Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

From an empress to a florist: Five unsung heroines

By Monique Rivalland, for CNN
March 11, 2013 -- Updated 1436 GMT (2236 HKT)
Constance Spry was a florist, educator and author. She dedicated much of her time during World War I and II to teaching women skills that would empower them, such as first aid, cookery and dressmaking. Constance Spry was a florist, educator and author. She dedicated much of her time during World War I and II to teaching women skills that would empower them, such as first aid, cookery and dressmaking.
Constance Spry
Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah
Anna Jarvis
Empress Dowager Cixi
Begum Om Habibeh Aga Khan
  • Pinky Lilani OBE is an entrepreneur, public speaker and leading advocate for women
  • We spoke to her in the lead up to International Women's Day
  • Her unsung heroines include an Empress, politician, florist, and the founder of Mother's Day.

London (CNN) -- "Everything I do is centered around women," says Pinky Lilani. As founder of the Women of the Future Awards, the Asian Women of Achievement Awards and the Global Empowerment Award, it's fair to assume this is no exaggeration.

"Plenty of women are confident and talented but they still need champions; they need mentors," she explains.

And, since emigrating from India to the UK 34 years ago, Lilani has become just that -- earning herself an OBE from Queen Elizabeth II for services to women along the way.

Pinky Lilani
Pinky Lilani

To mark this year's International Women's Day we asked her which extraordinary women she believes are under-acknowledged for their achievements. From an empress to a humble florist, in her own words Lilani presents her five unsung heroines

Read: Inspiring women, remarkable quotes

Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah (1915-2000), politician, diplomat and author

Shaista Ikramullah was a woman before her time.

Her autobiography "From Purdah to Parliament" is a mesmerizing tale of a fearless Muslim woman who fought her way from veiled to valiant.

Ikramullah grew up in a society where women were not encouraged to have an education, but she ignored this culture and went on to become the first Muslim woman to receive a PhD from the University of London.

She was one of very few Muslim women to take part in the Pakistan movement and witness first hand the fall of the British empire. She became a member of Pakistan's parliament, an ambassador to Morocco and her country's delegate to the United Nations. This would have been a colossal feat for any woman at that time, let alone a Pakistani.

She also found time to be a mother of four and was a role model to millions. Her book "Behind the Veil: Ceremonies, Customs and Colour" is a collection of essays on Muslim society from a woman's perspective. It was published in 1953 but is still a crucial work for a country where, in my opinion, women are not given as much opportunity to progress as they are across the border in India.

Read: Middle East's first women's museum lifts lid on rich history

Constance Spry
Constance Spry

Constance Spry (1886 -1960), educator, florist and author

My mother used to enter flower arranging competitions in Calcutta. She learnt everything she knew from Constance Spry. In fact, the only book I brought with me from India was my mother's "Constance Spry Book of Flower Arranging".

Constance had many strings to her bow -- this is also the woman who invented coronation chicken! She created the dish when catering for foreign delegates at the coronation of Elizabeth II.

The role of women was at the core of what she did. During both the World Wars she gave frequent lectures, teaching women about first aid, cookery, dressmaking and how to grow your own vegetables in times of austerity -- all priceless tools for empowerment.

But for me her flower arrangements are still her greatest achievement. After all, a beautified life is one full of spirit.

Anna Jarvis (1864-1948), founder of Mother's Day

As a daughter and a mother to two sons, I really believe in the commemoration of motherhood.

A lot of people forget to thank their mother, but thanks to an American woman called Anna Jarvis, who successfully campaigned to make Mother's Day a national holiday nearly 100 years ago, we have this day to remind us.

Sadly, before her death, Jarvis became disenchanted by the commercialization of her own accomplishment. She is recorded as saying that "a printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world."

It's true that Mother's Day has become far too commercial. We shouldn't need a calendar date to acknowledge our mothers, but if it acts as a reminder of how pivotal mothers are then so be it.

Empress Dowager Cixi of China
Empress Dowager Cixi of China

Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), empress of China

She may have been barbaric, some even say a despot, but I still see her as a heroine.

