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6 Considerations for Delivering Self-Defence Courses for Conservative Muslim Women

I was recently invited to hold a series of self-defence classes for a group of women and girls from Leicester’s conservative Muslim population.


There were several issues that arose from these sessions that I thought would be useful to share, in case it's of help to other instructors when preparing similar classes.

(Image: Mostafa Meraji / Unsplash)

1. Practical considerations


As conservative female Muslims, mixed-gender classes are not an option, and neither is being taught by a male instructor as it’s considered improper to be seen without traditional Islamic dress by a man outside of the home.


This has consequences for the venue too; the space needs to have closed access to avoid the chance of men entering the space whilst training. Any windows that are overlooked or have people walking past need to have curtains or blinds drawn. It’s useful to have an area with coat hooks or a bench where students can take off their abayas and hang them up.


2. Tailor the session to the clients' needs


This sounds obvious, as self-defence is self-defence whatever background you come from, and the techniques we teach should work in any given situation, but it’s important to think about particular areas where protection might be needed for students. In their case, travelling in traditional clothing such as abayas or chadors visibly marks them out as conservative Muslims, and sadly, a possible target for race and religious hate crimes. The other type of violence, less discussed but sadly relevant to all women, is domestic abuse.


3. Think about the clothing restrictions


When outside the home, conservative Muslim women may wear chadors, abayas, hijabs and other types of loose Islamic coverings that all restrict movement and can be a target for easy grabbing. Students talked about how some clothing designs were easier to pull off in an emergency than others, such as not using pins to secure the hijab, but in reality it’s not practical (or indeed right) to expect women to make such clothing changes on the basis of a potential threat.


Interestingly, and contrary to expectation, there was very little loss of peripheral vision or sound (situational awareness being one of the fundamental aspects of self-defence); however, there was a danger of loose material from some types of clothing covering the eyes during an altercation and thus obstructing vision.


There was also a much higher risk of tripping, as the abayas and chadors are designed to cover the whole body and so the hemline reaches the ground. This means that the standard emphasis on escape by running away from a threat doesn’t work so well.

With the apparel in mind, we spent a lot of time looking at different types of grabs, either to arms or clothing, from different heights and angles, and how to deal with them. Whilst most self-defence will advise you to avoid going to ground if you can possibly help it, the increased risk of tripping during escape meant that it was important to cover some basics about how to fall safely and how to protect yourself should you find yourself on the floor.


Most importantly, students first practiced without the traditional garments, and then – once comfortable with the movements – they practiced whilst wearing them, and we adapted techniques if needed.


4. Getting used to striking


Growing up, girls experience less of the rough-and-tumble type play that is evidenced amongst boys, which is later reinforced by societal expectations of femininity. In addition, according to Sport England, female participation in marital arts is much lower than for men. This means women generally have fewer opportunities to learn how to use force.


Moreover, because of rules against mixed gender classes, conservative Muslim women have fewer opportunities to try a martial art or an activity where power is required.


It is therefore really important to get the students hitting focus pads straightaway, using palm heel strike, hammer fist, even slapping, to get them accustomed to using force. This also helps them overcome any fear they might have about retaliating with power if faced with an attack.


5. Domestic abuse


As women, being attacked by a partner, acquaintance or family member is sadly far more common than the threat of a stranger attack. Domestic abuse is tied up with traditional gender roles in society, which make it that much harder to spot the warning signs in cultures that strongly define women’s roles.


As such, survivors of abuse can find it hard to recognise, and – if that community attaches strong importance to maintaining family structure – they may experience shame and discouragement to leave the abuse.


It is important to raise the issue of domestic abuse and bring awareness to the other types of abuse, in addition to physical violence - emotional, financial, sexual and stalking - to educate students about the red flags to watch out for in a partner’s behaviour.

On a practical basis, we looked at defence techniques against the more common types of attack in domestic settings, such as strangulation and being pinned to the ground by your attacker.


6. Feedback is golden!


Spend a few minutes at the end of each session on a Q&A with your students. Gaining direct feedback from the women when it's fresh in their minds is so valuable in finding out what works, what was useful and what doesn’t feel so comfortable. Having a short discussion is great for helping the group relax and get to know each other.


It is also an opportunity for them to suggest other areas of self-defence which you may not have anticipated, but could easily be incorporated into future sessions.


(Image: Mostafa Meraji / Unsplash)

Further reading:


"Muslim Survivors of Domestic Violence Need You To Listen" Rowaida Abdelaziz Muslim Survivors Of Domestic Violence Need You To Listen | HuffPost UK (huffingtonpost.co.uk)

"How can domestic violence advocates better serve Muslim women in shelters?" Saman Quraeshi https://vawnet.org/news/how-can-domestic-violence-advocates-better-serve-muslim-women-shelter