In the wake of the recent San Bernardino mass shooting and Paris attacks, the backlash against Muslims in America has been a steady hum — online and offline, on the presidential debate stage and in small towns in Iowa, 30 women have come together in solidarity to learn to protect themselves as Muslim communities continue to face growing fallout.
The vitriol has taken on many forms, but one target is the most common: women and girls who wear the hijab. In San Diego, a Muslim woman’s hijab was allegedly ripped off before her assailant began yelling racial slurs at her. In the Bronx, a sixth grader was attacked by classmates, who tore at her hijab during recess. And in Brooklyn, another Muslim woman accused a United States Postal Service worker of spitting on her and yelling derogatory words in her direction.
For the young Muslim women in America, like Amirah Aulaqi and Mariana Aguilera, every day has brought the possibility of an attack, physical or verbal. Aguilera recalled a recent confrontation in one of the most innocuous places: her neighborhood grocery store.
Mariana Aguilera and Amirah Aulaqi creators of two modest fashion companies, The Demureist and Amirah Couture Inc., have taken matters into their own hands by fashioning self-defense classes for Muslim women in New York City. The mission of the classes is to be proactive. Aguilera and Aulaqi say they are tired of the mounting Muslim malevolence permeating the U.S., which includes threats and harassment faced by Muslim Americans.
The training provides instruction on how to safeguard against possible attacks while enriching women’s lives through unity and empowerment.
“We have heard stories from so many different Muslim women about being harassed, attacked, and hurt all over the country,” Aulaqi says. “We knew it was extremely important to do something locally for women who we can reach as well as inspire others in different cities to do the same.”
The first class, which took place Saturday in New York City, was in part prompted by a string of incidents this year that saw Muslim women wearing hijabs as the primary target, from a public attack in an Indiana cafe to alleged harassment by a postal worker in Brooklyn.
Aulaqi has worn a hijab since she was eight years old, and says it is a part of her identity as a Muslim-American woman. “I started wearing the scarf as a symbol of strength and beauty from my mother,” Aulaqi said. “It’s not about being safe by being invisible. It’s about continuing to do the things you love passionately and publicly without the fear of losing your life.”
Saturday’s class was led by self-defense instructor Nicole Daniels, who taught the participants a variety of techniques to defend themselves during violent encounters, which included voice projection and using an open palm when striking a possible attacker.
“I want to voice through these classes that as Muslim women, we will not be victims,” Aguilera says. “We will not wither away our identity. We want to preserve our constitutional choice to practice our faith without prosecution.”
Aguilera and Aulaqi say the popularity for the class is growing, and they’ve scheduled a second class already. The duo also say that requests are also pouring in from schools and individuals looking for instruction on how to host classes in their local areas.
“It was really impacting to be in the same room with you,” Aguilera and Aulaqi wrote on Facebook following the first class, “and know we’re supporting each other—that in itself was emotional and empowering.”
“I had these two males come up to me and … call me a terrorist in front of my face, out loud in front of people,” she said.
Aulaqi says things like this and everyday “small remarks under people’s breaths” began to affect their lives.
“We started to feel a little bit paranoid about going into crowded places, the subway platforms and things like that,” she told America Tonight. “We just felt like you know, a little bit more paranoid than normally what we would feel. And um, we thought okay … we can’t live like this.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) told America Tonight that in the days immediately following the November 13th assaults in France, there were at least 25 incidents of Islamophobia across the United States. The Huffington Post has reported 28 “anti-Muslim acts” in January of this year alone.
Instead of hiding, Aguilera and Aulaqi are reaching out to other Muslim women. The goal: to protect themselves against what they see as an increased possibility of attack.
They’ve started a monthly self-defense class in Manhattan’s City Wing Tsun studio, where attendees can learn the basics of self-defense. Their art? Wing Tsun, which focuses on survival. Eye gouges, throat jabs and palm strikes to the head — all outlawed in MMA and boxing — are perfectly legal in this arena. The goal is to make it home alive.
The first class, which took place in mid-December, drew 30 women: Old, young, converts and lifelong Muslims alike. One attendee brought her 12-year-old daughter. While the class does not exclude non-Muslims, Aulaqi and Aguilera do want those who come to know that at least one basic Muslim guideline will apply: No men can attend.
The self-defense class began as an attempt to prevent attacks, rather than react to them. But it’s also about fighting misperceptions, which both Aulaqi and Aguilera say are built into the prevailing narrative of Muslim women. They’re seen as weak, they say; victims.
Aguilera has first-hand experience with these misconceptions. She used to have them herself, until she converted to Islam a decade ago.
She says the class is a way for her to dispel those ideas and show people that the Muslim woman is strong both in mind and body.
To that end, the class has become a way for Muslim women to bond, all feeling the pressure to abandon parts of their religion in a country where religious civil liberties are guaranteed by the Constitution.
Here, women tell stories and share experiences, puddles of sweat forming on the floor.
“We want to create a pow-wow moment before and after the class where we share each other’s stories,” Aguilera told us. “It’s another way to channel our strength.”
Aulaqi and Aguilera understand that it is the hijab – as a symbol of Islam – that brought them here, to this sweaty gym, surrounded by punching bags and imaginary assailants. They don’t care. They’d rather take on would-be attackers than take it off.
Aguilera says if there’s one thing she wants fellow Muslim women to know, it’s this: “You’re strong. [Know] how to use [that strength].”
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