Self-defense class prepares Muslim women to fight back against hate

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For many Muslim women, walking home at night, riding the bus through the city and leaving a mosque after prayer are everyday activities. But for some, these actions have become dangerous — or even deadly.

On Saturday, July 15, the Texas Muslim Student Association will be partnering with several local mosques and organizations to host a free self defense class at UT for Muslim women. Texas MSA president Altamshali Hirani said the event is a response to a national increase in hate crimes against the religious group.

“We decided that self-defense classes are a need, especially because of all of the hate crimes that are happening with Muslims,” Hirani said. “We thought because with the women, some of them embrace their religion by wearing the hijab (and) they are more likely to be targeted.”

The workshop comes not long after the murder of Nabra Hassanen in June, which Hirani said scared members of Muslim communities across the country. According to The Washington Post, the Virgina teen was murdered after leaving a mosque with friends. However, her death is not being investigated as a hate crime.

“That was a very big shock; it scared a lot of individuals in my community,” Hirani said. “We had heard about Muslims being targeted in terms of verbal violence, but to be physically attacked and murdered like that truly instilled a lot of fear in a lot of our Austin community members.”

Sidrah Shah, UT alumna and attendee, said although she feels mostly safe on campus and around Austin, she feels vulnerable because she expresses her beliefs visually by wearing a hijab.

“In the news you see a lot about hate crimes committed against Muslims, especially Muslim women,” Shah said. “It is a dangerous world out there, whether or not you are Muslim or a woman.”

She said she also worries about her size and how that could affect her ability to defend herself in the face of an attack.

“I am not physically very large,” Shah said. “I don’t have the confidence to confront someone. Physical size isn’t something that should deter you from standing up for yourself.”

Mikal Abdullah, a personal defense trainer participating in the workshop, said this is something he hopes to address during the event, where he will be teaching strategies to prevent, confront and overcome potential attackers.

“I am concerned a lot of self-defense classes teach (these) conventional wisdom concepts that are not necessarily true or accurate, like ‘step on his foot,’” Abdullah said. “I think it sets a lot of women and smaller people up for failure.”

UT alumna Saadia Rashid will also be attending the event because, although she generally feels safe, she said she has personally witnessed hate incidents on or close to campus.

“Walking late at night sometimes we get a few stares here and there,” Rashid said. “(One time,) I was walking out in West Campus, and a bunch of guys were yelling slurs and things like that.”

Despite these incidents, Rashid said she has also witnessed local acceptance, like when the fraternity next to the mosque goes over for dinner. On one occasion when she and others were verbally harassed on a bus, she said locals stepped in to defend her.

“It was heartwarming to see a bunch of Austinites standing up for me and everybody else getting yelled at,” Rashid said.

Hirani said Texas MSA has received multiple calls from local authorities, campus police and the Counseling and Mental Health Center to offer their services for both preventing and dealing with hate incidents.

“We are aware that this stuff can happen and might happen,” Hirani said. “We hope it doesn’t, but as members of our current society, we can’t ever rule anything out.”