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Unsung Heroines - The Untold Stories of Women Spies

Throughout history, women’s contributions have often been overlooked, particularly in the realm of intelligence. Despite this, their remarkable legacies stand testament to the pivotal role played by women spies in the history of espionage worldwide. These female spies broke stereotypes and achieved milestones in the male-dominated world of espionage. 


An illustration on the Untold Stories of women spies

Illustration by The Geostrata


On the occasion of International Women's Day, let’s delve into the untold tales of six courageous female spies who risked everything for their nations and proved that espionage knows no gender boundaries. 


SARASWATHI RAJAMANI


Born on 1st January 1927, in Burma, Saraswathi Rajamani is regarded as the First Indian Female Spy. Raised in a family of nationalists, Rajamani felt compelled to be a part of India’s freedom struggle. She was highly revered by Subhash Chandra Bose who gave her the name Saraswathi. 


In 1942, she was recruited to the military intelligence wing of the Rani of Jhansi regiment. During WWII, she worked undercover as a spy for the Indian National Army to report confidential matters from the British Military base in Kolkata. 

For almost two years, Rajamani and her female colleagues disguised themselves as boys to gather information. She played an important role in unveiling the secrets of the British to assassinate Bose. In a daring rescue mission, she infiltrated a British camp disguised as a dancer to save a captured comrade. Despite being shot in the leg, Rajamani managed to escape, demonstrating her fearless spirit.


VERA ATKINS


Vera May Rosenberg is considered to be the greatest female agent in WWII. She was born in Romania in 1908 and worked as an Intelligence Officer in the France section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) from 1941 to 1945. 


She began her career as a secretary and later became one of the top officers in the service. 

Atkins’ remarkable contribution to the SOE emerged after its disintegration in 1946. With tenacious commitment, she pursued the whereabouts of 118 missing SOE personnel and brought the perpetrators to war crime trials. Later in 1948, she was awarded with Croix de Guerre, a military decoration of France for this act of heroism. Also, it is speculated that Miss Moneypenny, a fictional character in James Bond novels and films, was inspired by Atkins. 


SEHMAT KHAN


Sehmat Khan was an ordinary Kashmiri girl who gave up on her dreams, youth, and college life in devotion to her “watan”. She went undercover in Pakistan on a mission to gather and transmit confidential information to the Indian Agency. She was married to a young Pakistani officer and in the pursuit of her mission, she was compelled to kill her in-laws and many others. 


Her unconditional love for her country made her break many rules that defied the conventional norms of patriotism. She played a significant part in the Indo-Pak War of 1971.

One of her major contributions was to sabotage the Pakistani army’s plot to kill INS Viraat, a centaur class aircraft carrier of the Indian Navy. It was only because of her courage and bravery that the Indian forces secured a vital edge over the Pakistani army. The famous Bollywood movie Raazi (2018) depicts the real-life story of Sehmat Khan.


MATA HARI


Margaretha Zelle, known by the stage name Mata Hari is the epitome of femme fatale or as the French authorities hailed her “the greatest woman spy of the century”

She was a Dutch exotic dancer who was revered for her beauty and sensuality. In 1916, Zelle gave up on dancing and started working as a spy for France. Since she had numerous courtesan contacts, she initiated meetings with the Germans. Soon she was suspected of being a double spy working under the code name H-21 for Germany because the information provided by her was irrelevant to the French. 


She was arrested by the French government on October 13, 1917 and was sentenced to death on October 15, 1917, at the age of 41. She demonstrated immense courage and stood as a symbol of fearlessness and determination. 


DURGAWATI DEVI


Durgawati Devi or Durga bhabhi, popularly known as ‘The Agni of India’ was an Indian revolutionary who helped Bhagat Singh to escape jail when he was convicted of killing John Saunders, a British police officer in 1928, in Lahore. 


She was married at the tender age of 11 years to Professor Bhagwati Charan Vohra, a member of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) planning to bomb the jail to aid Bhagat Singh's escape.

Unfortunately, Vohra died during a bomb test. However, his wife Durgawati decided to pursue her husband’s dream and duped herself and Bhagat Singh as a couple to escape the jail.


As an active member of Naujawan Bharat Sabha, she had considerable influence on revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh, Chandra Shekhar Azad, Ashfaqulla Khan, and many others.

In the retaliatory act for the hangings of many revolutionaries, she even attempted to assassinate Lord Hailey, ex-governor of Punjab, and was sentenced to imprisonment for 3 years. To date, she is revered as the woman who instilled fear in the British police, a symbol of courage.


NOOR INAYAT KHAN


Also known as the ‘spy princess’ Noor Inayat Khan was the great-granddaughter of Tipu Sultan, the 18th-century Indian Muslim ruler of Mysore. Born on 1st January 1914 in Moscow, Noor was the eldest daughter of Inayat Khan and Ameena Begum. She spent most of her childhood in London. 


During WWII, she was sent to France as a British spy which made her the first female wireless operator sent to the Nazi-occupied territory of France. As a descendant of Indian royalty, she was fluent in multiple languages and was recruited by the elite Special Operatives Executive (SOE)  as a radio operator in Paris in 1942.

She operated under the code name ‘Madeleine’ and in October 1943, she was identified as a spy and was arrested by the German Gestapo. Despite being subjected to regular torture and beatings, she never revealed any information in front of the Germans and was eventually shot by them in 1944. The last word she spoke “liberte” is a testimony of her deep-rooted belief in the notion of liberty.


The untold tales of these women in intelligence speak volumes about their fearless attitudes toward enemies and unwavering commitment to their nations. Their forgotten legacies remind us to honor and celebrate their contributions as they stand as a symbol of courage for generations to come.


 

BY DIYA SHARMA

TEAM GEOSTRATA

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