“Do not let your difficulties fill you with anxiety, after all it is only in the darkest nights that stars shine more brightly” – Ali Ibn Abu Talib (RA)
Only from darkness can we see light. Only from struggle do we understand the roots of solidarity. These days in Toronto, these expressions could not be more true.
After the horrific series of terrorist acts in Beirut, Baghdad, Ankara and Paris it can not seem to be anything but dark. Even gloomier for Muslims around the world who have been asked to apologize, justify or take responsibility for the actions of violent terrorists. It is safe to say that Muslims are expected to condemn and react quickly to denounce any extremist activity. Even then we know we will be served an extra large helping of hate and anger, deep-fried in bigotry. Is there a way to fight back? Can we rise up and push back against this virulent form of intimidation and injustice? Can we protect ourselves, our integrity as we are exhausted by fighting stereotypes and an unforgiving media?
Yes, we can. As long as we focus on sisterhood, solidarity and prepare ourselves physically and mentally. Yes, we can keep having conversations about what we will do and ideas about how to protect ourselves. Yes, we can definitely kick ass, insha’Allah. And it can be bright. It can accelerate into a movement powered by sisterhood.
Backlash against Muslims is always expected. Those of us who were adults during 9/11 remember the hatred unleashed in retaliation. We know the wars that were started in the name of ‘Freedom’ that had everything to do with money and oil. They propelled fear and ignorance while simultaneously destabilizing our home countries.
The aftermath of the attacks in Paris are no different. The victims are from many communities- including ours.
But the attacks on Muslims, or those mistaken as Muslim, came quickly in Toronto. Retribution, for crimes innocent people did not commit, was swift. Feeling frustrated, I penned a piece after being bombarded with news of attacks of Muslim women close to my home. In my piece, I wrote that “retaliating against terrorism with violent racism is also terrorism”.
Violence against women is not something new. There is anti-Black violence by law enforcement, disregard for over 1200 missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada, both are part of an on-going system rooted in control and misogyny.
While targeted violence against Muslim women is terrifying, there have been incredible efforts to organize, mobilize and create spaces of learning and sharing.
Non-Muslim Allies jumped in to show solidarity , some have offered to host sessions in their own martial arts spaces, and some offered great online tips – but more importantly it was the how different communities of Muslimahs in Toronto reacted that really inspired me.
Women across this metropolis started by connecting, sharing networks and setting up at least 12 self-defense workshops across the Greater Toronto Area. Some of these sessions are free (from community donors) and some required a fee to pay for rental spaces. Outburst! coalition took initiative to locate Muslimah self-defense instructors and offer a subsidized, two hour class. They are looking to do at least four more. This is part of the message from their Facebook event page:
“The recent public attacks of Muslim women in Toronto have made many of us fearful. We know it’s never our fault when we are attacked. Some of us want to strengthen our options to stay safer, this is one way to do it. Join us for an early evening of self-defense, sisterhood, and resistance!”
This message reflect far more than simply learning techniques to protect one’s self. It is enshrined in the idea of community strength and solidarity. Women supporting each other to fight back, to strike, to use their voices, to protect their bodies, to use their agency and to be angry.
It is important to recognize feelings of fear and frustration. Being in safe spaces where Muslim women are uniting in their stand against physical attacks is a part of how we continue to grow as a community and as a sisterhood.
I spoke to Aaida Mamuji, a friend and a boxer who, could quite possibly destroy any racist scumbag trying to attack her because of her hijab. I asked her thoughts on these self-defense initiatives. “For me, both inner and outer strength go hand-in-hand,” she said. “One augments the other. When we are faced with situations where we feel vulnerable on the inside, remembering our body’s physical strength and potential helps carry us through.”
Some of these session have been held in private homes, or in community centre gyms, but all have been the brainchildren of Muslim women wanting to ‘do something’ in response to the violence against the women of our community.
There is a place for strength and self-preservation in our practice of Islam. Discussions on this are important for sharing information and reassurance. I asked a few Muslim women on my Facebook page if they felt self-defense classes were important or even necessary. The answers were overwhelmingly positive and frankly, similar in nature.
Zainab wrote: “Self defense makes you recognize the power that your own body is capable of, and the strength that you contain within yourself. Not only does it help you protect yourself, but it makes you more familiar with your body and its abilities – and it gives you a measure of control that women are rarely told they even have or are capable of.”
Paige, a Personal Trainer reminded us of the importance of being aware of surroundings: “Physical training gives you a wonderful sense of empowerment and control in life, even when everything is out of control. Self defense important for all women, it teaches you not only how to defend yourself but also to be aware of what is going on and escape routes to take to avoid danger.”
Laila explained how specific skill empowered her: “I took martial arts for almost ten years of my life, and there is an indelible sense of power that you gain, a confidence, a swagger that is necessary amidst a world where safety for Muslim women is never guaranteed. I was able to take down grown men, able to break through materials, and cause harm using everyday objects – and now, when I’m harassed or followed, I am cognizant of the power I have to kick ass – and that is everything.”
Saara was succinct: “Working on strength makes you feel strong. Feeling strong makes you feel capable. Feeling capable makes you kick ass. Not rocket science.”
My friend Aina added: “it’s quite sad women have to be on the defensive all the time” and I agree with her. But in the absence of an immediate feeling of safety this is a great alternative. Some women may choose to restrict their movements or going out alone and that is their choice. I had a woman tell me she decided to stop wearing hijab as a result. These are real issues that arise from the fear of being a victim of a direct violent attack. As women we often think about safety and how we can protect ourselves. But to move forward in a way that is a powerful reminder of the resilience of Muslim women, is where the mental game stays
I would never argue that the targeted violence on Muslimahs lead to a wonderfully warm bonding event. This entire exercise is to strengthen ourselves and our community.
My close friend, Noor Al Mosawi, who has a Black Belt in Karate reminded me of the importance of maintaining position and strong energy. As much as anger might be resonating, it is crucial to stay steadfast and focused in learning. She reminded me that practice and implementation of self-defense requires positive headspace. Acknowledging our emotions is important but to be controlled and focused will be the most important component. I am planning to attend a session this week with my daughter. I truly hope that I will never be in a position to have to put what I learn into practice. Taking Noor with me everywhere as a body guard is not a realistic option (I already asked her).
I do feel strongly that attending these sessions can inject women with a sensibility and perhaps a skill set that may help protect them. From a place that seems dark, we can inject a very powerful light, and fight.
We can’t change the evil in people but we can strike back: with a tight jab to the nose, a sharp poke in the eye, or strong kick to the shin of an Islamophobe. And we can use our voices; to scream when in danger, to support each other and to amplify what a force we can be.