UK’s only Muslim war heroine to get a statue at last

The Guardian, LONDON

Thu, Oct 25, 2012 - Page 6

A statue commemorating Britain’s only female Muslim war heroine will become the first stand-alone memorial to an Asian woman in the UK when it is unveiled in London next month.

World War II spy Noor Inayat Khan was sent into France by Winston Churchill’s secret Special Operations Executive (SOE) in June 1943, but was betrayed and captured a few months later. She was shot by the SS in Dachau in September 1944, aged 30, and was posthumously awarded the George Cross, as well as the Croix de Guerre by France.

She was one of only three women in the SOE to be awarded the George Cross. The other two — Violette Szabo and Odette Hallowes — have had far more recognition, including films about their lives.

About 300 people are expected to attend the statue’s unveiling ceremony on Nov. 8, including veterans of both the SOE and Women’s Auxiliary Air force (WAF).

Irene Warner, 91, got to know Noor while they were both training in Edinburgh.

“She was very quiet, very shy and often wore a nervous smile, particularly when dancing, but she was a very nice person ... she was very brave and certainly deserves some recognition,” Warner said.

Campaigners spent years raising money for the statue, staging concerts by Talvin Singh and Anousha Shankar. Other support included a House of Commons early-day motion in June 2010, tabled by Valerie Vaz, proposing that a statue be erected. It was signed by 34 lawmakers, including Glenda Jackson, Julian Lewis and Peter Bottomley, and it received cross-party support.

The vice chancellor of the University of London also gave permission for the bust to be installed in Gordon Square, central London.

Campaigners became nervous when, at the final hurdle, on Oct. 3, the local authority, Camden Council, delayed approval. A petition on Facebook attracted 700 letters of support from all over the world.

A council spokesman said the application was merely going through “the process all applications follow” and planning permission for the statue was finally granted last week, only thee weeks before it is to be unveiled by Princess Anne.

The petition, posted on the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust’s Facebook page, had argued for Gordon Square as an ideal location for the statue because “it is a place where many students and members of the public like to sit ... the statue will be a timely reminder that we must not forget the principles of non-violence and religious harmony that Noor stood for, and for which she unhesitatingly sacrificed her life.”

Shrabani Basu, founder of the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust and author of her biography, Spy Princess, added: “Noor’s house was also nearby and it is where she lived before setting off on her last mission. On her days off she used to sit in the square on a bench with a book on her lap.”

Noor, who was the daughter of Hazrat Inayat Khan, founder of the mystical Sufi Order of the West, was also a musician and poet.

The ceremony will feature Dutch Sufi soprano Bep Ragini Pierik singing one of Noor’s poems.