Filzah Sumartono: on tackling modern gender issues, collecting stories, and being part of a larger ecosystem
Filzah Sumartono: on tackling modern gender issues, collecting stories, and being part of a larger ecosystem
23 Feb 2024

Meet the women that embody the Gojek spirit of empowerment. This March, as we celebrate IWD, we put the spotlight on those who are re-shaping the industries they are in, marching to the beat of their own drums, and/or simply redefining what it means to be a woman.

Filzah Sumartono’s official title in AWARE is that of a project manager. Unofficially, she is also an editor, researcher, and listening ear. As one of the women on the forefront, fighting for gender equality is Filzah’s full-time job. Six years in, she lays bare the issues we have to be ready to face; the importance of stories from many perspectives; and how not to burn out.

How did you end up in AWARE?

I was a volunteer with the organization when my friend was an intern here. There was a vacancy and I wasn’t working. I didn’t plan on going into advocacy or NGO work, but I suppose I was at the right place at the right time.

What do you do in AWARE?

I work on projects related to community engagement as part of AWARE’s plans to strengthen our support systems. There should be more voices championing for gender equality in Singapore, and we recognize we don’t have the expertise in so many other industries. The key is to get more people on board, so we have more solidarity in numbers.

Are there any specific causes that feel more personal to you?

I’ve worked on anthologies of essays, poems, and short stories related to growing up as a Muslim women and reconciling with the different expectations that are imposed on us. They’re titled Perempuan: Muslim Women in Singapore Speak Out (2016), and Growing Up Perempuan (2018).

These felt especially personal because even as a member of the community, I was newly exposed to the diversity of experiences within. Being a Muslim woman is not one monolithic idea. We have different ideas of what halal is, or whether we should wear a hijab. The stories in these anthologies: these are real stories, we cannot deny these have happened to real women, and I hope they paint more than just one picture. 

That’s nice – any future plans for a third book?

A trilogy would be nice. The first one focused a lot on younger narratives, book 2 had a lot more stories from older women. Throughout the process of gathering these, I did realize the mainstream media doesn’t cover much beyond their idea of what an "ideal" Muslim woman should be. But there are lots of stories that deviate from that traditional idea, and they’re just as valid. Hopefully we get to work on a third instalment! 

Do you think there might be anything lacking with current national dialogues with regards to women issues?

Definitely. Even if we don’t talk about issues specific to women, things affect different genders differently. For example, a new policy within the budget will affect a man differently than it does a woman. Gendered perspectives don’t come into the discussion much when creating these policies, which in turn affect non-binary identities even more. Then there’s issues like workplace sexual harassment, which isn’t taken too seriously even after #MeToo. As a country, we don’t have very strong deterrence against employers acting discriminatorily against women. Consequently, it is often the victims who get let go of.  

And these things develop with the times too. Something that keeps coming up as of late is image-based sexual assault – things like sexual voyeurism. It’s not that sexual violence is new, it’s just on a newer platform now and it’s much faster and stronger. The non-consensual sharing of nudes may be done online, but its effects are offline, and just as pervasive. We’re awfully underprepared for developments of this nature. We have to find a way to address these issues, make sure people realize the importance of consent and establishing boundaries.

That’s a lot. What about things we should be proud of?

*laughs* I mean, we still have to cling on to some hope! We’ve repealed marital immunity for rape, and there’s a lot of awareness on a community level for the need of gender equality. We hear a lot of younger people speaking up, such as Monica Baey. We’ve got more male allies too.

Do you ever feel compassion fatigue the way social workers often do?

Yes. Part of my work involves interviewing lower-income women or single parents. Their specific stories might be different, but the systematic issues are the same: they find it hard to get a house after divorce, or caregiving versus going to work is always a problem. We’re not in the easiest city to live in. 

How do you ensure you don’t burn out? 

I have to constantly remind myself that I cannot save everyone. Setting boundaries, not replying to emails after work hours, prioritizing – all these things help. But above all, it’s the realization that I am just one person, and the issues are systematic and structural. As one person, you have to realize you’re part of a bigger ecosystem.

AWARE runs several helplines to support women in the community. For more on their contact details, click here.

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