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Have You Heard of the “Spy Princess”?

Have you heard of the “Spy Princess”? No? Well, I guess this is another one of those remarkable stories that time has forgotten. Let me take you back to the moment I first met this extraordinary woman.

On a gusty Autumn’s afternoon in Gordon Square Gardens, Central London, I noticed a statue intently staring into the distance, upon a second glance I realised that the contemplative figure looked a little like me. This further sparked my interest, so I decided to go over and have a look. On the pedestal upon which the bust lay, was inscribed NOOR INAYAT KHAN, 1914-1944, CC MBE, Croix de Guerre. I instantly realised this was a commemoration of a notable Muslim woman. I instantly thought: why haven’t I heard of her, and who was she?

 Bust of Noor Inayat Khan at Gordon Square Gardens in Bloomsbury, London.

Stories like Spy Princess have a real connection in the modern era. And to have a statue here reminds us of just that...the multicultural aspect, the international aspect of her life and her sacrifice. It will get many more people to ask the question -- who she was, why she is here and what we could achieve in her memory.

 - HRH The Princess Royal, 8 November 2012 at the unveiling of the memorial for Noor Inayat Khan

Noor ul-Nisa Inayat Khan, was born in Moscow, Russia on New Year's Day 1914. An Indian princess through her father’s side –a direct descendant of the Tipu sultan, the legendary 18th century Muslim ruler of Mysore. Noor’s father was a musician and Sufi teacher. He moved his family first to London and then to Paris, where Noor was educated and later worked. Noor and her family later escaped to England after the Nazi occupation of France, and in November 1940 she joined the WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force). Although her father had instilled in her a firm Sufi Muslim belief in non-violence, she nevertheless could not just sit by and watch fascism and tyranny prevail. In late 1942, she was recruited to join SOE (Special Operations Executive) as a radio operator, the most dangerous position in the war effort which had a life expectancy of 6 weeks. Although some of those who trained her were unsure about her suitability, in June 1943 she became the first radio operator to be parachuted into France for the 'Prosper' resistance network in Paris, with the codename 'Madeleine'. Many members of the network were arrested shortly after landing and tortured by the Gestapo, however, Noor’s tenacity and quick thinking helped her elude capture for three months. Now the last radio operator to not have been captured, Noor turned down the opportunity to return to England, and she chose to remain in France and spent the summer moving from place to place, trying to send messages back to London while avoiding capture. 

In October, Khan was betrayed by a Frenchwoman and arrested by the Gestapo. In November 1943, she was sent to Pforzheim prison in Germany where she was kept in chains and in solitary confinement. Despite repeated torture for 10 months, she refused to reveal any information. In September 1944, Khan and three other female SOE agents were transferred to Dachau concentration camp where on 13th September they were shot in the back of the head. Her last words were reported to be "Liberté" (liberty).

For her courage, Noor Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross in 1949, Britain’s highest award for gallantry, and a French Croix de Guerre in 1946.

Given the current climate in Britain regarding Islam, is it not time we highlighted positive and courageous people and stories such as the one about the Spy Princess? With over 95% of media coverage on Muslims being negative, it is easy to forget those from that demographic and their efforts and contribution to their country. Forgotten stories like Noor’s need to be spoken about for them to be kept alive. Is there a story that you feel time has forgotten, one that you want people to know more about? If so, please share below.

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