‘You’re not helpless’: For London women, learning to fight builds confidence

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LONDON – The clap of fists beating on pillows echoed through the studio as pairs of women circled, punched and blocked each other, with a single focus. A firm jab from a woman provoked an approving murmur from her sweaty partner. Another ducked in anticipation of an incoming left hook.

“Just two strokes! That’s enough!” cried the instructor.

The women – lawyers, teachers and shop assistants from all over the city – were in the studio in north London practicing the techniques of Krav Maga, a self-defense system.

“If things happen to you, there are many things you can do to fight back,” said Jia Li, 26, a business consultant who said she attended the class because a man physically harassed her on the street this year. “You’re not just completely helpless and powerless.”

Martial arts such as boxing and martial arts, and self-defense techniques such as Krav Maga, had gained popularity as a form of physical fitness and protection for women in Britain, many instructors say, before the pandemic increased the risks of close contact.

But after a year marked by isolation and loneliness caused by the virus, and high-profile cases of violence against women, gyms say there is a renewed interest from women wanting to learn how to fight and defend themselves.

An east London gym, Fightzone London, said the number of women who wanted to take classes doubled after it reopened this year compared to 2019. At Miguel’s Boxing and Fitness Gym in south London, where about 70 percent of members are women , asks because the boxing instruction is so high that several new classes are added every week. And several branches of Safari MMA, a women’s martial arts school, have waiting lists.

“When we started opening up after the lockdown, we were manic,” said Khadijah Safari, its founder. She said the waiting lists had gotten so long that the gym initially had to turn people away. “These were new people reaching out,” she said.

Many of the women said they were drawn to self-defense because the physical and mental fitness it requires helped ease the toll they had endured during lockdowns; the training helped them build confidence, relieve stress and make new friends.

“Many people have hit an all-time low during the lockdown,” said Ms Safari. “They found it very difficult to go back to social situations. And when you feel vulnerable, you seek strength.”

There are differences between sports such as boxing, martial arts and Krav Maga, which was developed by the Israel Defense Forces and draws on skills from other martial arts as a way to teach self-defense. Indeed, Krav Maga instructors say that fighting back should be a last resort when a person is faced with a potentially dangerous situation; they advise people to hand over valuables in, for example, burglary attempts and to avoid confrontations where possible.

Many women said their experiences of harassment or violence influenced their decision to take up martial arts.

“That played a big part in choosing this sport,” said Shaaista Lalla-Saib, 22, a recent university graduate, as she completed a Thai kickboxing class in East London. “I feel more confident.”

She said she was tired of being harassed by drunk men on nights out with friends. “At least you know some moves — not to fight someone, but to be like that, get away,” she said.

Sarah Brendlor, an instructor at Krav Maga in London, said she received a surge of interest from organizations and individuals seeking to learn self-defense after Sarah Everard, a young London woman, was kidnapped and murdered by a police officer in March.

The details of her murder — which sparked a national bill on women’s safety — became a catalyst for conversations about violence, she said. “It brought in a lot of fear and anger, and it certainly got people to share experiences,” said Ms. Brendlor.

For women who had already taken conventional precautions—walking on well-lit roads and wearing light clothing—Mrs Everard’s murder only added to the horror.

“When I heard about Sarah Everard, it hurt me a lot,” says Dimple Gorsia, 23.

She said she started using Krav Maga after surviving a violent crime several years ago, as a way to cope with her post-traumatic stress from the attack.

Ms. Gorsia said she now hoped to become a full-time instructor. “There was a little part of me that said, this is why I do self-defense as a way of life,” she said. “It has made my passion a lot stronger to do this as a livelihood.”

On a recent Sunday morning, Ms. Brendlor had a class of about a dozen women warm up before pairing them up to do exercises. Some indicate that they have already made use of some of the lessons, for example by creating distance and not turning their backs on potential attackers.

Yet that seriousness was offset by a sense of camaraderie. A misdirected punch made a few laugh. Ms. Brendlor joked while demonstrating some techniques.

After all, she said classes should be both pragmatic and fun.

“It’s a good place to connect with other women and know that you’re not alone in the situation,” said Ms. Li, the business adviser, who said she was taken out on the street a month before Ms. Everard’s murder. attacked. “It became real that there was a possibility that something like this could happen to me,” she said. In addition to the classes, she entered therapy to help her cope with the aftermath of the attack.

Gyms have noticed the renewed interest and are trying to accommodate new students and make the culture more inclusive.

“Historically, the martial arts environment was probably quite intimidating, with a lot of aggressive men, and today it’s not like that anymore,” said James Roach, an owner of Fightzone London. He said the gym experimented with a women-only class over the weekend to gauge interest.

“A lot of women find it very difficult to go to first class,” said Ms. Safari, adding that Safari MMA instructors are trained to deal with the fears and insecurities associated with taking up a martial art for the first time.

“We try to make it as realistic, but as respectful and fun as possible,” said Ijaz Akram, founder of Urban Krav Maga 360, where classes are kept smaller to keep them personalized. “There is no such thing as a stupid question.”

While learning martial arts and techniques has given them a greater sense of confidence and security, participants said they regretted having to live in a society where such lessons were needed.

“It really shows how unfair it is because it’s the responsibility of men to stop being predators,” Ms Li said. “But now it’s become our responsibility to pick up martial arts or whatever to stop these predators.”

Still, she said the course had given her a lasting belief that she wasn’t defenseless after all. “I’m going to get stronger from what I’ve been through in class,” she said.

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