Columns unruly bodies

Unruly Bodies; Remarkable Lives: Noor Inayat Khan: Muslim “princess”, author and disabled spy


This is reportedly the last word Noor Inayat Khan (1914 – 1944) ever spoke, in defiance at the hands of her German captors in the heart of Dachau concentration camp. 

It was a fitting epitaph for a woman who’d spent her early years fleeing across Europe as a refugee, and eventually gave her life as one of the first female agents to be parachuted behind enemy lines in WWII.  

While I was researching this remarkable woman, I was struck by the dichotomies in her life. An ardent pacifist thanks to her father’s Sufi teachings, she nevertheless volunteered for the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce in WWII. She abhorred violence, yet found that shooting and loading a pistol helped her with “concentration and meditation”. 

And while she was determined to do her bit to help end the war, as a passionate supporter of India’s independence, she boldly told her air force recruiters that after it was over, she might be obliged to fight for India against the British. 

In that one action alone, we can see that she was a woman of principle, and those principles were forged both by her family, and her experience of displacement as a child.

The constant refugee

The early years of Noor’s life were marked by frequent movement across Europe. She was born in Russia to an American mother, the poet Pirani Ameena Begum, and the Indian musicologist and philosopher, Inayat Khan.

On her father’s side, we can trace her family lineage back to Tipu Sultan — the ruler of the kingdom of Mysore in the 18th century — which is why Noor came to be known as the Indian or Muslim Princess. 

But her famous ancestry didn’t protect her from persecution.

Not long after her birth, the Russian Revolution caused the family to flee to the relative safety of England, but their peace there didn’t last for long. While she was still very young, the British government began to regard her father’s Sufi teachings and pro-India beliefs as dangerous, and they fled again to settle in France. 

Still, Noor’s home would yet again prove to be an unsettled one, and when Germany invaded France at the start of WWII, the family escaped back to England on one of the very last boats to make the journey. 

Children’s books and secret codes

Despite the unsettled political tides that uprooted much of her childhood, before WWII, Noor led a peaceful life in Paris, where her work revolved around music and literature. There, she studied child psychology at Sorbonne University, and, following in her father’s footsteps, composition at the Conservatoire de Paris

Later, she would enjoy a successful career as a children’s author, translating and adapting the Twenty Jataka Tales, a collection of animal fables inspired by Buddhist literature. Her writing was so popular, in fact, that many were broadcast nationally by the Children’s Hour of Radio Paris, and she was a regular contributor to magazines. 

In another world, perhaps we would have had more of Noor’s stories to remember her by. But from the moment she arrived in a London that was already burning, a new path was laid out before her. 

Both Noor and her brother Vilayat were committed pacifists, but it was this that led them to volunteer for non-violent service, believing that by ending the war quickly they would save many lives.

On November 19th, 1940, Noor joined the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce and was trained as a wireless operator, before being recruited by Military Intelligence for the Special Operations Executive Branch. Little is recorded about her disability, but accounts of the severe and painful swelling in her hands, which led to a very distinctive style of tapping out Morse Code, suggest that she lived with a circulatory disorder that caused near-constant chilblains. 

This crucial detail could perhaps have saved her life, but by the time the alarm was raised it was already too late. 

A tragedy in blue

On the night of June 16th, 1943, Noor crossed the English Channel in a small Lysander plane with two other female agents. Her aim was to join a wireless circuit, transmitting information out of occupied territory and back to the Intelligence Services in Britain. But within a week of her return to Paris, every other member of her team was discovered and arrested.

Noor was advised to flee back to England, but as the only remaining radio operative in Paris, she stayed, sending information across the airwaves that ultimately helped 30 Allied airmen escape. For three months, she single-handedly ran a cell of agents across Paris, and in the end it was a heartbreaking human tragedy that led to her capture.

Pierre Viénot, a fellow resistance fighter, recounted in his private memoirs that with the Gestapo closing in, the resistance tried to hide her. They took her to a hair salon and procured a whole new wardrobe, but her love of the colour blue gave her away. Despite the disguise, it was well-known that Noor favoured blue, and her new clothes didn’t deviate from that preference. 

