UK: Muslim woman honored with stamp
By: Farrukh I. Younus
In line with commemorating the centenary year for the start of World War I, the UK’s Royal Mail has announced the release of ten stamps, each of which recognizes the accomplishments of seven men and three women born in 1914.
The ‘Remarkable Lives’ stamp series includes Dylan Thomas, the famous Welsh poet, Roy Plomley, the BBC radio broadcaster who created Desert Island Discs, and Barbara Ward, an economist who urged governments to share their wealth with the poor.
An Obscure Muslim Heroine
Also in this new set of stamps is a lesser-known personality: Noor Inayat Khan. Khan is the only Muslim included in the list. She was born in Moscow to an American mother and an Indian father.
A descendant of Indian royalty, her family fist moved to England and then to Paris. They returned to London when the city was occupied in 1940. Here she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and was then recruited in 1942 to the Special Operations Executive (SOE), an elite spy squad.
Initially known as Nora Baker Khan, Noor was given the code name Madeleine and in 1943 she was the first female radio operator to be flown secretly into Nazi-occupied Paris; this despite an SOE report stating she was “unsuited to work in her field.”From Paris, she transmitted numerous messages back to London saving many lives. For a period of time, she was the only link between the UK and the French Resistance.
Aged just 30, Khan managed to evade capture for three months but was eventually betrayed by French collaborators and arrested. She tried to escape twice while in Paris and, being considered too difficult, was eventually moved to Germany.
Despite being tortured, Khan revealed nothing of her mission or even of her real name. She was eventually executed in 1944 by the German Gestapo in the Dachau concentration camp. Before her execution by a shot in the back of her head, her last word was, “Liberté!”Britain awarded Khan the George Cross and France awarded her the Croix de Guerre.
Commemorating Noor Inayat Khan
Author Shrabani Basu wrote a book about Khan entitled, “Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan”. Basu campaigned for a memorial in honor of Khan’s efforts, unveiled by Princess Anne in London’s Gordon Square Gardens in November 2012.
It is said that Khan’s decision to be involved in the war efforts was not specifically due to a love of Britain (though this was a part of it). Her involvement was largely on account of the values of religious tolerance and non-violence that she was taught as a child by her father who was a musician and a Sufi teacher. As her biographer Basu said, she “couldn’t bear to see an occupied country.”
The National Archives reveal that Khan had studied both medicine and music. She was also an accomplished writer with a collection of traditional Indian children’s stories published in the French newspaper, Le Figaro.
Unity Productions Foundation has produced a documentary on the life of Khan. The world premiere of the documentary, “Enemy of the Reich”, was held on February 15, 2014 at the prestigious Warner Theater in Washington DC. It was attended by a full house of more than 1400 people.
Khan’s example demonstrates how an individual, particularly an empowered Muslim woman, can support her country. At a time when Muslim women in general suffer the image of being weak and uninvolved in society, Khan demonstrates that a person can be at ease with their faith, gender, heritage and culture without questioning their identity.
I recently returned from a World War I and II memorial tour in Belgium where I visited the resting places of soldiers. The one that stood out most to me was the Ploeg steert Memorial to the Missing. We owe a great debt of gratitude to the men and women who fought for the freedoms that we enjoy today.
Each of the ten people featured in the Royal Mail ‘Remarkable Lives’ stamp set contributed in their own way to the benefit of society. As a British-born Muslim of Pakistani heritage, I am encouraged to find a British-Indian Muslim woman recognized in our stamps and to know that all who contribute to our betterment will be recognized, irrespective of faith or gender.