Amina, Warrior Queen of Zaria

Blog piece featured on Change the Script. A campaign led by The Hon Baroness Uddin.

The first of her kind, a Nigerian warrior Queen of Zaria (née Zazzau), Amina broke the bounds of a male-dominated society. A little side bit to note; she was Muslim. While much of her history is that of legend (due to word of mouth tradition) she remains an integral part of Nigerian history, a statue spear in hand, on horse, erect in Lagos. Her legacy remembered. She is amongst the many Muslim women who often go unheard of or unspoken about in history. Moving forward with plans for the National Photographic Exhibition with CTS, celebrating 100 women and marking the centenary of women’s suffrage, it is integral to celebrate Muslim women throughout history. They demonstrate that they have and always will contribute to whichever society they belong, deconstructing the misinformed narrative placed upon them. Here is one amazing example to start with, and plenty more are to follow.

Amina was born in 1533, 200 years before British colonial rule, to the ruler Bakwa of Turunku and resided in the city state of Zazzau. She grew up surrounded by wealth as her family traded in imported metals, cloth, cola, salt and horses. Her time was spent improving her military skills with the Zazzau cavalry warriors. Her devotion to the military practice led her to become a leader of the cavalry, over which time she accumulated notable wealth and numerous military accolades.

One of the many beauties of pre-colonial Nigeria was that men were not threatened by power and strength held by women, which made Amina’s forthcoming role as Queen all the more respected and a matter of commonplace where assertion of female authority is concerned.

Throughout Amina’s reign, she faced relentless competition to expand her kingdom amongst the Hausa states. These states belonged to neighbouring powers of Zazzau,  where she ruled. There lay three trading routes through northern Africa which connected the Sahara with the south and western Sudan. These routes were imperative to hold power beyond her own kingdom. To conquer these sites, she conjured an army of 20,000 men who went on the serve a 34 year long war the length of her reign, expanding her kingdom to the largest in its history. With this expansion, she brought indescribable amounts of wealth to the lands, introducing new skills and trades to the people. Amina's skills knew no bounds, looking beyond her military life she also established her architectural skills whereby the earthen walls around the city became a prototype for all Hausa states.

Refusing to marry and never to have bore children, Amina instead chose to take a temporary husband from foes whose legion had been vanquished after every one of her battles. She disposed of them shortly after and left no heir, her brother assuming the throne after her death. Her legendary tales led her to be the model for the television series Xena Warrior Princess. She truly represents a woman who is not as capable as a man, but in this case, more so. She is the perfect case to show that Muslim women have and always will be challenging the narrative by, simply, existing.

Noor Inayat Khan

 Blog post featuring on the website for the campaign Change the Script ran by the Hon Baroness Uddin.

When we think about World War II the images that are generally conjured up are that of Nazi Germany, bombs, air raids, spies and trenches and not anything remotely related to a  woman at war let alone a Muslim one. That’s where Noor Inayat Khan, an unsung hero as it were, comes in. There are a number of reasons why you probably haven't heard of her before, and a lot of them remain the same reasons why established Muslim women aren't spoken about in British society today. Nonetheless, looking at a historic figure like Noor tells us that having a Muslim female inspiration is entirely tangible. 

Noor was born on the 1st January 1914 in Russia to an Indian father and American mother, a direct descendant of Tipu Sultan, an 18th-century Muslim ruler of Mysore.

She was brought up in both Britain and France making her the perfect mesh of bilingual and multicultural, ready to be plucked by the elite Special Operations Executive in 1942 set up by Winston Churchill. She was sent to Paris to work as a radio operator, which made her the first woman undertaking this job in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. The thing to remember about Noor is that she did not take on this position with the notion of fighting because of her love for Britain, instead, it was her aversion to fascism and dictatorship. Sadly, it was both those things ultimately led her to her tragic death.

Codenamed Madeleine, also known under the false identity as Jeanne Marie Renier, she assumed the identity of a governess from Blois who had moved to Paris.

Within the first week of the operation, many of the top operatives had been captured by the Gestapo (the official Nazi secret Police). After some time laying low with another agent, word was heard from London instructing Noor to return. She, however, refused instruction. She requested to stay on after realising she was the only British operative remaining and continued to single-handedly work six radio operators on her own.

After three months of tirelessly having to change her appearance and alias in order to continue sending intercepted radio messages back to England, her name had been compromised. An act of betrayal from a colleagues sister, Noor was caught and taken to the German prison Pforzheim in 1943. Her refusal to divulge any information led to 10 months of beatings, torture and starvation being taken to Dachau concentration camp where she was tortured further. On the 13th September 1944, Noor Inayat Khan was led to her execution. Her last word; “liberté.”

Her piece of history doesn't stand alone. It highlights the importance of Muslim women being bold in their beliefs, but more importantly, it exemplifies the 1000’s of stories about both Muslim women and men who had participated, fought and lost their lives in WWII who are all unsung heroes.