My favourite story about Queen Elizabeth is to do with her car. Sir Sherard Cowper-Cowles, who was then the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia recounts that in 2003, then Crown Prince Abdullah came to visit the Queen in Balmoral, Scotland.
He agreed to the Queen’s suggestion to take a tour of the grounds, and the royal Land Rovers were brought to the front of the castle. He climbed into the front, and an interpreter climbed into the back. To the surprise of the Crown Prince, it was the Queen who climbed into the driving seat, turned the ignition on and drove off.
Mr Cowper-Cowles further recounts that the nervousness of the Crown Prince “only increased as the Queen, an army driver in wartime, accelerated the Land Rover along the narrow Scottish estate roads, talking all the time. Through his interpreter, the Crown Prince implored the Queen to slow down and concentrate on the road ahead.”
This story has me smiling every time I think of it – the image of a daredevil driver in the shape of a small female figure goes against our stereotypes of femininity and what place women are supposed to occupy in the world. Fearlessly deploying her power and platform, she is literally at the driving wheel and moving her life forward on her own terms, disregarding outdated notions.
It's one of many stories that leave us in no doubt that the Queen is a female icon. And one that resonates particularly strongly for me as a British South Asian woman who advocates for women’s representation.
I’m a Muslim woman who covers her hair. So when detractors have come my way to suggest that I’m oppressed, submissive and don’t know my own mind (slurs often thrown with plenty of hateful glee), I must admit I relished sending pictures of her Majesty sporting her iconic headscarf. Her openness about the centrality of her faith and its role in her public service commitments has also been important for me.
She has been on the world stage for nearly a century, and this weekend the UK is celebrating her platinum jubilee, 70 years as the monarch. The nation’s longest-ever serving head of state, she ascended the throne in 1952 and had her coronation in 1953.
She kept her own family name as she stepped up to the throne, despite her husband's objections at the time. Wherever she travelled for work, it was her husband who followed, a stark contrast to political wives and first ladies even today. The Times newspaper described her husband Prince Phillip as an "accidental feminist". If a Prince could follow his wife (often even walking a few steps behind), then why should other women be stopped?
She has epitomised the act that women carry out as “chief memory makers”. This is the role that women often play in the household by default, creating the traditions, memories and culture that bind a family together. She has been Britain's Chief Memory Maker on the national and global stage through the acts of service and awarding recognition, but also simply through her own persona and longevity. That is why the details around her rein are so staggering. Most notably, she has seen 14 prime ministers.
There is of course a paradox between her personal status as a female icon and the constitutional system of monarchy she has stepped into through inheritance, the figurehead of a once imperial power (a system in which female leaders have been exceptions).
This is a paradox that people will continue to unpack for many years: a female icon in a bigger system where privilege, power, influence, ethnicity and, yes, patriarchy continue to play a significant role in shaping the lives of women and other groups.
That feels raw for Brits whose place in the country is a product of empire, but who at the same time have grown up in this new "Elizabethan" era.
When the Queen ascended the throne in 1952, my parents’ country, Tanzania, was still in the Empire. That of my great great grandparents, India, had barely emerged from the Empire four years earlier. And the legacy of empire is still unfolding today.
And yet here I am in Britain, a proud British Muslim Londoner of South Asian heritage who also appreciates the iconic status of the Queen as a woman, and how her dignity and confidence in asserting her power as a woman has laid a template for changing womanhood.
For women who are interested in the stories of other women, that of the Queen will always be particularly fascinating. Of course, we will never know what much of her life was like behind closed doors – we can only wonder what historic moments were like in her eyes.
For that popular dinner-party question "If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be?", surely for many not just in the UK, but around the world, one answer would have to be the Queen. She is a woman with influence, power and prestige, with access to any and all, present at each defining moment, and having presided over a time of immense transformation, perhaps with more change and paradigm shifts than any other.