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Akbar [née Hasib], Shireen Nishatlocked

(1944–1997)
  • Julie Cornish

Shireen Nishat Akbar (1944–1997)

by unknown photographer [third from left, in the Nehru Gallery of Indian Art, Victoria and Albert Museum]

Akbar [née Hasib], Shireen Nishat (1944–1997), educationist, was born on 30 July 1944 in Calcutta, India, the daughter of F. A. Hasib and Selina Hasib, who also had two sons. Among her forebears was Begum Rokeya Hossain (1880–1932), an early worker for women's emancipation in Bengal. In 1957 her family moved to East Pakistan. Shireen Hasib was educated in Dacca at Viqarunisa School, Holy Cross College, and Dacca University. In 1968 she married Anwar Akbar; they had one daughter, Sameena. In the same year she moved to England, where she attended New Hall, Cambridge, graduating in 1970 with a second-class degree in English. She then moved on to the Cambridge Institute of Education, where she gained a teaching qualification in primary education. She remained in Britain to become a teacher in London.

In 1978 Akbar was employed by the inner London education authority to work with young Bangladeshi women in Tower Hamlets as a language tutor. She quickly developed other aspects to her work as she sought to address the problems of racial abuse experienced by Asian women, and the restrictions placed upon them by their own community. She acted as an interpreter for Bangladeshi families who did not speak English, and she took the children on visits to places they had no other opportunity of seeing. She was one of few people doing this type of work at the time and her initiatives helped to redefine community education in London.

Akbar's highly innovative approach led her to develop a series of increasingly ambitious community arts projects. To ensure that children gained as much as possible from an introduction to Asian arts she collected resource material from Asia to support the work carried out by teachers in east London. She helped to organize ‘Crafts of Bangladesh’, an exhibition at the Crafts Council in 1986, and later raised funds to purchase the exhibition as a permanent resource for east London educational institutions. In 1988, following the success of her previous exhibitions, the Whitechapel Art Gallery employed her to help organize ‘Woven Air’, an exhibition celebrating traditional and contemporary textile techniques. In parallel she developed an acclaimed educational programme, including demonstrations by weavers from Bangladesh. Through all of her exhibition work she sought to inspire creative energy as well as inform a wider audience of the beauty and depth of tradition in Asian arts.

In 1991 Akbar joined the Victoria and Albert Museum as south Asian arts education officer. It was during her time at the V&A that she embarked upon the Mughal tent project, her greatest achievement. She encouraged south Asian groups throughout Britain, many of whom had never visited a museum before, to visit the museum and to see the relevance of the museum collections to their own lives. She organized workshops for women to collaboratively create tent hangings which would illustrate their aspirations. Participants were encouraged to learn textile techniques from each other as well as from the museum collections. The women gained a sense of ownership of their work and many made lifelong friendships with other participants. Each group created hangings of extraordinary beauty, which were exhibited together within one tent at the V&A in 1997. She conceived the Mughal tent project with an emphasis on group learning and the development of existing networks, which extended far beyond initial expectations as new groups set up in other countries. Her project had deep roots in the educational traditions of south Asia as well as Britain, and offered a commitment to social change, self-directed learning, and long-term rather than short-term goals. The Mughal tent project received international acclaim throughout the museum and education world, and stood as a model for community-education initiatives.

Akbar was an elegant woman with natural authority and charm. In pursuit of her vision she was often stubborn and unrelenting, but her eloquence and beauty always persuaded those around her to follow her lead. Through her own example she spent most of her life encouraging south Asian women to aspire to improving their own lives, to gain confidence, and to reach for new opportunities. For her contribution to arts and community education she was made MBE. Her marriage to Anwar Akbar ended in divorce. In 1994 she developed breast cancer, but bravely fought to recover and continued developing projects until her death at the Royal Free Hospital, Camden, London, on 8 March 1997. She was survived by her daughter, Sameena.

Sources

  • The Times (19 March 1997)
  • The Independent (1 April 1997)
  • personal knowledge (2004)
  • private information (2004)
  • d. cert.

Likenesses

  • photograph, repro. in The Times
  • photograph, repro. in The Independent
  • photograph, V&A [see illus.]

Wealth at Death

under £180,000: probate, 2 June 1997, CGPLA Eng. & Wales