In East Jerusalem workshop, Jewish instructors teach Arab women self-defense
The events in the cold gym in a Wadi Joz community center are indeed a bit surreal: Jews hardly ever enter Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods, let alone teach women self-defense there.
By Julia Niemann
“He attacked me! No! No violence!”
Every time a participant in the workshop fights back a male assailant, the group of 10 women and the instructors shout out these words, stamping their feet on the floor as they yell “No!” Meanwhile, the victim stretches out an arm as she looks around for further enemies or potential helpers.
“It’s important to have a routine to follow when you’ve just been attacked,” says Celine, an instructor. “And these women are even less used to saying no loudly and defending their boundaries.”
It’s the final class in a five-week self-defense course for women, run by women in Wadi Joz, East Jerusalem. The two female instructors and the three men serving as mock attackers are Jewish, while the participants are Palestinians. For some of them this is their second course, but the first time they’re being attacked by men instead of just punching the air.
The attackers – with their helmets they resemble the “Star Wars” bounty hunter Boba Fett – start doing their thing. Some of the women go right ahead and hit their assailants, and even the shier ones can’t help but employ the methods they’ve learned in the course; they use their voices and elbows, not to mention a few kicks to the head and groin. When they defeat their attacker, they are rewarded with applause.
“I’m very happy I’ve taken this class. It has really taught me how to defend myself; in the beginning I just wanted to watch,” says Sahra, a 37-year-old East Jerusalem mother of three. Her husband was supportive when she decided to take part in the workshop, but she would never tell her father or brothers.
“They wouldn’t understand. They’d think I’d never need the things I learn here. They think in an old-fashioned way and that I should only be on the streets with a man at my side anyway.”
But women everywhere have experienced fear in certain situations. “It’s very important to raise your voice then,” says Celine. “We want to give a voice to those who think they don’t have one. In traditional societies, be it Jewish or Arab, women are taught to be passive …. They’re never alone, ever.”
The events in the cold gym in a community center are indeed a bit surreal. Jews hardly ever enter Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods, let alone teach women self-defense there. “We hope we can continue next year,” says Yudit, co-founder of the women’s nonprofit self-defense organization El Halev and an initiator of these workshops. “But we’re still one sponsor short.”
“In about 80 percent of the cases, assaults against women are carried out by someone they know,” she says; in closed religious societies this figure might be higher. It’s often hard for women to draw the line and defend themselves.
“They should use their intuition. If they feel it’s not okay, it’s probably not okay,” instructor Nina Alon says. She is religious herself and a self-defense instructor since 2006.
According to Ika, a 35-year-old religious woman, “The conflict has nothing to do with this, this is about human rights,” she says, noting that “there are alpha dogs everywhere in every society.”
And Nina agrees in leaving the conflict outside the gym. “We’re all women,” she says. It was hard work to get these women to raise their voices and really let go when they shout “No!” Even women who have served in the army, secular and tough ones, need training to find a way to express emotions like anger or fear, Nina says. “That’s because we are all raised as women.”
At the end of the final class, they watch the video of their first session. They observe how shy and quiet they were. “I’m not shy anymore,” Sahra says with a proud smile. She definitely wants to send her daughter to one of those workshops, once she’s old enough. And how did she feel about being taught by Jewish Israelis? “They’re great.”
- This story is by: Julia Niemann