Despite their best efforts, she was arrested and taken to the Gestapo Headquarters, where she immediately attempted to escape out of a window and down a gutter. It was at this point the alarm was raised, when another operative noticed that although they were still receiving messages, Noor’s distinctive Morse Code style had changed. 

The warning wasn’t heeded. Noor would go on to endure 10 months of torture at the hands of the Gestapo, before she was eventually transferred to Dachau and executed — dying with liberty on her lips.

It was a sad end to a remarkable life, but Noor’s bravery has been recognised.

“I wish some Indians would win high military distinction in this war,” she once said. “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.”

Despite her ordeal, Noor never betrayed a single piece of information to her captors. In 1946 she was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre with Gold Star, the highest civilian honour in France. And in 1949 she received the George Cross, the highest civilian honour in Britain. 

In 2012, a bronze bust of Noor was installed in Gordon Square Gardens, London, and in 2020 she also received a Blue Plaque on the Bloomsbury home she once lived in. So many years after her death, she was still remembered warmly by her fellow servicewomen.

“Noor (Nora to us) and I were on the same wireless operator’s course in Edinburgh,” said Irene Warner, a former member of the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce. “Although she was unable to hold the Morse key properly because of severe chilblains, she persevered and passed out with the rest of us.

“She was a very brave woman.”

Further Reading and Watching

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Unruly Bodies; Remarkable Lives: Annette Kellerman- Nude film star and disabled mermaid

When I started to accept that I was disabled, one of the first things I did was turn to the internet for examples of successful disabled people. Perhaps this is a common experience — suddenly becoming part of a minority group, and needing to reassure yourself that people like you have thrived in the past.

What I discovered was a long history of collective and individual pain, but also of resistance and triumph.

Since then, I’ve collected a wealth of information on disabled historical figures. Some are well-known, while others have flown under the radar of popular history, forgotten by many and remembered by few. 

The more people I uncovered, peeling back histories that often erased their subject’s disability, or discovering names and lives that were entirely new to me, the more I wanted to share them.

So, Unruly Bodies; Remarkable Lives was born.  

There’s always a risk in writing a column like this, that it will veer into ‘superhuman’ territory. That in writing about disabled success, I inadvertently popularise the view that all disabled people can do anything, if we just set our minds to it. Of course, this isn’t the case. In the same way that it would be impossible for every abled person to run as fast as Usain Bolt, disability isn’t a monolith.

We all have different abilities, access needs, support systems, and environments, and each of these shape how much we can achieve.

I want to be clear from the beginning that exceptionalism shouldn’t be a prerequisite for access, support, and success. Disabled people, like every other person, shouldn’t have to be extraordinary to be worthy of equality or equity. This column, then, seeks to uncover disabled historical figures without shying away from the barriers they faced.   

It’s a celebration of the tenacity of unruly bodies, the political and social resistance inherent in disabled lives, and the exceptional figures who raised their voices against a world that was designed to silence them. After all, how can you be something if you can’t see it? I want these people to be seen, and I hope you’ll enjoy discovering them too. 

So shall we?

Annette Kellerman: Silent film’s disabled mermaid

“It’s the most ghastly thing in the world to be called the perfect woman,” Annette Kellerman (1886 – 1975) told an interviewer in the year before her death. “Every other woman was saying [of me], I don’t see that she’s anything.” 

Although they might not have seen her as anything, Annette Kellerman was an Edwardian trailblazer, who credited her success as a swimmer, vaudeville star, silent film actress, and swimwear pioneer, to her early years of disability. 

“My early physical misfortune turned out to be the greatest blessing that could have come to me,” she wrote in her book, How To Swim (1918). 

She was speaking of the childhood rickets that had severely weakened the bones in her legs, and left her needing steel braces to walk. At the time, doctors told her father that she would never improve. Despite this prognosis, a single doctor advised them that swimming might help her to build muscle, which would compensate for the permanent damage to her bones. 