Cixi was an indigenous girl, an outsider who went from lowly concubine to China's leader for 47 years. It's a rags to riches tale like no other.

In a time when a childless Chinese woman was expected to kill herself as a mark of respect, she went on to be the most powerful female ruler China has ever had.

Yes, she may have resorted to Machiavellian tactics to get there but she managed to command a respect that no woman in China had ever achieved before.

Her resolve, resilience and tenacity should act as inspiration to any woman fighting against the odds.

Begum Om Habibeh Aga Khan
Begum Om Habibeh Aga Khan

Begum Om Habibeh Aga Khan (1906 - 2000), philanthropist and fourth wife of Aga Khan III

I grew up in an Ismaili community so we followed the Aga Khan. I always remember people talking about his French wife, Begum Om Habibeh (originally Yvette Blanche), with great compassion.

They came to my parent's wedding in Calcutta -- she was wearing a sari and a mink. I had never seen anyone wear a mink before.

It is extraordinary that a glamorous European woman managed to integrate so well into Ismaili society-- she had such an empathy with the community.

She was an unlikely national treasure but we loved her like Britain loves Kate Middleton -- she was always out in the community helping the poor and elderly and would relentlessly encourage education for women.

Her legacy remains in the Om Habibeh Foundation, whose programs have contributed to health, education and inclusion in some of the poorest areas of Egypt, where her and the Aga Khan are buried.

The opinions expressed in this story are solely those of Pinky Lilani.

Part of complete coverage on
April 1, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
In 2007, Arianna Huffington collapsed at her desk. Suffering from a broken cheekbone, the editor-in-chief decided to change her workaholic ways.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1623 GMT (0023 HKT)
Meet Mo Abudu, the talk show host portraying a very different Africa. As a glamorous presenter, she also heads up Ebony Life TV network, based in Nigeria.
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
Their job is capturing the most horrifying images on Earth -- keeping their eyes open, where others must look away. Meet Kate Brooks and Gerda Taro, the war photographers of today and yesterday.
March 25, 2014 -- Updated 1819 GMT (0219 HKT)
Gloria Steinem speaks onstage during Equality Now presents 'Make Equality Reality' at Montage Hotel on November 4, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
As Gloria Steinem turns 80, Kathleen McCartney highlights the remarkable life of the feminist so far.
March 8, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
CNN hosted a Tweetchat on gender equality with special guests including Nobel Peace prize laureate Tawakkol Karman. Here's what you missed.
March 13, 2014 -- Updated 1059 GMT (1859 HKT)
From shaving her head for climate change to opting for a sustainable business model, Vivienne Westwood is simply unstoppable.
April 2, 2014 -- Updated 1502 GMT (2302 HKT)
In what would be a dream come true for her alter ego, Carrie Bradshaw -- Sarah Jessica Parker has turned her love of fashion into a new shoe range with Manolo Blahnik.
March 12, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
The Facebook COO's latest headline-making action is a new "Ban Bossy" campaign, which aims at getting rid of the word "bossy."
March 18, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Meet Gail Kelly, the woman who started as a bank teller -- and now runs the banks.
March 6, 2014 -- Updated 0546 GMT (1346 HKT)
What kind of politician is slashed in the face with a knife, and upon waking up in hospital the first thing they ask about is the election campaign?
February 26, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
Former U.S. State Deparment Anne-Marie Slaughter says Brad Pitt is 'posterchild for engaged fatherhood'.
February 25, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
Cast your eye across a line-up of world leaders and it might look a little something like this: Man in dark suit, man in dark suit, man in dark suit, Angela Merkel in fire engine red two-piece.
February 18, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Meet Margarita Louis-Dreyfus, the chairperson of French commodities giant Louis Dreyfus Holdings, with a net worth estimated at an eye-watering $6 billion.
February 17, 2014 -- Updated 1138 GMT (1938 HKT)
YouTube has a new boss and she has a "healthy disregard for the impossible" -- according to Google CEO Larry Page. Here are five things you didn't know about her.