"The last thing people think I've got in my bag is a load of boxing gloves," says Khadijah Safari. The 5'4" hijabi Muay Thai boxing instructor is struggling under the weight of the huge sports bag she's hauling to a class she teaches in Milton Keynes, outside the British capital. "When I lived in London, I'd get taxis all the time and drivers would say, 'Where are you off to? What do you teach?' I'd tell them, and they'd double-take, thinking perhaps I'd just covered my head because it was raining or something, but it was obviously my hijab… Once, I went to Holland & Barrett to buy training supplements for one of my students. The guy behind the counter loudly and slowly asked, 'Can. I. Help. You?' like he assumed I couldn't speak English. Though I suppose that's better than the time a man yelled, 'Go back to your fucking country!' and threw his sandwich at me.
Tales of this kind of racism aren't uncommon. What might be is Safari's response to it. Four years ago, she set up boxing classes in London that catered predominantly to Muslim women. She recently moved to Milton Keynes and has become even more ambitious—hoping to establish a national women-only kickboxing tournament that will allow Muslim and non-Muslim women to compete together. Her plan is to empower them, physically and emotionally, and give them confidence that they could kick the shit out of people on the streets in the real world—if they really had to.
You have to be strong—before I came here, I lived in Worcestershire and people would shout 'Muslim!' at me in the street.
The ethnic make-up of the streets that Safari's students inhabit has shifted significantly in recent years. In 2001, 13.2 percent of Milton Keynes residents were from an ethnic group other than "white British." By 2011—the most recent figures available—this had risen to 26.1. Only 4.8 percent of people in Milton Keynes identify as Muslim, but in a climate where ethnic difference can be seen as a threat to the political rhetoric of "British values," a feeling of unease prevails. In 2013, a petrol bomb was flung onto the roof of the local Zainabia Islamic Center. It was a relatively isolated incident, but it's recent enough to make it plain why local Muslim women feel a need to be defended.
"One of my students asked me to go the shop with her to get milk because she was wearing a niqab and was scared," says Safari. "People threaten them, pull veils from their heads. Imagine how many women are experiencing that, every time they go out?"
Self-defense classes aimed at Muslim women have existed for years across the United Kingdom. It's perhaps unsurprising, then, that many women are protecting themselves against a climate where their safety is being increasingly and aggressively compromised. Last September, a shocking figure showed that Islamaphobic attacks had risen 70 percent in London in the last year. The media reported stories of women being spat on and name-called, while the #afterseptember11 hashtag retold stories across Europe and the UK of how life had changed for women after 9/11.
Safari's sessions are grueling. Headscarves hang on hooks at the back of the room, hair is tied back, and the sparring is rapid, sweaty, and punishing. When men are in the building, newspaper is stuck on the windows to respect "purdah"—the religious practice of screening women from men or strangers. Safari shouts at the panting women, who are blocking, punching, and memorizing sequences. At one point, she expertly raises her legs above her head and holds a firm static kick position for 30 seconds—a display of control that receives applause from the room.
When I visit on a Thursday, one of the attendees is 26-year-old Fatima. Her family is from London, via Sierra Leone, and she found Safari through Facebook. "It's a good skill for anyone to have, but particularly Muslim women because we are more overtly Muslim," she says.
Safari, who is a black belt in Muay Thai, now wants to take it to the next level by creating the first halal martial arts organization—Safari Martial Arts Association—to cater specifically to the needs of Muslims. Men and women train separately, so the idea is to have a space where women can remove their headscarves and be respectful of their religion and their sport at the same time.
Afshah, 33, is fixing her hijab with magnetic pins that the women are sharing around after the session as they remove black and red boxing gloves. She's from Islamabad but has been in the UK for eight years. "I have three kids at home, and I want something for myself," she says. "My husband wants me to get a black belt. You have to be strong—before I came here, I lived in Worcestershire and people would shout 'Muslim!' at me in the street. I felt so insecure. I didn't want to go out. This class has given me a little bit more confidence. If there was a competition, I would love to go to there."
Sisters need to be able to play football and go for a jog where they're not judged by the way they are dressed.
The current British female kickboxing champion is in fact a Muslim. Ruqsana Begum is the only Muslim woman who is a national champion in her sport. She also runs her own classes based in London and is in the middle of launching a "sports hijab range for sisters" later this year, called Sports Hijab by Ruqsana. Her point is simple, but one that keeps needing to be made—that Muslim women are capable of powerful, physically demanding athletic excellence, without being held back by stereotypes. "Sisters need to be able to play football and go for a jog where they're not judged by the way they are dressed," she says.
Safari plans to hold a competition to celebrate Milton Keynes's 50th birthday next year, which she hopes will lead to more interest and funding for a national competition. "It's very achievable," she says. "I don't see any reason why it couldn't be. It'd also be an opportunity to give positions like judges and referees, which are usually held by men, to women. In doing this, we're showing a totally different side of ourselves."
For more information on Safari Kickboxing, visit its website.
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