Noor Mastura: From Living On The Breadline To Singaporean Of The Year
Noor Mastura is interested in the people who rarely get written about. We talk to her about how to create a world that works for everyone—and why community is the key to humanity
She grew up on the breadline in Singapore, teetering on the edge of homelessness, and bullied relentlessly for the colour of her skin. Life for the adult Noor Mastura couldn’t be more different: she was recently named Singaporean of the Year 2018 by the Straits Times for her work, and has made a difference to countless lives. But the transformation in her fortunes only made Mastura more dedicated than ever to ensuring nobody gets left behind.
Back2Basics, the non-profit she founded, helps grow community support in places where people need it most and addresses the prevalent issue of food insecurity—providing food (including halal meals) for people on the breadline. With her new platform, Being Bravely Women, she speaks to women aged 15 to 30 about controversial and taboo issues ranging from sexual abuse, divorce and self-hatred to misogyny.
“It started out as an online safe space targeted at brown and Muslim women,” she says, on the phone from Oman, where she now lives. “There was a lot of identity exploring and talking about self-worth. I was inspired by my own experience growing up as a brown girl in Singapore. I was ashamed of the colour of my skin and was bullied for it, so I started to hate my Indian identity. It was only two to three years ago that I fully embraced my heritage and got over the brainwashing. I’m now unapologetically who I am, but it has taken a long time to get here—and I want other, younger women, to not go through what I went through.”
Three years ago, Mastura met her husband in a café in Munich. It was love at first sight and they married earlier this year. But she explains that she needed to understand herself and her own insecurities before she could get to the point of fully loving someone else.
Being Bravely Women is a largely online tool, where women apply to be part of her community and then listen to her speeches and read her blogs about relationships, parenthood and life. Living in Oman, where she has moved to be with her husband, Hannan Mian, has been an eye-opening experience for her, and she has continued looking at different aspects of feminism. These include polygamy—and the women who defend it.
“Look, I disagree with a certain type of Western feminism that tells us to remove the hijab, because we will be more liberated that way,” she says, after a pause so she can collect her thoughts. “Personally I wouldn’t be comfortable with polygamy in my own life, but my feminism centres around the idea of choice, and the idea that women should be able to freely act upon those choices for themselves. We need to navigate this space together and understand each other, and not be dogmatic.”
Her ability to apply emotional intelligence and empathy to any situation, no matter how complex and removed from her own values, will surprise no one that knows Mastura through the second non-profit she helped create, Interfaith Youth Circle. The charity focuses on encouraging dialogue between religions, helping people break down barriers and stereotypes around religion and see the humanity behind it. While she no longer works with the organisation, that determination to create connections in an era of division and tribalism is striking.
“Most of the women I work with are either Indian or Malay,” she says. “It speaks about issues in brown communities. But I’ve had Chinese women asking if they can also be a part of the community. The issues we discuss are not unique to Muslim or brown communities, and overlap with how we all experience the world.”
But while her work with women is growing in importance, Mastura is best known for Back2Basics, which began as a platform to fight against food insecurity for people living in community housing in Singapore. It is a situation she understands well. Born into prosperity, Mastura’s life took a turn for the worse when her parents divorced while she was still in school. Her mother got full custody of her four daughters but had no real income stream, so for years they were living hand to mouth and staying with family members.
“I know what that life is like,” she says. “For over five years, we didn’t have a place to call home— we kept shifting houses or staying with relatives, and then ended up in interim housing, which is for people who can’t afford basic necessities and the last resort before ending up on the streets.”
That difficult start to life has driven Mastura ever since. Back2Basics has matured into a multi-layered community approach to helping families survive in difficult situations. This includes everything from helping children get access to good education, ensuring older people living alone are being taken care of and watching out for abuse within the home.
“In government housing in Singapore there are serious atrocities going on,” she says. “Some of what is happening is mind boggling—a two year old child was murdered recently, the remains were kept in a pot and the only reason the police found out was because they raided the property for drugs. We have lost our sense of community. In this case the neighbours said they knew nothing about it, and that's not good. We have an ageing population and we have to do something about to help put our communities back together.”
Yes, the State should be shouldering a lot of this burden. But talk to Mastura and you too will start to believe that a better version of our world can exist—and realise that the responsibility lies with each of us to help create it.