HERSTORY: Noor Inayat Khan

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A royal pacifist turned WWII secret agent, the story of Noor Inayat Khan is one for the ages, yet barely anyone has heard her name, let alone her story. It is a story of courage and determination, and the refusal to sit back and watch as fascism devastated Europe.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public domain]
Despite studying World War Two throughout school and university, Noor Inayat Khan is not a name I was familiar with until a few months ago, thanks to the discovery of a TED-Ed video. Her story begins in Moscow, where Noor was born to creative and pacifist parents, who later moved to the UK.  The strong pacifism of their parents encouraged Noor and her brother to follow suit and become pacifists themselves, until they decided that they could not remain on the sidelines of World War Two.

World War Two was not the only conflict that inspired Noor’s bravery. Influenced by her parents her whole life, Noor was a strong believer in Indian independence, and later hoped that her actions would help improve the relationship between Britain and India.

‘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 …it would help to make a bridge between the English people and the Indians’.

Volunteering for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, Noor studied the use of Morse code and trained as a radio operator – training that would lead to her recruitment by the Special Operations Executive as a secret agent. Facing many obstacles and backlash during her interview process by those who did not think she was fit to be a spy, Noor did not give up and was flown to France in June 1943 to maintain contact between Britain and the French Resistance.

After three successful months of radio operations, Noor’s location was betrayed and she was captured by the Gestapo. Following two escape attempts, Noor was brutally tortured and left in solitary confinement for 10 months. Despite repeated torture, and conditions that drove her to despair, Noor refused to give up any information about the whereabouts or names of her fellow SOE agents, with her captors calling her fierce and dangerously uncooperative. She was transferred to Dachau concentration camp, where she was executed on the 13th September 1944, supposedly uttering the word ‘Liberté’ as a final demonstration of what she stood for.

Credit: Ethan Doyle White [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons
To me, Noor Inayat Khan is one of the most inspiring women in history. Despite being a pacifist, she refused to allow fascism to overrule and fought for freedom throughout her time as a secret agent. Her dedication to her work and her refusal to back down under torture is something that should be admired, as she showed a great deal of courage and resilience in helping the French Resistance.

Despite pleas for her return to London after a series of Gestapo arrests of Secret Agents in France, Noor was not afraid to stay and complete her work in order to help those who were most vulnerable. To top all of her work off, Noor was able to successfully help transmit messages from the resistance, share Nazi intelligence that she had discovered, and aided many who came across her path, all whilst never taking a life or using violence.

Although Noor was awarded a posthumous George Cross in 1946, and a French Croix de Guerre, her life and story is not celebrated nearly enough, with very few people learning her history. Everyone should know the story of Noor Inayat Khan, and we should honour her bravery in her work, and her determination to not let hatred and violence win. For that, Noor Inayat Khan is my hero.

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MA Jewish History and Culture Student, with an emphasis on the relationship between Jews and non-Jews globally throughout history.

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