“I raise up my voice — not so I can shout but so that those without a voice can be heard…we cannot succeed when half of us are held back.”
― Malala Yousafzai
Discrimination is the anti-thesis of changemaking. Yet, female changemakers often run into roadblocks that diminish their efforts.
This International Women’s Day, A Good Space invited 4 women from our community (one from a ground-up movement, one from a social enterprise, another working in the social sector and the last focusing on systemic change) and interviewed them on their journey.
Interestingly, the same 3 questions elicited 4 vastly different answers. These ladies illustrate the diverse struggles female changemakers experience at different levels of changemaking.
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Our 4 changemakers share their unique beginnings, showcasing how each changemaking journey is one-of-a-kind.
I started to be a changemaker for the queer Muslim community, because it has got to do with my own lived realities.
In Singapore, one might find it hard to find drastic discrimination against the queer muslim community — what we experience are subtle discriminations. This subtlety pushed me to form a tribe…a safe space where queer people like me can be together and express our true selves. This safe space extends to closeted people; if I am not able to provide this space, whether or not one is closeted, then, it is meaningless for me to be a changemaker.
When I first came out to the public, I was so scared. I thought:
If I want my organisation (TheHealingCircle.sg) to be recognised, it can’t be a symbol; there has to be a face to it so that people know “Hey, there is that person I can reach out to!”
Then, I realised that when you are open to yourself, you become more of a human and you become true to yourself.
Being a minority in a minority is tough. I’ve encountered a non-queer Muslim who came to the people in my community and told them they are lucky; because they are staying in a private condominium and not in HDBs. Furthermore, they have lots of rich friends as part of their network to survive.
I beg to differ. I think that this situation only applies to less than 0.01% of queer Muslims. Being both Malay and queer, we have a lot of obstacles to be where you want to be; we lack opportunities. We have to work very hard for this type of privilege, all the while being closeted to protect ourselves from discrimination that will hinder our success.
My changemaking journey is shaped by my religion too––I believe I am doing my part as a Muslim. It is important for Muslims to abide this simple rules that is: to help others and not to harm others, regardless of religion, gender, race or sexual orientation.
I am helping people in my own community, when gay men hear hurtful comments like “You’re not fit enough to be a man” or when trans or lesbian women hear “You’re too masculine to be a woman”. This is where as Muslims, we need to step up and help in any way we can. In providing safe space, group therapy and counselling session for my queer Muslim community, without prejudice.
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As far as memory goes, in terms of when I first started thinking I needed to step up and hopefully, be able to be a teeny part of restoring balance to ecosystems was when I watched depressing documentaries like The Cove and Sharkwater. Watching these documentaries made me think “Wow, we as a species really need to reverse all the damage we’ve done.”
This is also why I have never really been comfortable with the title of “changemaker” because I think that we, humans have really messed the planet up a fair bit.
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I feel like there was a calling for me to make change. I first started off with a Psychology degree and aimed to become a psychologist but I ended up being a social worker in hospitals.
There is no particular memory that I can recall but throughout my journey as a social worker, I feel like my work is meaningful because it helps people. Knowing that my work helps people gives me the strength and motivation to continue, even though it can be tiring.
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I think a significant memory would be from when I was a child of no more than 10 years old. I was very adept in catching grasshoppers in the big open fields next to my family estate, off Jalan Jurong Kechil.
It hit me one day to place them in a mason jar and take it down to the bird owner uncle down the street to exchange for candies, for myself and my followers (younger brother and cousins!).
I am not sure if it counts as changemaking but I certainly wanted to change the status quo of only having candies when the adults said we could!
Rather than gender, my sexual orientation has affected me both positively and negatively in my changemaking journey.
As I mentioned earlier, when I first came out to the public, I was so scared. But, throughout this journey, I’ve slowly started getting contacts from people who are not stingy in knowledge. I have online meet-ups with religious scholars from overseas who do actual research and have discussions on religion with them. If they do not know something, they are truthful about it –– something I respect.
When I contrast this to local religious scholars/clerics, some of them label themselves as LGBT friendly scholars/clerics. Indeed, they are friendly to us, but they are not pro-LGBT. They don’t do research on our community either.
In the past at my work space, when I first came out, I did get some backlash from my peers who are conservative Muslims. I believe that the only way to get through them is kindness. Even though it is hard, but eventually it would simmer down; and it did.
Other obstacles would be the false judgements people make: I’m not asking them to convert themselves to being gay…I just want them to help and not harm others.
I also want non-queer Muslims to understand that not all queer muslims act upon their desires, and even if they do, they are just human. We are not thinking about sex all the time. Our orientation is not a choice, just like the colour of our eyes; we are born like this.
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I feel we should never be made to feel there is a difference in being a certain gender.
As much as there are things to fight for in feminism, there are sadly also instances where women use their gender to get away with things or thumb others down, even gaslighting others, and all these can be very detrimental to society as a whole.
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For female social workers in general, the nature of my work is that we work full-time and usually partake in on-the-ground work, instead of working from home as people in other jobs do. The lack of flexible working options have accelerated burnout for many, especially my colleagues who have to manage between their kids and work, both of which are big commitments. The burnout could leave to female social workers leaving the sector to become full-time homemakers, hindering change for beneficiaries in the long run.
For me, something I struggled with was self-doubt. In the beginning of my social work journey, I would help beneficiaries with things like paperwork. Such tasks made me think: am I serving these people or am I forcing them to live by society’s rules?
This conflict made me further question if I am truly helping them, or actually doing the opposite — limiting them from things they wish to do?
After a while, I quickly realised that social work is like a journey. One needs to realise that there are certain boundaries in one’s life journey that you can intrude on. The only thing you can do is to accompany them and be with the family in that journey — and that is enough.
One also needs to acknowledge that everyone’s expectations are different and our contributions differ based on these expectations. We are not miracle workers. The help we render really depends on what they want and wish to have. In their process of dealing with anger and grief, they themselves have to work through their individual emotional journeys.
I guess, something I still struggle with, would be hoping that they do not feel alone or in their journey and that they feel supported.
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My gender has made me a changemaker of my own life from the starting line!
As I shared in the first chapter of my book, “50 Shades of Love”, I was given the name “Theng” which means “stop” in Hokkien.
This was because my grandfather wished for my Dad, who is the eldest of the family, to “stop” having more girls (it was my older sister, Lace and me by then). So, in some way, I was shaped by my gender from the moment I came into this world!
I was also called “slow” because of an eye defect that got the adults around me thinking I was developmentally-challenged, until I came in first place in kindergarten.
I think there is no force more powerful than a woman determined to rise. I came into this world being told I was “slow” because of my funny eyes and that I should “stop” because I am a girl.
Precisely because life was trying to put the brakes on me, that I decided to power ahead with every fall, every rise — I was neither slow nor stopping because of a name.
In fact, my eye defect has been such a gift, never letting me forget to connect with others, as a human, regardless of how different the other person may be. And the birth name ‘stop’ reminds me to be unstoppable in being the best I can be and to give the best I can give.
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Based on my personal view, I see a lot of feminist organisations within Singaporean context and there is surely one lesbian in such organisations. But we want to be more than just a token––accept these queer folks because you know they are capable, not just because you are trying to be more inclusive.
I feel that cis-women who are doing gender equality work should be more accepting of lesbian, bisexual, queer and trans folks. This will make them more successful in their work, because these folks know what it’s like to be discriminated and being second class citizens.
In Islam, we believe that all genders are equal, whether you are heteronormative or homosexual, in the eyes of God. If we have that kind of mindset, I think we can achieve gender equality and equity.
Some people associate femininity with weakness and masculinity with strength. But I don’t believe in that. What is strength and weakness? We need to define these and find the intersection between these two definitions.
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With reference to my response in the previous question, I hope women learn to see their blind spots and not spread toxicity in the social and environmental sector. I hope that they do not seek to be power hungry but instead, strive to have one another’s back with true humility and sincerity, and genuine want for community spiritedness.
What I’ve witnessed are mostly cases of women in power saying one thing to virtue signal but then, saying something entirely different to make another person, who is not in such position of power, feel small. That in a sense is also how the toxicity spreads; when people allow themselves to be put in that lower position.
May we all listen more and talk less, especially on social media.
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As I mentioned earlier, the lack of flexible working options has made it harder for female social workers to find a balance between their work life and their duties at home. When I interact with other professionals, I find myself asking why there are no such options to prevent burn-out?
Especially for social work, there have been many women who have decided to stop work because of burnout, and either become a full-time housemaker or switch to a completely different industry. This is very sad because we have lost good people.
What we really need is a change in mindset––give options to social workers, be it flexible working hours or part-time options, instead of having them work full-time and then quit because they cannot manage their household. Giving social workers these options does not necessarily mean less help is given. Instead, it helps social workers stay in the sector to effect long-term change.
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Across the world, we are seeing COVID-19 affect men and women differently in ways that exacerbate gender inequality, especially for women who are often the hardest hit. Yet women play an outsize role responding to this crisis, including as frontline healthcare and social workers, caregivers at home for the young and elderly, and as mobilisers in their communities.
Despite their challenging circumstances, many women-in-need step up to these roles with grit and resilience, and are in fact showing us what’s possible if we give them the resources to rise and make the change needed for themselves and their families.
As Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
We must therefore seize this great crisis to do a great reset for our women-in-need: What will our social support policies and community initiatives look like if we don’t see these vulnerable women as ‘problems’ but as pillars of strengths of their communities? How can we enfold them as the solution? What resources do we need to avail them with so they can give their best to their families and communities, not what’s left of them?
Their vulnerability need not be a measure of their weakness; their wounds can be turned into wisdom. They have always been the changemakers in their families; let’s invest in them even more to let them lead the change needed from within their communities.
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Do you resonate with any of these challenges?
We understand that the road to changemaking is tough, even more so when you’re a woman and alone.
At A Good Space, we believe in coming together to effect greater change. We would love to have fellow changemakers, like you, to join us in creating a future where gender does not affect our changemaking.
To learn more about how you can become a member, hop over to: http://www.agoodspace.org/changemakers/