Begum Hijab Imtiaz Ali was the first Indian Muslim pilot

Story by  Saquib Salim | Posted by  Aasha Khosa | Date 16-09-2023
Begum Hijab Ali's published photograph
Begum Hijab Ali's published photograph


Saquib Salim

Browsing through old newspaper clippings and journals, I came across an interesting name - Begum Hijab Ali. According to 'The International Women's News', published in 1939, Begum Hijab Imtiaz Ali was the first Muslim female in the British Empire who had an 'A' license as a pilot.

For those interested in Urdu literature her name may be familiar. Begum Hijab was a celebrated fiction writer and editor of women's magazines. At 12 years of age, she wrote, "Meri Na-kaam Mohabbat (My Failed Love), a fiction and it is to date considered as a masterpiece of romance. She edited Tehzeeb-e-Niswan, a monthly Urdu magazine for women while writing for several leading magazines of her time. In Pagal khana (Mental Asylum), another novel, she writes about the dangers of technology leading to nuclear war. 

Hijab married Imtiaz Ali Taj who became famous and popular due to his stage play Anarkali which was later adapted into several films. It must be noted that Imtiaz Ali Taj was the son of Muhammadi Begum and Syed Mumtaz Ali, two early feminists from the late 19th century. 

Huqooq-e-Niswan (Rights of women) published by Mumtaz in 1898 advocated the rights of Muslim women. Its content was so radical for its time that Sir Syed Ahmad Khan tore its copies for he found it “too feminist”.

Newspaper clipping with news about Hijab Imtiaz Ali

Muhammadi Begum, Hijab’s Mother-in-Law, was the first woman editor of an Urdu magazine. She edited Tehzeeb-e-Niswan (Culture of women), incidentally, Hijab published her first story in the same magazine at the age of 9, much before her marriage to Muhammadi’s son Imtiaz.

Begum Hijab Imtiaz Ali was the first Indian Muslim woman to obtain a pilot's license in the whole British Empire. Her accomplishments followed those of Sally Tata, Rodabeh Tata (sisters of Industrialist and philanthropist JRD Tata), and Urmila Parikh, who were among the earliest women pilots from India.

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It is often erroneously claimed by scholars that the first Indian woman pilot was Sarla Thakral. Sarla and Hijab obtained their pilot's licenses in 1936. Tata sisters and Urmila had flown airplanes at least four years before them.