Britain's first Muslim war heroine (circa 1935)

Britain's first Muslim war heroine (circa 1935)
Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan, also known as Nora Inayat Khan, was a British heroine of World War II renowned for her service in the Special Operations Executive. She was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the highest civilian decoration in the United Kingdom. She became the first female wireless operator to be sent from Britain into occupied France to aid the French Resistance during World War II.

Born in 1914, Noor was the daughter of an American woman and a prominent Indian father who taught Sufism.

Her father, Inayat Khan, came from a noble Indian Muslim family - his mother was a descendant of the uncle of Tipu Sultan, the 18th-century ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore. Inayat Khan lived in Europe as a musician and a teacher of Sufism. Noor's mother, Pirani Ameena Begum was an American from New Mexico. The family settled in Britain and later moved to Paris in 1920. Here, Noor studied music at the Paris Conservatory. At the outbreak of WWII the family fled to England where Noor cared for her siblings and her widowed mother. She then joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and later, the Special Operations Executive for work as a radio operator. Her fluency in French served as an important asset.

Because of her quiet demeanour, Noor was discounted as a trainee and nearly cashiered. Prejudice against Noor’s cultural background likely influenced her handlers to mistake her self-effacing style as self-doubt.

Without trained radio operators in occupied France, it would have been nearly impossible to support sabotage work with supplies and military expertise. An operator could not transmit more than 20 minutes at a time since the Germans patrolled with vans listening for signals. Radio antennae were often strung up in attics or disguised as wash lines, and the operator had to constantly move to new locations to avoid detection. Noor was an expert in these tactics.

Four months into this activity, she was betrayed by either the sister of a French resistance operative or an SOE officer who was suspected of being a double agent for the Nazis. Noor was interrogated at their headquarters in Paris over several weeks, twice escaping only to be recaptured. She did not reveal intelligence under questioning, but her signaling notebooks were found and seized.