Jordanian women turn to martial arts for protection
Amman - In a well-lit, pinkish-walled centre in Amman’s affluent western suburbs, one teenager kept to herself as she warmed up ahead of her martial arts class.
The girl, who said her name was Laila, had been encouraged by her mother to take women’s self-defence lessons which include tactics to ward off abuse.
“My father used to beat my mother. She remained quiet about it and also forced us to stay silent,” Laila said.
The softly spoken girl said her mother acted “out of conviction that a woman will do nothing to disobey her husband, not even defend herself”.
Cases like Laila’s are not rare, according to Lina Khalifah, owner of SheFighter, a women’s self-defence centre. SheFighter and another centre in Amman provide dedicated programmes for women. About 2,800 women are enrolled in classes at the facilities.
“You’d be surprised how a large segment of women in underprivileged areas view submission as part of religious convictions,” Khalifah said. “They believe being submissive is part of their holy duty as wives and mothers.”
Scores of Jordanian women of all ages are taking up the strenuous martial arts classes, driven by personal motivation, mere curiosity or because they have been victims of verbal or physical abuse.
Jordanian police say there has been a steady increase in reports of physical and verbal harassment of women in the male-dominated, conservative Muslim country, where men traditionally have the final word in all family matters.
Generally, women would not admit to being subject to harassment because of the “shame” this could bring to the family. The “shame culture” is common in patriarchal societies, where violence against women comes in many forms.
In addition to domestic violence — at least 1,230 cases were reported in Amman in the last quarter of 2015 — there are “honour killings”, in which a male kills a female relative for petty reasons, such as dating. At least 20 women die in honour crimes in Jordan each year. Autopsies determined nearly all the victims were virgins.
Reports of rape are also increasing. Police records show there were 94 allegations of rapes reported in 2015, compared with 57 in 2014. Officials insist the number is no reflection of reality, since many attacks go unreported under the culture of shame.
Niveen moved gracefully while fiercely punching the sand bag hanging from the ceiling, her hair tied in a careless pony tail. She said she enrolled in martial arts classes because she wanted to “explore a different type of sport”.
“I wanted to try what used to be a guy thing,” Niveen said. “I heard my male colleagues talk about the way they feel after kickboxing classes and thought ‘Why not give it a try?’”
Khalifah said women come to SheFighter with different stories.
“I’ve met some who genuinely believe in the concept. Others are here in an attempt to boost their self-esteem. But most of the trainees come to me with sad stories of family abuse or street harassment,” she explained.
She recounted the tragedy of a student who was repeatedly raped by her fiancé and could not tell her parents. Eventually, he abandoned her and left her feeling shame and despair.
“She couldn’t forgive herself for being weak, for not standing up for herself and saying no,” Khalifah said.
A study by Mahmoud al-Jundi at the Centre for Peace & Conflict Studies in 2014 concluded that 53% of Jordanian women have been sexually harassed at least once in their lives. And, in a region where women are unlikely to report such incidents, the numbers are probably much higher, the study noted.
Police Major Alia Obeid said authorities usually refrain from disclosing figures on harassment because the matters “need to be tackled in utmost secrecy”.
“We live in a society that does not sympathise enough with women victims,” explained Obeid, head of the Research Department at Amman’s Family Protection Unit.
At the centre, Khalifah does not only provide physical training. She devised a programme focusing on identifying warning signs, anticipating possible attacks, building self-esteem through coaching and counselling, in addition to fighting back.
Asked why women should not use pepper spray or tasers, Khalifah replied: “Why not to train your body to be the weapon?”
Unfortunate personal experiences are not the sole driver behind the increase of Jordanian women seeking to learn how to fight.
Sara, a 27-year-old engineer who has been taking self-defence classes for more than six months, said women need to work more on their personalities, not only their physical strength.
“I do not believe that mastering a few moves would shield me from abuse,” she said. “The Israeli Army has the world’s highest rates of sexual harassment, although female cadets are well-trained and physically fit.
“I’m here for the adrenaline rush.”