While flipping through the archives of newspapers and journals I came across an interesting name. ‘The International Women’s News’ reported in 1939 that Begum Hijab Imtiaz Ali had become the first Muslim woman in the British Empire to obtain an ‘A’ license as an airr pilot. Report further claimed that Begum was married and had a daughter. The name was interesting because I have heard this name several times. Rather, anyone who had an interest in Urdu literature has heard this name.

News Paper Reporting Hijab as the First Muslim Woman Pilot in the British Empire

Begum Hijab Imtiaz Ali was the first Indian, rather in the British Empire, Muslim woman to become a pilot. She followed Sally Tata, Rodabeh Tata (Sisters of JRD Tata) and Urmila Parikh as one of the earliest women pilots from India. Sarla Thakral, who is often wrongly claimed by many scholars as the first Indian woman pilot, obtained her license around the same time as Begum Hijab. Both of them obtained the license in 1936 while Tata sisters and Parikh flew airplanes at least four years before them. Sarla and Begum Hijab both learnt flying at Lahore Flying School while the previous three women were from Bombay (Mumbai). 

Begum Hijab is more famous as a fiction author and editor. She belonged to an aristocratic family of Hyderabad, Telangana and was married to Imtiaz Ali Taj, a celebrated Urdu writer and journalist. In fact, the famous play which was later adapted into several films, ‘Anarkali’ was written by him. Hijab’s Father-in-Law and Mother-in-Law, Mumtaz Ali and Muhammadi Begum were one of the earliest feminists. Muhammadi was the first woman editor of any Urdu magazine. She edited ‘Tehzeeb-e-Nizwaan’ (Culture of Women). The magazine and the book, ‘Huqooq-e-Niswaan’ (Rights of women) written by Mumtaz spread the ideas of equality of genders among the Urdu reading people. It was ‘Tehzeeb-e-Niswaan’ in which Hijab’s first story was published when she was only nine years old, which was well received by the readers.

Cover page of Tehzeeb-e-Niswaan

‘Meri na-kaam Mohabbat’ (My failed love), a story written by Hijab when she was 12 years old is often considered as one of the best romantic stories ever written in Urdu. The family she was married into was one of the most progressive Muslim families and encouraged her to learn flying after marriage and becoming mother. Hijab also edited ‘Tehzeeb-e-Nizwaan’ and wrote for other magazines like ‘Phool’. ‘Pagal Khana’ (Mental Asylum), is a futuristic novel where she has discussed the perils of technology leading to nuclear war. 

What amazed me the most is the fact that our ‘scholars’ have almost forgotten her as the first Muslim pilot from India and have also put the crown of being the first on the head of someone else while Tata sisters and Urmila were the overall first while Sarla and Hijab compete for the first Lahori woman pilot.  

(Author is a well known historian)