Anjum Ishtaq, Heba Women’s Project
In a first-floor room above Brick Lane, a few doors south of the point at which the railway bridge bisects the street, is a modern kind of sanctuary: a place where, if you’re feeling unhappy, uncertain and isolated, you can find like-minded company and develop a few useful skills. For a place of recuperation, it can be pretty noisy, as the main room is filled with ranks of sewing machines. Up to thirty women at a time can be found hunkered down at them, feeding lengths of fabric through clattering metal teeth; shaping, stitching, talking over the squall of work. This is the Heba Women’s Project – the h-word means “women’s talent” in Arabic. That’s the force upon which this place runs – and the one it seeks to unlock in others.
Anjum Ishtaq, the ageless, quietly stylish woman who runs this centre, shows me around the premises: the meeting area with the crowded noticeboard and bookshelves; the little kitchen in which she makes me a mug of tea; the crèche, OFSTED-inspected, where the children of the Project’s clients are supervised; the sunlit workroom with its rows of workspaces; the storeroom packed with bolts of cloth, all begged and borrowed from a hundred donors. The Project has proved an unusual beneficiary of the slow death of the East End rag trade: much of its equipment and materials have come from businesses that have closed down. Nothing is wasted. And most of what is made here is sold: a stall at Spitalfields market, staffed by volunteers, ensures that the centre produces garments that end up on customers’ backs.
“We have all kinds of people here, all kinds of backgrounds. Some of the ladies who come here don’t even know how to thread the machine. Some of them have never held a pen in their lives. But sewing comes before English classes. And the first thing we do is to show them they have come to a safe place. Somewhere they can get some confidence.” The single-sex environment, Anjum says, is key to the success of the centre. “If the classes were mixed many of the women would not come. And their men would not let them come. There are many women who don’t feel comfortable even in Tower Hamlets College because of the presence of men. But they might feel confident enough to come here. And even then, a husband or a brother might come up here first to check it out.”
Like any good advocate, Anjum is much keener to talk about her cause than herself. She will, however, discuss the history that she shares with some of the users of the Project. On arriving in London from Pakistan twenty-five years ago, she felt the same disconnection from her host culture that many of her current clients can find so overpowering. “From my own experience,” she suggests, “I think you feel most comfortable in the place you spent your childhood. You know the slang, you know everything about it. And if you leave that place then you can feel there’s a kind of gap between you and everyone else. I had that gap when I first came here. But my children were born here and they don’t have it.”
The Project is not all Anjum’s own work. It owes its existence to a campaigning Yorkshirewoman named Kay Jordan, a community entrepreneur who is legendary in these parts. In 1983, Jordan, then an architect working for the Solon housing co-operative, founded the Spitalfields Small Business Association. Funded by the now-defunct Greater London Council, SSBA aimed to help local residents set up their own workshops and commercial premises in the East End. Jordan oversaw the refurbishment and development of over 62,000 square feet of derelict and underused buildings around Spitalfields. She was a socialist to whom Prince Charles came for advice on community architecture.
When Jordan died, suddenly, of meningitis, at the end of 2010, Anjum thought that the Centre might die with her. They lost funding. They endured their own financial crisis. There was a period when the possibility of closure was a problem that had to be addressed on a monthly basis. The Heba Women’s Project is now on a surer footing, but it is still in urgent need of funds. A new Saturday session, aimed, I sense, at some of the more middle-class make-do-and-menders of Spitalfields, is one new initiative that might help to secure its future.
Anjum won’t tut at anyone who drops a stitch. Come for three hours, she says, and you will go home with something to show for it. “I have ladies who tell me that they won’t be able to do anything, but they usually surprise themselves. And that look of satisfaction on their faces is what makes this job worth doing. If you have a bit of patience and you want to learn, there’s a way to learn.”
Members of Heba Women’s Project on Brick Lane.
High jinks on the South Bank.
A sponsored walk.
A trip to Victoria Park
A healthy eating class.
Portraits of Anjum Ishtaq copyright © Sarah Ainslie
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