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Petition to put the first ethnic minority on British currency grows

Noor Inayat Khan was one of the first women to spy for the British in Occupied France during World War II, but her story is relatively unknown.

The UK is currently looking for portraits of historical British icons for their currency redesign. The announcement from the Bank of England was made in late 2018 and has ignited campaigns for those deemed worthy of the spot.

Petition by political blog Guido Fawkes backed former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to be the face of the note, whereas, the physicist Stephen Hawking was also nominated.

Amongst these familiar figures are many unknown names and faces recommended for the honor is Noor Inayat Khan, the Muslim spy from India who spied for Britain during World War II. The petition to put the children’s book author turned spy on the banknote gained the support of feminist activist and journalist Caroline Criado-Perez and Sayeeda Warsi, first Muslim woman to serve in British Cabinet.

Despite the recent push to put Khan on the note, her story is relatively forgotten in history.

Descending from the legendary 18th century King of Mysore Tipu Sultan, Khan’s upbringing was one of pacifism. Gifted in poetry and music, she studied child psychology and music and wrote children’s books in Paris, France.

Her military career began when her family fled to the UK after France surrendered to the Nazis in the 1940s. Here, Khan made the decision to sign up for the Women’s Auxillary Air Force. Soon after, she joined the espionage organization, Special Operations Executive (SOE).

She would become the first female radio operator to infiltrate occupied France in 1943 under the code name ‘Madeline’. Khan proved her effectiveness and skill in her field, refusing to abandon the most dangerous position in France when SS soldiers began to crack down on French Resistance groups, which she spied for, too.

However, only three months into her operation, she was betrayed by a Frenchwoman who turned her to the Germans. Interrogations and torture proved futile for Khan, as she refused to give any information. Her silence earned her a “highly dangerous” classification and she was transferred to Germany.

In 1944, after 10 months of starvation and torture, she moved with four other women to the Dachau concentration camp, where they were executed. Her last words were ‘Liberte’.

Despite her courage and heroism, she has become a footnote in history. 

Khan received the George Cross and the Croix de Guerre from the UK and France posthumously after the war ended. In 2012, a bronze bust was dedicated to her in London, close to her former home. This was a step in acknowledging her contributions almost 70 years after her death.

Khan was one of three women to join the SOE and the only one who died during active service. Yet, she was sidelined, despite her sacrifice for Britain, a country that was suspicious and critical of her father’s close relations with Indian freedom fighters. 

To this day, her story is relatively unknown. The recent campaign to have her portrait on British currency has again highlighted her bravery. Yet, many people still do not know who she is. Learning and reading about her has made me appreciate her and her sacrifice so much more. I can only hope for the same for others. 

Khan deserves all the honor of any wartime hero. She is an example of the greatness Muslim women have and will always achieve. And in a country where nationalist and anti-Islamic sentiment is still rife, her story is an example of the importance of remembering Muslim women.

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