I learnt many things at Shadow Sistxrs, a self-defense class run by witches—how to get out of a wrist lock, the best way to punch a Nazi (slap them), the medicinal uses of angelica root—but what I realized about myself was more surprising: I absolutely hate being touched by strangers! Seriously, I cannot stand it.
I'd heard about Shadow Sistxrs after a friend told me about a coven of witches who'd been thrown out of her studio for burning sage during a self-defence session. My interest was piqued: Self-defence tends to be dominated by burly dudes—meaning that traditional self-defence classes, however well-intentioned, may be triggering for sexual abusers. But a roomful of witches, practicing self-defence? Well, something about it grabbed me.
I head to black-walled converted garage and queer-friendly space Limewharf in east London one Tuesday evening after work. Solange plays in the background. Shadow Sistxrs co-founders Ayesha Tan-Jones (who uses they/them pronouns) and Monique Etienne bustle around, laying out multi-colored mats. In one corner, an altar is laid with candles and Tan-Jones' favored texts: The Crystal Bible and Magical Herbalism. Women and non-binary people—the only people welcome at Shadow Sistxrs—begin to file in. The class composition is ethnically diverse, and most people are in their mid-to-late twenties. Each session centers on a different chakra; students today are dressed in red, the color of the root chakra, and the theme of today's class.
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Shadow Sistxrs was set up after Tan-Jones began hearing reports of multiple assaults on women living in their warehouse community in north London. Not knowing self-defence, Tan-Jones used their herbalism skills and began teaching a magical pepper-spray-making workshop.
"I did two of those classes and was like, amazing," they enthuse, breaking off periodically to greet new arrivals, "but I still didn't know how to fight! I can spray someone in the face with my pepper spray with herbs in it, but if they're drunk, it's not going to do anything. It was more a spiritual ritual for me."
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Tan-Jones, wearing a self-customized t-shirt that reads "MAKE CITIES FORRESTS [sic] AGAIN," smiles. "I put out a Facebook post, saying, 'Does anyone know any women of color martial artists who can teach self-defence? Bonus points if they're a witch."
Amazingly, Tan-Jones' highly specific call-out worked, and she connected with 24-year-old Etienne, a martial arts expert. Etienne has the charisma of a cult leader and the practiced intensity of a top athlete. I don't exercise or own a DVD player, but if she brought out a fitness DVD, I'd buy it.
"It's about redefining strength," she explains, to the strains of "Cranes in the Sky." "I've done martial arts since I was a kid, and I'm used to being in spaces that are very male dominated, but I realized that's what's stopping people from doing self defence. As women and non-binary people we're made to feel not very strong, and we have this idea of strength that's very macho."
The week I take the class, the Harvey Weinstein allegations have dominated the news. I ask Etienne what it's like teaching self-defense to a class with many sexual abuse survivors. She explains that Shadow Sistxrs helps many survivors process their abuse.
"Assault doesn't end after the physical part. Assault carries on," she says firmly. "How we start redefining how we look after ourselves after an assault—how we look at those things—is what we do here. A lot of things are outside our control. Shadow Sistxrs deals with the things that are inside our control."
Class set up, it's time to begin. We sit-cross legged, introduce ourselves, and specify which pronouns we prefer. There is tea to drink, although not enough mugs. A lit tea-light is passed around, left to right, because—apparently—blood in the womb flows this way. (It's naturally cynical about some of these flourishes, although I'm the only one, I sense, who inwardly raises an eyebrow.)
"We are the Shadow Sistxrs, and we are the protectors of our own souls," Tan-Jones instructs us.
Class begins. We learn how to grapple with each other, putting our hands on the back of our partner's necks, and swaying from side to side, like two drunks leaning on each other for support or very intense slow-dancing teenagers.
A smiling woman called Josie in a red crop top collars me around the neck. "How do you feel?" she checks in, beaming ear-to-ear. (Prior to attending Shadow Sistxrs, we're emailed a safe spaces policy which, amongst other things, instructs us to be respectful of other people's emotions and energy).
"I hate it!" I say jocularly. I'm not joking—I really do hate it! Josie is lovely, but I want her to get the fuck off me, now. Suddenly all the years I spent numbing myself with Slurpee-sized glasses of wine on dates coalesce into clearer shape.
We move onto the next exercise. Etienne demonstrates a jiu jitsu seat—an effective technique for preventing an assailant dragging you somewhere you don't want to be. She squats to the floor while Tan-Jones tugs her wrist: one leg a triangle, palm flat on the ground. All around us, class members practice the move. I am unable to remember the moves, but a friendly classmate called Priya encourages my shaky attempts.
"Stand up in base!" Etienne booms from across the room. People swarm around her. I figure I'm not the only one to find her charismatic.
I'm much better at the next exercise, where we get to slap each other, because I have two sisters who didn't like me very much growing up.
"If you're not trained with your fists," Etienne says, "it's difficult to punch someone and make an impact. It's much better to slap a Nazi! Slapping them can cause ear bleeding."
Josie slaps the boxing glove off Etienne's hand, and the class bursts into applause. Me next. I flail, arm-half extended like a velociraptor's claw. Etienne tells me I did a good job, and even though I know she's lying, I still feel good about myself.
Hanging out in a Shadow Sistxrs class is like wearing a brand-new outfit to work—everyone compliments you, you have a spring in your step, you don't feel worthless or shit. Even though I'm not really enjoying the self-defense or physical contact, I'd probably come back.
Although we learn physical things in class—how to break someone's arm as they try to grab your wrist, how to escape a chokehold, how to get up on your feet and run—we also learn to reinforce our emotional armor.
"It's about seeing exits in any situation," says Etienne, straddling Tan-Jones on the ground. They've been demonstrating how to bridge, then roll out of a throat clasp to pin an assailant to the floor. "When you've subdued them, then you just run.
"You've done your bit," she says, becoming serious. "Now, you run." This philosophy, she explains, applies to everything in your life, from your relationships to your work. "Look for the exits. If you're in a toxic relationship, you can leave. Remember your exits." There is muted applause from the class.
We move onto the magical aspect of the class. Tan-Jones, regal in a flowing red kimono, brings out their cauldron: a small, transparent teapot. Today we're boiling angelica root and ginger to drink, and we share mugs as Tan-Jones explains the magical qualities of the herbs. Beside me, my classmates discuss the best herbs for period pain.
"I've heard sage is good," says one. "Oh yeah! Sage is pretty magical," a shorthaired woman to my right responds. Both nod in agreement. Across the room, Tan-Jones and Priya chat about their favorite places to buy crystals and the rivalry between two competing London occult stores, Treadwells versus Watkins.
Leaving Shadow Sistxrs, I feel confused, like I've pulled two contradictory tarot cards from the same deck. On the one hand the sense of sisterhood and solidarity I felt that night was real, and it moved me. On the other hand, I'm cynical about all that witchy stuff—herbs don't cure period pain, codeine does—and all the touching made me uncomfortable.
I walk home with an envelope full of angelica root in my pocket. On it, Tan-Jones has written, "with gratitude, Shadow Sistxrs." The angelica root scents my room for days. I can't tell if I like the smell or not.
Correction: at the request of one of the participants and to protect her privacy, Josie is a pseudonym.