In era of Trump, Muslim women turning to self-defense classes

Uzma Shariff trains with her coach at a gym in Chicago. Shariff, a Muslim practitioner of jiujitsu and other martial arts, has received several requests for self-defense classes from fellow Muslim women who are concerned about anti-Muslim hostility in the wake of the election.
Uzma Shariff trains with her coach at a gym in Chicago. Shariff, a Muslim practitioner of jiujitsu and other martial arts, has received several requests for self-defense classes from fellow Muslim women who are concerned about anti-Muslim hostility in the wake of the election. Courtesy of Uzma Shariff

It was a busy week for Kalimah Azeez, a Muslim activist in Memphis who’s urging her community to take extra precautions amid a national spike in bias-related attacks since Donald Trump won the presidential election.

Azeez met with Memphis police officials to plan a self-defense course at a local mosque where martial arts trainers will teach “escape and evade tactics.” She’s also preparing a video tutorial to introduce Muslim women to an emergency-response app called Cell 411. It records an attack, sends the information to the cloud for safe storage and automatically alerts the authorities.

Some non-Muslims might view such steps as alarmist, but Azeez calls it prudence.

“We can look at the climate of the country, look at the map and see how red it is, we can hear the rhetoric and look at the individuals and see in their faces the anger and frustration. It’s real,” said Azeez, program director at the American Muslim Advisory Council.

“We protect ourselves,” she said. “As Muslims, as women, we have to be ahead of the curve.”

In separate interviews, Muslim women in five states said self-defense initiatives had become a priority for mosques as hate-crime trackers report an outbreak of incidents since Election Day. Imparting basic protection skills is one tactic imams and activists are turning to in the struggle to comfort their terrified communities as the Trump campaign’s anti-Muslim rhetoric inches closer to policy.

Trump’s first Cabinet picks signaled that there would be no reassuring gestures to the nation’s 3.3 million Muslims. Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s preference to lead the Justice Department, Michael Flynn, his national security adviser pick, and Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kansas, the CIA director nominee, have made anti-Muslim statements. Flynn has suggested Islam isn’t a religion.

Muslim women – especially those easily identifiable because of their headscarves – say such moves give political cover to attackers targeting them because of their faith. The takeaway, they said: They’re going to have to rely on themselves for protection.

“Ever since Wednesday, the 9th of November, I’ve had two universities reach out to me, one women’s organization, a handful of individuals and a family member in Florida wanting to fly me out there to teach women,” said Uzma Shariff, a Chicago-based practitioner of jiujitsu and Krav Maga martial arts. “So you can imagine that concerns are very heightened.”

The worries aren’t baseless. Since Election Day, the Southern Poverty Law Center has recorded more than 701 bias-related incidents, including many against Muslim women. In 2015, according to the FBI, hate-related incidents targeting Muslims jumped 67 percent from the previous year, and there are fears that the statistics for 2016 will be even more chilling.

While there’s debate on how seriously to take the threat, it’s clear that many Muslim women would rather be safe than sorry. Across social media, they’re sharing tips on pepper sprays and portable defense devices. One popular item among women whose scarves attract attention in public is the Tigerlady Self-Defense Claw, a discreet, handheld tool with plastic blades that’s marketed to women joggers.

Josh Levine, a Tigerlady executive, said “we’ve definitely seen a rise in sales as a result of the election.” He didn’t know how much of the interest could be attributed to Muslims, but said his company was proud to help them stand up to the “bullies.”

“You can’t be looking at your phone when you walk down the street,” Levine said. “You need to be ready for anything.”

So far, Trump has done little but stoke the fears by naming vocal anti-Muslim figures to his administration. Flynn has called Islam a “malignant cancer” and a “sick” ideology rather than a religion. He’s tweeted to his 76,000 Twitter followers that it’s “rational” to fear Muslims.

Sessions has questioned National Endowment for the Humanities funding the dissemination of 900 educational books about Islam to libraries nationwide. He also defended Trump against criticism that his proposal for a ban on Muslims entering the country is racist, saying the time for political correctness was over.

Pompeo, ignoring a chorus of U.S. Muslim condemnations of extremism, has accused Muslim Americans of silence and complicity in attacks. In a misstep Pompeo blamed on a staffer, a link to a blog post that called President Barack Obama an “evil muslim communist USURPER” was tweeted from the congressman’s account.

Jumana Abusalah, youth director at a mosque in Canton, Michigan, said the mainstreaming of anti-Muslim prejudices allows people “to think they have the right to take their biases and act upon them.” However, she stressed, there’s also been a heartening outpouring of solidarity from non-Muslim allies.

In the neighboring town of Plymouth, she said, the owners of the Kaizen BJJ martial arts studio learned of the fears of local minorities and offered free self-defense tutorials. Abusalah spread the word among Muslim women and got so many responses – around 40 before she had to close registration – that Kaizen agreed to do a special class for them on Sunday.

“This is our country. We don’t want to go anywhere. We’re not going anywhere,” Abusalah said. “So it’s not that we want to press a panic button. It’s not that we want people to become afraid. It’s that we plan to exercise the right to defend ourselves.”

Hannah Allam: 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam