Europe's hidden heroines: from a Muslim 'spy princess' to a fearless suffragette

Female activists, spies and authors are memorialised throughout Europe – you just have to search a little harder to find them

Europe’s cities are dominated by giant monuments to men — kings, leaders and soldiers — at the expense of the many women who helped to shape the continent in remarkable ways.

But tourists who look hard enough can also find smaller memorials to extraordinary women, from the Muslim "spy princess" who took on Hitler, to the English activist who helped earn voting rights for women, the Scottish author who revolutionised children's books, the Irish woman who battled the British occupiers and a Belgian freedom fighter tricked by the Nazis.

Here’s where to find them.

Noor Inayat Khan, London, England

A statue of the Muslim 'spy princess' Noor Inayat Khan. Photo: Ronan O'Connell

In a picturesque park in central London I encountered a group of young women taking photos with a statue of an extraordinary Muslim lady. She was the descendant of a Muslim sultan, had an Indian Sufi priest father, an American mother, and was born in Russia and raised in London, before moving to Paris to try to take down Hitler.

During the Second World War, Khan became a crucial British secret agent, fought with the French Resistance and tried to infiltrate the Nazis before being caught, placed in a German concentration camp and executed. It is little wonder Khan’s life story is about to be made into a TV series. Freida Pinto will star in Spy Princess, a TV drama scheduled for release in 2022 that will highlight Khan’s legendary heroism.

Her efforts were so remarkable that she was posthumously awarded two of Europe’s highest military honours: England’s George Cross and France’s Croix de Guerre. The Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust was established in her honour and England’s Princess Anne unveiled a memorial for her in London in 2012.

Tourists can visit this statue in Gordon Square, which is located near several of the city’s key attractions, including the British Museum and the British Library.

Emmeline Pankhurst, Manchester, England

The Emmeline Pankhurst statue in central Manchester. Photo: Ronan O'Connell

In one of Manchester’s busiest spots, St Peter’s Square, I spotted an elegant woman standing on a chair with a hand outstretched, delivering a passionate speech. While there was no crowd around her, this activist, Emmeline Pankhurst, once made all of Great Britain listen.

In 1858, Pankhurst was born into a society in which women were second-class citizens. Refusing to accept this inequality, she founded the Women’s Franchise League, which through robust activism won married women the right to vote in local office elections in 1894.

But that was only a stepping stone for Pankhurst. In 1903 she established the Women’s Social and Political Union and upped the ante, trying to storm British Parliament and ending up in prison. She didn’t believe in quiet, courteous protest. Instead, she spearheaded giant, raucous rallies, including some that gathered up to 500,000 people. Her four decades of fierce activism finally paid off in 1928, the year she died. Not long after Pankhurst was laid to rest, British women finally got equal voting rights as men.

Constance Markievicz, Dublin, Ireland

Constance Markievicz was a revered Irish activist. Photo: Ronan O'Connell

While Pankhurst was raising hell in England, across the Irish Sea another fearsome woman would not take no for an answer. In downtown Dublin’s prettiest park, St Stephen’s Green, I struggled to locate a small bust of this trailblazer, which is slightly obscured by bushes.

This woman was Constance Markievicz who, despite being born in London into a wealthy Irish family, became a fighter for the working classes, for the rights of women and for Irish Independence from Britain. In the early 1900s, Markievicz moved to Ireland, in her thirties, and became a radical.

Her militant approach to activism resulted in her being arrested and imprisoned repeatedly. She even took part in Ireland’s bloody Easter Rising in 1916, when almost 500 people died during an Irish attempt to seize back their country from the occupying British. For her involvement, Markievicz was imprisoned and sentenced to death. When she was released on amnesty she didn’t wilt, but instead fought her way to becoming the first woman to be elected in Britain’s House of Commons.

Catherine Sinclair, Edinburgh, Scotland

The monument to Catherine Sinclair in Edinburgh. Photo: Ronan O'Connell

It towers over a street corner in downtown Edinburgh, near the city’s famous castle, yet I had to get up close to understand who this monument is dedicated to, an act I imagine few other people replicate. This memorial is for Catherine Sinclair, a Scottish author who changed the way books for children were written.

Perhaps because she grew up with 12 brothers and sisters in the early 1800s, Sinclair had a rare insight into the minds of children. Britain’s publishing industry was at the time dominated by men, but Sinclair found success writing fictional books for children that, rather than being heavy with education and instruction, were rich in whimsy and fantasy. This marked a major turning point in children’s literature, earning Sinclair long lasting fame and admiration.

Gabrielle Petit, Brussels, Belgium

Gabrielle Petit is honoured in Brussels for her heroism. Photo: Ronan O'Connell

She was a woman of 100 identities — a working-class saleswoman who become a secret agent for Britain, risking her life to spy on the Germans from behind enemy lines during the First World War. Now, every day, tourists in downtown Brussels pass a statue linked to the extraordinary tale of Gabrielle Petit. This freedom fighter was double crossed, executed and hidden in an unmarked grave, before her story was eventually uncovered and she became a national heroine.

After the First World War broke out, Petit quit her sales job and volunteered for the Red Cross. When her soldier fiance was wounded in 1914, she organised his safe passage over the border from Belgium into the Netherlands. During this voyage, she studied the Nazi forces and then briefed British intelligence agents, who asked her to become a spy.

For two years, Petit ran a covert campaign against Hitler, before being captured by the Germans and sentenced to death after she was tricked by a Nazi who pretended to be Dutch. She was eventually given a state funeral in Belgium, attended by royalty. Now Petit has a statue in the heart of Brussel’s tourist precinct, 200 metres from its renowned Grand Place market square.

Updated: March 11, 2022, 6:00 PM
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