Self-Defence Classes Empower Muslim Women Across the GTA
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Self-Defence Classes Empower Muslim Women Across the GTA

Recent Islamophobic attacks close to home are prompting Muslim women to learn to protect themselves and their loved ones.

A typical class at UMMA Martial Arts  Photo via UMMA's Facebook page

A typical class at UMMA Martial Arts. Photo via UMMA’s Facebook page.

In community centres, schools and homes over the past week, Muslim women across the GTA coordinated and gathered for self-defence workshops in response to the recent rash of Islamophobic attacks following the terrorist attacks in Paris.

Shireen Ahmed signed herself and her 13-year-old daughter, Rumaysa, up for one of these self-defence workshops last week. While she says this sort of reactionary backlash against identifiable Muslims isn’t new, she was particularly taken aback when a woman was attacked by two men outside her children’s elementary school in Flemingdon Park last month.

“The fact that it was in broad daylight just shows that people are getting more arrogant and more blatantly unapologetic in their violence,” said Ahmed. “I’m upset, I’m angry. I hate that this is happening in our city. I hate that wearing a hijab now makes me a marker.”

Ahmed describes her daughter as “super confident” and an athlete, but that doesn’t stop these incidents from weighing heavy on her.

“I do want my daughter to have tools to be able to protect herself,” Ahmed said. “She’s at that age where girls decide whether or not to wear the scarf, stuff like this can deter girls from doing that. It’s her choice whether she wears one or not, but the fact that we’re having conversations about not wearing one out of fear that she’ll be targeted is really a shame.”

The attack in Flemingdon Park was just one in a recent string of potential hate crimes. Two Muslim women were verbally assaulted on the TTC. One woman was assaulted near Bathurst and Bloor when a man mistook the scarf she wrapped herself in for warmth for a hijab.

Ryhana Dawood, with a black belt in Karate and Taekwondo, is a regular instructor with UMMA Martial Arts, a Muslim martial arts club with locations in Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton and Oakville. She says it wouldn’t be the first time she has been asked to teach a workshop in reaction to an anti-Muslim incident.

“U of T asked me to do one back in September because they had some Islamophobic incident. Someone vandalized the prayer room,” said Dawood. “Ryerson asked me to do something in October when one of their students was assaulted on the Spadina subway for being Muslim.”

With growing demand, Dawood sees the classes she teaches as a way for Muslim women to push back against the fear and anxiety caused by the backlash.

“After that lady was attacked a lot of people were scared. A lot of brothers don’t want their sisters, wives or daughters to go out alone or they themselves stay home because they’re afraid,” Dawood said. “Self-defence is a step in the right direction. It helps the women gain a sense of control and sense of community. It gives them their self-confidence back when they lost their sense of security. A lot of the time too people don’t realize how strong they really are or what capabilities they have. They find out by taking these workshops.”

Tendisai Cromwell invited Dawood to her home to teach a workshop for a small group of women last week, something she had never done before.

“I did do some martial arts back in the day but I never thought or felt the need to take self-defence classes, I’ve never felt insecure in Toronto until most recently,” said Cromwell. “The climate has really made me feel extremely vulnerable. I just had a daughter two months ago and these events make me think about the kind of life she’s going to have in the future.”

However, Cromwell recognized how online campaigns #IllRideWithYou and #BuddyUpTO have shown that people in the city of various religious and cultural backgrounds have stepped up to show support for Muslim women and help them feel safe.

“What I really do see is a lot of solidarity among people who don’t share our faith,” said Cromwell. “I find that so beautiful and endearing and amazing. It’s actually a wonderful silver lining to all of this.”

Ahmed too was pleased with the outreach of support but said there were other ways allies could show their support.

“Now we have a lot of people asking what they can do to show solidarity. If you really want to be an ally then maybe you can sponsor or donate a space because community centre gyms are really expensive,” said Ahmed.

Cromwell says it’s the connection that she felt with the other women involved in her class that motivates her to do it again.

“I do want to attend more self-defence classes, specifically the ones for Muslim women, mostly so I can be in solidarity with them and just get back into martial arts because it is something I enjoy personally.”

Ahmed said that she believes these self-defence workshops send a greater message about Muslim women that she has known all along.

“We’re a legitimate community of women and we’re going to support each other and each other’s safety,” said Ahmed. “This happens everywhere, not just in Toronto, there are networks of incredible women supporting each other.”

Cromwell had a similar message.

“We are an empowered group of people and we’re willing to take our safety and security into our own hands and really, just don’t mess with us.”