Architect Shaheen Choudhury Westcombe was one of the three pioneering female students, graduating from the Faculty of Architecture in Dhaka (established in 1962). Ms. Westcombe began her career as an educator teaching architecture students in Dhaka. She further studied for a Masters in Architecture, from Kyoto University in Japan.
Ms. Westcombe started her professional career as an architect in London working for private firms and then as a community development volunteer championing women’s rights and equality. She then worked with local governments in various senior roles. Due to her services to the communities, Ms. Westcome was awarded an MBE, an honour given by Her Majesty the Queen of the United Kingdom, in 2001. Currently, Ms. Westcombe holds many leadership positions for voluntary sectors.
Ms. Westcombe reflects upon her long and winding career path, which spans over five decades across the continents. Her determination to succeed and her commitment to serve the underprivileged people, especially women and children from Black and Minority Asian communities, are her key driving forces in life.
My formative years in architecture
I was amongst the first batch of female students who trained as architects at the then East Pakistan University of Engineering and Technology now known as BUET. I had studied Arts with Mathematics and was the only student in the class without science at Intermediate level.
The five-year architecture course was very wide and comprehensive. Apart from design, which was our main focus, we had to study various subjects like history, art and civilisation, music; to accounting, public speaking, structure and other engineering subjects. To my horror, there was physics in the curriculum. It was a struggle for me. Every time I thought of physics, I had tears in my eyes; but I was very determined. I surprised everyone when I got through with top marks.
The architecture subjects were taught by American teachers. Prof. Richard Vrooman, the Dean and Jim Walden were sent from Texas A&M University to set up the department. Another Architect, Daniel Dunham, joined soon after from Berger Engineers. The Dunhams were our family friends. Various well-known artists like Hamidur Rahman and Rashid Choudhury taught us art and sculpture. They had both returned from Europe and talked about their artistic ventures there. We had a great time with them. Hamidur Rahman, who had designed the Shahid Minar, took us there one day and explained his design concept.
Wajeda Jafar, Nazma Habib and myself were the only three female students at the University. People thought we were freaks. There were no facilities for female students. A little corridor was screened off and turned into a private space for the three of us. It had some chairs, a table and a locker. We kept packets of biscuits and drinks in it. One morning, we found that the snacks had disappeared. We were mad. The next day we found that there were some vitamin tablets in the locker in their place. We had to laugh. To this day I wonder how our fellow students opened the locker.
Architecture training often required us to stay at the University all night to finish our drawings. It was tiring and stressful. Our fellow students had great respect for us. It was mutual and we were like one family. To this day we have kept in touch.
We graduated in 1967. It was really great that all three of us, the female students, secured a first class. Wajeda came top. Soon after I joined the faculty as a lecturer. I taught for 18 months and then left for Japan for higher studies on a scholarship offered by the Japanese Ministry of Education. By then more female students started joining the University in both Architecture and Engineering. Years later, Khaleda Ekram, who was my student, was appointed the first woman Vice-Chancellor of the University. I congratulated her by e-mail. She was delighted that I remembered her. Sadly, Khaleda passed away prematurely.
My Journey in Japan
I cherish the memories of the time I spent in Japan. The Land of Cherry Blossoms is a beautiful country with a rich culture. As soon as I landed, I realised that hardly anyone spoke English. Without speaking the language, it was a problem even to buy a cup of coffee. I was at a foreign student house. The early days were difficult. It was a relief that most of the foreign students could at least speak English. There was only one Bengali student there. That helped greatly. I spent the first six months in Osaka studying Japanese at the University of Foreign Languages.
Communicating with family back home was time consuming. Letters took over a week to get there. By the time they would reply and I received their letter, it would be at least 3 weeks. Making phone calls was very difficult; direct dialling didn’t exist.
I have many incredible memories of Japan. A band of musicians was sent by Panasonic, and I was asked to sing the Pakistani national anthem, which they recorded. This was played at the 1970 Expo in Osaka, Japan. The national anthem of all the participating countries was played at the Panasonic pavilion. As I was a student I could not be paid. They gave me a Panasonic transistor radio as a present.
I joined Kyoto University for my Masters in Architecture. There were only two female students in my class. They were both from South America and spoke little English. The lectures were all in Japanese. It was tough. I was very lucky to be under Professor Atsushi Ueda. He was both a top architect and an academic with numerous publications. Prof. Ueda was involved in the design of Expo 70. He spoke little English. Sensei (teacher), as we called him, was very gentle and extremely caring. His students all loved him. Whilst in Japan, the 1971 war in Bangladesh broke out. I was completely cut off from home. There was no news. Prof. Ueda and his wife were always there to comfort me. I completed my Masters in 1972. My dissertation was on Housing in Japan. I wrote various articles on Housing. They were published in architectural magazines including the Japan Architect’s International Edition.
Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, is a city of gardens, shrines, temples and palaces. It is also famous for its geishas and is a traditional city, rich in beauty and culture. I fell in love with the place. After completing my Masters, I planned to leave Japan for London to gain some work experience. Prof. Ueda offered to enrol me in a PhD. Course and extend my scholarship. Staying another 5 years, the normal time period, for a PhD. seemed ages, and I declined. I left Japan sadly with tears and many fond memories.