Although she was resistant to the idea at first, writing of her “humiliation” over “exposing my weak and ill-formed legs,” this early hydrotherapy proved to be the start of a lifetime of performance and success. 

“Only a cripple can understand the intense joy I felt, as little by little, strength began creeping into my legs,” she wrote of those early years.

The necessity of building her strength meant that Annette rejected the ideal that women ought to be naturally slim and delicate. Instead, she defied convention to champion her body as something that was muscular, ‘masculine’ in build, and strong. 

“I’d caught the mermaid fever,” she said.

Pretty soon, she was winning major swimming championships in her native New South Wales. She even set the world record for the woman’s 100-yard swim at the tender age of 16. And in her late teens, she began performing as a swimmer and high-diver, delighting the crowds who came to watch her at the Melbourne Exhibition Aquarium — then the largest glass tank in the world. 

Already something of an outsider because of her disability and her gender, Annette first made her name in long-distance swimming. She was one of only a handful of women to attempt to swim the Channel between England and France, and in her first effort, she made it further across the water than any of the men who swam with her.

But despite her success as a competitive swimmer, performance was where Annette’s heart truly found its home.

In London, she developed a unique vaudeville show, pioneering the art of synchronised swimming, and incorporating diving, ballet — both on-stage and underwater — wire walking, comedy, and music into her acts. Multi-talented, she performed for the Queen of England at the London Hippodrome before moving to the USA in 1907.

Before long, “the human mermaid” had taken America by storm. Not only was her vaudeville act in high-demand, earning her many admirers and thousands of dollars a week, she also made her debut as a silent film star. 

Neptune’s Daughter (1914) — for which she dived 28 metres into a pool of live crocodiles — became one of the first films to gross over $1 million at the box office. And Annette broke new boundaries again, when in A Daughter of the Gods (1916), she became the first woman ever to appear nude on-screen.

Many years later, she would demur that, in fact, she had been wearing a pair of incredibly thin tights at the time, but the accolade stuck — and she did little to challenge it. 

In 1918, this fearless performer and athlete even incorporated an early Drag King performance into her vaudeville act. Becoming a character that she called ‘The English Johnny’, she wore a tailored suit, top hat and monocle on-stage in front of thousands of paying crowds. 

Such risqué choices did little to dampen her appeal, and she was later nicknamed the Queen of Modern Vaudeville.

But if Annette Kellerman challenged gender stereotypes on-stage and in-water, she was equally fearless in the real world as well. During her long-distance swims, she realised that women’s swimwear, which was designed for modesty and usually featured a bulky dress and pantaloons, was far more difficult to manoeuvre in than the men’s skin-tight wool. 

Frustrated by the restrictive material, Annette designed a new one-piece swimsuit for women. In 1907, she was arrested on Revere Beach, Boston, under a charge of “indecency”, for wearing her new design that ended in shorts above the knees.  

Eventually conceding slightly to the Edwardian demands for modesty, Annette sewed stockings below the shorts to minimise the amount of skin on display; although she remained firmly against what she called the “pseudo-moral restriction” of designs that discouraged women’s physical activity.

“There is no more reason why you [women] should wear those awful water overcoats — those awkward, unnecessary, lumpy ‘bathing suits’ — than there is that you should wear lead chains,” she wrote. “Heavy bathing suits have caused more deaths by drowning than cramps …Anyone who persuades you to wear the heavy skirty kind is endangering your life.”

Later, she would launch a radical new one-piece swimwear line, and within a few short years, her designs would become the accepted women’s attire for the beach or the pool, helping to usher in a new era of women’s freedom to swim.

From being a self-described “sickly child” who was never expected to walk without braces or pain, Annette Kellerman’s early access to hydrotherapy led to her becoming an international film star, an aquatic protégé, and the “Million Dollar Mermaid” who revolutionised women’s equality in sports, on-stage, and on the beach. 

Watching videos of her performing her underwater ballet in the 21st century, it’s difficult to imagine that this woman could ever have been anything other than a pioneer — or a mermaid. 

Further Reading and Watching

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