by: Saadia Faruqi on March 8th, 2013 | 12 Comments »
As a woman, I welcome the month of March – Women’s History Month – each year as an opportunity to pay tribute to women who have made significant contributions to our world. As a Muslim woman, I also look forward to this month as a time to recognize and celebrate the contributions Muslim women have made to the sciences, literature, honorable struggles such as the French Resistance, and so much more. During a time when women in Islam are viewed as dependent, covered up, and oppressed, I look forward to the narratives of strong, independent, and intelligent Muslim women of the past as a much-needed boost to the generally negative and (incorrectly) chauvinistic paintbrush that Islam has been painted with over the last few centuries. This month I will write a series of posts about several little-known Muslim women from whom I personally am honored to learn, and who can demonstrate what Islam really offers to women in terms of freedom, creativity, and authority.
My first historical profile is someone from the recent past. Noor Inayat Khan (1914 – 1944) was an Indian Muslim descended from Tipu Sultan, but more importantly the first female radio operator sent from Britain into occupied France to aid the French Resistance. Interested in music, poetry and writing from a young age, Noor decided to set aside her pacifist Sufi upbringing and participate in the war in order to help change Western perceptions about Indians and Muslims. According to Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: The Story of Indians in Britain 1700-1947, she once said: “I wish some Indians would win high military distinction in this war. If one or two could do something in the Allied service which was very brave and which everybody admired it would help to make a bridge between the English people and the Indians.”
Noor joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and trained at various times as an aircraft woman, wireless operator, and nurse. Her command of the French language and a shortage of agents at the time led to assignment in Nazi-occupied France in June 1943 under the code name Madeline. Despite the subsequent arrest of all her fellow agents, Noor refused to return to Britain, moving instead from place to place to maintain the last link between Britain and Paris. According to the London Gazette, “She refused to abandon what had become the most important and dangerous post in France and did excellent work” (April 5, 1949).
In October 1943 Noor was betrayed by a fellow agent and arrested by the Germans. She tried to escape several times during her imprisonment, leading to solitary confinement as a “Nacht und Nebel” (condemned to “Disappearance without Trace”) prisoner. For most of her ten-month confinement she was handcuffed and chained due to her designation as a dangerous prisoner and flight risk. She was finally executed on September 13, 1944, at the age of 30, along with three other female prisoners.
Noor Inayat Khan’s daring sacrifice as a loyal agent of the French Resistance captured the hearts and minds of the British who she wanted to impress. She received the coveted British George Cross award and the French Croix de Geurre gold star posthumously, as well as several other honors. A number of television series, articles and papers have been written about her over the last few decades, including several biographies and a 2012 Hollywood option for Spy Princess.
For me, Noor’s amazing story isn’t just a piece of Islamic/British history, although many would like to take it as such. Her tale is in fact the embodiment of courage and fortitude, an outstanding example for men and women who came after her. She gave up her quiet literary life, not for the sake of adventure but in response to a sincere calling to show the world what Muslims are made of. Her example shines in every man and woman of combat who fights for freedom and justice and proves that a true Muslim’s loyalty lies with his or her nation. While her life as a spy heroine was indeed noteworthy, much of her character can be gleaned not only from French Resistance records, but from the pages of her children’s novels and piano and harp compositions. This March, I salute the sacrifices made by Noor and hope that all who read about her will have a better understanding of what Muslim women are made of.