Use their momentum to your advantage. Put your hands around the back of their neck and push their head down, wrap your arm around their neck to apply the choke and subdue your attacker.
About a dozen women, many wearing hijabs — or headscarves — faced their partners in a fighting stance. This was one of the boldest moves they’d learn that day — the standing guillotine.
“I’m always going to be hands-up, protecting my face. Odds are, in self-defense, if somebody wants to hit me, they want to strike me, they’re probably going to at some point, right? I am not some like Muay Thai champion that I can evade these strikes, but I can protect myself,” Onyx Jiu Jitsu Coach Jesse Wright told them.
Mosque leaders at the Islamic Center of Aurora Colorado hosted the event to provide a space for women to feel empowered against anti-Muslim sentiment, threats against women and crime in general. Class participants also listened to a presentation by Aurora police officers, including a Muslim officer, on tips to protect themselves in precarious situations.
“We need to be self-aware for our own safety and the safety of others around us. … Having these classes and trying to educate the community in general, it doesn’t matter what faith or place of origin they come from, I think it’s just their safety,” said Officer Abdul Syidi in an interview.
“At the end of the day, we just want them to be able to help themselves and ultimately help another human being,” he added.
Two officers provided the women pamphlets with general safety tips – keep cars locked, don’t leave valuables visible, be aware of surroundings – and pointers about suspicious activity. But they tailored the presentation specifically to Muslim women.
“For safety purposes, I would say please keep that (hijab or headscarf on) loosely enough that if somebody does grab it … and they pull, at least they’re not pulling you down with it,” Syidi said.
“Your safety – that’s more important than trying to keep that hijab on and then now you’re being assaulted,” he continued.
The officer recalled a similar incident in Aurora more than a year ago. The victim didn’t report it to police – a witness called it in.
Aurora police investigated three cases of bias-motivated crimes against Muslims since 2018. In two, a suspect wasn’t identified, and in the third, the victim refused to prosecute, resulting in the case being closed, according to Matthew Longshore, Aurora police spokesperson.
But not all bias-motivated incidents are reported to police, and Muslims across the country have reported heightened Islamophobia in recent years. In April, the Council on American-Islamic Relations released a report, noting a 28% increase in hate crimes and bias-motivated incidents against Muslims in 2021 and stating that the numbers from local law enforcement are drastically underreported or not reported at all in the FBI’s database. Another reason the agency cites for numbers appearing lower is a lack of trust in law enforcement due to issues like mass surveillance after 9/11.
In 2020, more than 70,000 people in Colorado identified as Muslim. Aurora, which is known as the most diverse city in the state, is home to several mosques and Muslim communities.
Wright told the students that they should trust their instincts and if they have the chance to leave a situation that makes them uncomfortable, that’s the best course of action. If they can’t, they should try to create distance between themselves and the other person, and make their boundaries clear with their words and body language. Then, if all else fails, they should employ the self-defense techniques they learned against attackers. She stressed how important repetition is to perfecting the moves.
Zaituna Gishu was all smiles as she and her class partner attempted the moves the instructors provided them. She was the first person to register for the class. Her son is training for the U.S. Taekwondo Olympic Team.
Gishu said she tried taekwondo, but it was difficult. Still, she wants to learn to protect herself, because she works for an airline at Denver International Airport, and over the past few years, it’s been a scary experience. Not all of the anger directed toward her is related to her religion, she said, though that has happened before.
In 2019, a passenger punched her after getting mad about something, and it made her realize she needed to know how to protect herself better.
“I really appreciate everything (the instructor) gave us, the knowledge,” Gishu said. “And I got a lot of knowledge on how to defend myself from this class. I hope everyone listens and tries to protect themselves.”
Hirah Sheikh, a 23-year-old board member at the Aurora mosque, was excited to learn about the self-defense class and to get involved. She was already practicing different types of martial arts and believes that it’s important for women especially to have some training in it. Sheikh grew up in the Aurora area.
“I definitely have felt a change (over the years) and I feel like I’m definitely more self-aware. And like the instructor was saying to have your guard up, I think I definitely do that more now, even if I’m in a different city as well,” Sheikh said.
Several of the women in the class echoed those sentiments, saying they were glad to have a safe place they could learn in case they ever had to put the techniques to use.
Mom and daughter duo Mariam and Zaynab Sabr were intently following along with the instructions, rolling on the floor and asking questions to make sure they could perfect their moves. Mariam Sabr had heard about the class through the mosque and attended with her 17-year-old daughter.
She said she was glad to learn a few techniques and wishes the class was longer.
Sabr worries more about her daughter, who will be attending college soon, possibly in another state, and her environment. In Aurora, she feels safe in her neighborhood and community surrounded by other Muslims.
Zaynab acknowledged that being a “hijabi” makes Muslim women “an easy target, especially now, it’s a lot more controversial, so people need to protect themselves.”
The class garnered such positive feedback that the center hopes to partner with other mosques in the area to host more classes in the future.
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