Finding my grounds in England
I had been to England before; London was familiar but I did not have any contact with people from the architectural profession. I was not aware that architectural jobs were usually advertised in the Architects’ Journal. I bought a newspaper and in one corner found an advert saying “Architects wanted. All standards.” I contacted them. It was an agency. They referred me to a local practice. At the interview, the main partner said that as I had been trained abroad and had no experience in this country it would be difficult to employ me. I had a copy of the Japan Architect in which my article was published. I said give me a chance, and see if I can do the job. I was offered a position and soon they made me permanent. I had never worked in an Architect’s office before and had to be a fast learner. They were very organised and I fitted in quite quickly.
The first project I worked on was a computer centre for the Ministry of Defence. Quite a challenging job. After 2 years, I decided to move to gain some different experiences. From then onwards, most of my experience was in hospital planning and design. Two major hospital projects that I have worked on are a high security psychiatric hospital near Liverpool, and Medical City, a medical complex in Baghdad for the Government of Iraq.
The firm that had the Medical City contract was set up by an American international hospital planner and architect, Whiting. Whilst working there, I met many Iraqi architects both male and female. I realised that Iraq was quite a liberal country. My colleagues were a mixed group and came from different countries.
I met my husband there; he was English and also an Architect. After some years, I had my son. I decided to look for a part-time job. I had full-time offers but nobody wanted to employ me part-time. It was very sad. I decided to work for women’s equality; equal opportunities existed only on paper.
I started to do voluntary work for the Bangladesh Women’s Association in Great Britain, the first Bangladeshi women’s organisation formed in this country during the 1970 freedom movement. I developed many new projects for women including a training centre with childcare facilities to promote employment. We secured a grant from the EU to build a new centre and I had input in the design.
We campaigned for the introduction of Bangla in mainstream schools. We had some teachers in our organisation who wrote books that were tailor-made to teach Bangla to children in this country. Working in the community helped me to promote new ideas and I worked with women from a wide range of backgrounds. Empowering women was one of my major objectives.
After a few years, I joined a local authority as a Community Development Officer. What a coincidence that my boss, Graham Garbutt, was an Architect. He often lectured at the AA School of Architecture and took me with him. AA is a well-known school and architects like Muzharul Islam, Richard Rogers and Zaha Hadid trained there.
Graham Garbutt appreciated my multiple skills that I acquired during my architectural training. I could handle a wide range of projects, liaise with consultants, work in partnership, prepare schedules, write bids for funding, conduct meetings, produce complex reports and meet scheduled delivery times. My architecture skills were a blessing and capital projects were no problem for me.
I changed my job and moved to another local authority where I joined social services. I held various senior positions including Head of Equalities, Head of Community Partnerships and Assistant Director of Social Services, etc.
My job involved a lot of policy work, and I always made sure that my reports reflected equalities, community cohesion, fairness and social justice. I was the lead officer for a domestic violence project involving Sweden and Germany. Domestic Violence has no race, religion or class boundaries. Our recommendations were adopted as Government policy in these three countries. The project was called ‘Adhikar, My Right’.
In the same borough, which is multi-cultural, I did a project titled ‘All Faiths’. The aim of the project was to create understanding and harmony between the different religious groups. The religious leaders and the Mayor provided every support and the project was very successful.
In my personal capacity, I have been involved with projects in a wide variety of organisations. I was the Secretary General of the European Union Migrants Forum UK Support Group. It has been over 11 years since I retired, but my involvement with the voluntary sector continues. Currently, I am the Chair of Mind – a mental health charity in Bexley and East Kent, an executive member of the Gandhi Foundation, a board member of St. Mary’s Community Complex, and Chair of Mahila Sangha, a Bangladeshi women’s group. Through the Bishwo Shahetto Kendra, London, I have a link with my heritage, culture and language.
Community involvement is in my blood. I inherited this from my Aunt Shamsunnahar Mahmood and my mother Anwara Bahar Choudhury. They were both followers of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. Rokeya has always inspired me. I produced a play, Rokeya’s Dream, based on her story on women’s empowerment, Sultana’s Dream. The project was in partnership with Rose Bruford College of Drama, Mukul Ahmed of Tara Arts and Mahila Sangha. The play was very successful and we were invited to take some members of the team to Sakhawat Memoral School in Kolkata, Rabindra Bharati University and Bishwo Bharati.
In 2001, I was honoured by the Queen with an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire). This was for my contributions to community relations. When I went to receive my medal from Her Majesty the Queen at Buckingham Palace, she asked me about my work. I mentioned to Her Majesty that my Aunt Shamsunnahar Mahmud received an MBE in 1944 before my birth, during the reign of her Father King George VI. My Aunt was a writer, educator and politician. The Queen smiled and said, “it runs in the family.”
My life has been full of challenges. I was never afraid and always tried to do my best to achieve my goal. I tried new ideas and wanted to be creative. I have been very lucky that I have had an opportunity to meet and work with people from many different backgrounds, cultures, classes and professions. I have learnt something from everyone and that has enriched me. I have also had the chance to travel widely.
My husband was always very supportive. He excelled in art and was also a creative person who had a positive influence on me. We had many similar interests; he liked gardening whilst I enjoyed Ikebana, the art of flower arrangement that I learnt in Japan.
I have been away from home for more than five decades. I am proud of my heritage country and often miss home. I value and treasure what I have learnt from my parents. These values and my life experiences have moulded me into the person I am. Determination and hard work has always driven me forward.