Can this Muslim woman become the face on Britain’s new pound sterling note?

Sajeda Momin
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A Muslim woman could become the new face on the redesigned £50 note joining British stalwarts Sir Winston Churchill, Jane Austen, JMW Turner and, of course, Queen Elizabeth II, the reigning monarch who already adorns the sterling currency notes.

An online petition has been started by fans of the World War II British spy Noor Inayat Khan to have her portrait on the new £50 and it has garnered more than 3,500 signatures.

Khan, the daughter of a distinguished Sufi Muslim, Indian musician father and an American mother who converted to Islam, was born in Moscow and grew up in London and Paris.

She joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and was sent to Occupied France during the Second World War, where she was captured and tortured by the Nazis before being killed at Dachau concentration camp when she was just 30-years-old. Khan is not alone in the race to become the new face of the £50 note – the highest denomination of the sterling currency.

ALSO READ: Honoring Noor Inayat Khan on a fifty-pound note

Online petitions have been started to garner support for Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister, Emmeline Pankhurst, who fought for votes for women, Clement Atlee, another former prime minister, recently deceased physicist Stephen Hawkins, and even English footballer Harry Maguire who so far has garnered the maximum number of signatures at around 35,000.

Public nominations

However, all these campaigns appear to be a little premature as the Bank of England, which just announced that it would be redesigning the £50 to go into print from 2020, has simply said that it would be inviting public nominations for potential characters to appear on the new note but has not yet said what category of person – politician, warrior, scientist etc. – it would like to choose from.

British paper currency first began to carry human portraiture in 1960 when the head of the Queen was printed on the front of every note of all denominations.

In 1970, the Bank of England decided to put 16th century poet and playwright William Shakespeare on the back of its £20 note and since then many famous Britons who have made a substantial contribution to history and society have adorned the notes.

This handout picture received from Shrabani Basu at the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial trust on November 8, 2012 shows Noor Inayat Khan playing a Veena. (AFP)
This handout picture received from Shrabani Basu at the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial trust on November 8, 2012 shows Noor Inayat Khan playing a Veena. (AFP)

The current £50 note features the duo Matthew Boulton and James Watt who invented the steam engines in mid-18th century and powered the industrial revolution. This note was first issued on 2 November 2011.

However, since then there have been changes in the British currency with the £1 note completely withdrawn and replaced by the £1 coin. The remaining denominations of £5, £10, £20 and £50 paper notes are being redesigned one by one and produced in slippery polymer plastic.

The new plastic £5 note has war hero and former prime minister Sir Winston Churchill on the back, while the £10 has the portrait of the much-loved British author Jane Austen. In 2015 when it was the turn of the £20 note to join the polymer ranks, the Bank of England decided to change the procedure for the process of selection and involve the public.

A new committee, the Bank of England’s banknote character advisory committee, invited the public to submit suggestions for the £20 note, but advised that it wanted a face from the visual arts.

Resonating with the public

The committee received 590 nominations, which it narrowed down to a longlist of 67. It then used focus groups to “help us identify which characters on the longlist would resonate strongly with the people and which might cause concern”.

Through this a shortlist of five – Barbara Hepworth, Charlie Chaplin, Josiah Wedgwood, William Hogarth and JMW Turner – was produced. The governor of the Bank of England chose the artist JMW Turner from the shortlist, and he will now replace economist Adam Smith’s portrait on the new £20 note, which will come into circulation in 2020. The same long, transparent process is likely to be followed to choose the face of the new £50 note too.

Zehra Zaidi, the instigator of the Khan petition, pointed out that in an age of rising Islamophobia, a multi-ethnic British Muslim woman who fought against fascism and stood for peace and religious harmony had a message that was particularly relevant today.

ALSO READ: ‘I am your protector:’ Muslims who defended Jews during Holocaust honored

Her petition has been endorsed by TV historian Dan Snow and several Conservative Party politicians, including the party’s former co-chair Sayeeda Warsi, Tom Tugendhat MP, the transport minister Nusrat Ghani and minister of state at the Foreign Office Tariq Ahmad.

However, Khan is not the only Briton from ethnic minorities who is being lobbied for. Mary Seacole, a Jamaican British war hero who supported British troops as a nurse during the Crimean War has also received around 2,500 supporters so far.

It will only be once the Bank of England announces the category of person from which they would like nominations that it will be clear whether Khan is even in the running for the new note.

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