her obtaining Ali’s money,” which may have been her financial motive for wanting Ali dead (2). Despite this evidence provided by Ali’s family, Bland wrote that the prosecution was “distrustful of evidence collected by the Egyptians” and, instead, tried to attack Marguerite’s character by claiming that she was a promiscuous woman of the world (2). While I do not believe that Marguerite was the innocent victim that many people viewed her as, it is still unfortunate that the prosecution’s arguments were ingrained in misogyny, as she was criticized more for her promiscuous character than the murder.

The jury acquitted Marguerite of both manslaughter and murder after only an hour of deliberation. Headlines across England and France seemingly celebrated Marguerite’s victory, with the front page of the Yorkshire Evening Post saying “Madame Fahmy Acquitted: Verdict Cheered.” Keeping up her image of a docile, innocent woman, Marguerite “swayed, and had to be held up by the wardresses” when her interpreter announced the verdict, the Yorkshire Evening Post wrote (4). The reaction from the Egyptians to this outcome of the trial could not have been more different. A written statement from barristers in Cairo protested the verdict, and the nationalist Wafdist Women’s Central Committee sent a letter accusing Marguerite’s defense and the British Press of “a deliberate campaign of hostility…to justify British colonial policy,” according to Bland’s Modern Women on Trial (2).

After the trial, Marguerite moved to a building across from the Ritz Hotel in Paris, where she spent the rest of her life. The only real repercussion that Marguerite faced for the murder of Ali Fahmy was failing to secure his assets from his family because a court in Egypt rejected the Old Bailey verdict (2). Another consequence of Ali’s murder was the perception of interracial relationships in England between white people and Arabs, which was slated in no uncertain terms by the press. “No matter what novelists say,” the Dundee Courier wrote, “mixed marriages of the kind in question have one ending – bitter disillusionment.”

I believe that Marguerite was able to live a lavish life after killing her husband because she used her whiteness to her advantage, using anti–Arab sentiment to paint her deceased husband in a negative light. As a woman of her time period, she was likely perceived as weaker due to her gender. The murder and trial of Ali demonstrates how people can even take advantage of prejudice against their own selves, to paint themselves in a better light.

Perceiving Marguerite as the victim only based on her gender would be looking at this situation through an exclusionary white feminist lens. White feminism, including “white tears”, makes societies unsafe for people of color, including women of color. From Carolyn Bryant to Amy Cooper, all it takes is a white woman complaining about men of color for them either to be put in danger or killed.

 

Julia Métraux

 

References:

  1. “London Jury Acquits Mme. Fahmy of Murder Of Egyptian Husband in the Savoy Hotel.” The New York Times, 1923.
  2. Bland, Lucy. Modern Women on Trial: Sexual Transgression in the Age of the Flapper. Manchester University Press, 2016.
  3. “MADAME FAHMY ACQUITTED: VERDICT CHEERED IN COURT. JUDGE ORDERS COURT TO BE CLEARED.” Yorkshire Evening Post, 1923.
  4. Rose, Andrew. Prince, the Princess and the Perfect Murder. Hodder & Stoughton General Div, 2014.
Received: 17.05.21, Ready: 15.07.21. Editors: Omaina H. Aziz, Alexander F. Brown

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One thought on “How privilege helped this wealthy white woman get away with murder

  1. This is systemic, and still applies today. There is pervasive, institutional discrimination favoring women along the entire justice system.
    It starts early with boys receiving harsher punishments than girls from parents and teachers, for the same behavior problems [1,2,3]. Then, men systematically receive heavier sentences for the same crimes.: they are more likely to be arrested, found guilty, convicted, sent to prison and when they do, receive longer sentences [4,5,6,7]. This discrimination is also visible on mock jurors trials, which eliminate all potential confounding issues [8,9,10].

    Obviously, all of this also applies to ethnic minorities, but the author would never say that it’s actually prejudice against white people, because “white people are perceived as weaker due to their race”. That would be disgustingly oppressive. You just need to recognize that our society systemically favors women in its justice system.
    It is not about Alibert being “a woman of her period” – it is gender-based privilege, and any woman living now benefits from it.

    [1] https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1524838020925787
    [2] https://doi.org/10.3102%2F0002831214541670
    [3] https://oadoi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.109.2.267
    [4] https://doi.org/10.1177%2F2153368713500317
    [5] https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2015.07.003
    [6] https://doi.org/10.1257/pol.20170329
    [7] https://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/154388/
    [8] https://doi.org/10.1080/00918369.2017.1374066
    [9] https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.126.5.651
    [10] https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0886260515581907

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