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Published May 1, 2008 DiverCities Features

Copyright SARA WAJID


I took a beating from a powerful Somalian teen in a grim part of East London while a friend egged her on; she was clearly enjoying herself. As her enthusiastic blows rained down, I cursed myself for responding to the advert which read: “From the mean streets of London, where Islamophobic attacks from chavs, hoodies and pervy so-called Muslim men have become increasingly common, and our unchivalrous brothers fail to deliver when the going gets tough. It’s time our sisters stood up and defended their honour! Enter the Ninjabi.” Ninjabi is slang for hijabis, women who wear the hijab.
The six-week beginner self-defence course for Muslim women was set up by community group, Islamic Circles, in response to a growing demand for women-only classes. It’s attracted attention throughout the Muslim world. There are plans for follow-up courses titled, in homage to Bruce Lee, ‘Return of the Ninjabi’, ‘Way of the Ninjabi’ and - more East London than Hong Kong - ‘Ninjabi vs. Minicabi’.
Thirty young women jump around the hall energetically on a drizzly Saturday afternoon, those wearing jilbabs, floating like black butterflies as they spar and dodge, shouting ‘Get back!’ loudly at each other.
It’s a mixture of petite professional British Asian young Mums wearing Marks and Spencers tracksuits and students in hijab’n’ hoodie combos. One striking cool young woman could be the poster girl; her large kohl-rimmed eyes are accentuated by the jet-black headscarf against her fair skin - the elaborate Japanese-style symbol emblazoned on the back of her matching hoodie is Arabic script meaning ‘May Allah protect me from Satan.’ Ninjabi-chic!

They have been attracted to the centre from neighbouring municipalities and surrounding suburbs. The atmosphere is friendly and studious – it is impossible to keep a straight face when being stabbed with a rubber knife by a five-foot primary school teacher. The instructor, Dee Terry, cheerfully talks us through knee strikes to the groin and how to respond if an attacker grabs your headscarf (give it up - and “Velcro is better than safety pins”). At the end of the 2-hour session we line up cadet-style, put the moves together in a sequence and shout in synch. It feels pretty good.
Similar classes have started in recent years elsewhere in London and in other UK cities - Leicester, Loughborough, Birmingham and Manchester. According to the Muslim Directory a devout sister can try Taekwando in Bethnal Green or Kick boxing in Harrow, not to mention ‘sisters football’ or a joyless-sounding ‘100% halal’, music-free, fitness class in Tottenham.

According to the Ninjabis, this surge of interest in self defence among young Muslim women is not a desperate reaction to the increase in Islamophobic attacks since 9/11.

They see it as a normal part of any modern, independent, urban woman’s armoury. The only relevance of their Muslim identity is the shared need for a women-only closed training space and a female instructor sensitive to their clothing restrictions. The fact that the community has the economic clout and initiative to make provision is a testimony to the social capital and confidence of their generation. There are 296, 606 Muslim women in London - a fast-expanding market with 30,000 under 4 years old.
Uzma Naseem, a solicitor and mother from Ilford says, “It’s not a question of being a Muslim woman, it’s a question of being a woman and of self-protection generally. I would fear attack not particularly for Islamophobic reasons. It could just be a group of guys, who might even be Asian. It’s hard for people to acknowledge Muslim women need to go out and about in the city and need to be able to defend themselves. My Mum’s generation might think, ‘Muslim women just go out with their men so they’ll be protected.’ But my generation is just so much more independent. It’s not about being vulnerable women it’s just a good qualification to have.” She plans to enrol her four your old daughter in martial arts classes.

Aisha Gill chairs a centre for Asian women victims of domestic violence in the Newham area, where Muslims make up 24% of inhabitants. She welcomes the Ninjabis’ course: “This is an excellent idea because Muslim women are often seen as passive and submissive, as a problem within the Muslim world. Whereas I’m surrounded by young women who wear hijab as a symbol of freedom and with pride. This course would help build their identity and enhance their own safe spaces.”
A straw poll of young British women wearing niqab and hijab in different parts of East London suggest it’s a big market. Only three were not keen. One said, “I don’t need classes, I’d just give anyone who tries to give my any nonsense a good wallop – that’s the way to deal with that!” Another, pushing a buggy, had already done Taekwando. The third, a 20 year-old student had seven years of Shotokan karate under her purple belt and was looking for an advanced class!
Rimla Akhtar, 24-year old chair of the Muslim Women Sports Foundation says an increasing number of Islamic societies on university campuses offer women-only self-defence as do many mosques, but mainstream leisure facilities aren’t catching up. She ascribes the boom to a wider social trend in the popularity of self defence for women, the Quranic emphasis on an individuals responsibility to look after the body and the childhood influence of Jackie Chan films on second and third generation British Asians. Yasmeen Nawaz, the Taekwando Black belt from Glasgow has pointed out, martial arts is the perfect sport for Muslim women keen to protect their modesty as ‘you’re covered head to toe, wearing a baggy suit, you can even wear a hijab.”

What do young Muslim women want to be Ninjabis? Because they can. Razia Rabbani, 51, runs women-only kick boxing in Harrow. “I wanted to learn these things from a young age and always thought it would make me feel safer outside. If it was on offer 20 years ago, I would have taken part.”

Space for young Muslim women in the city is a strong theme in The Dying Game, a new novel about youth culture and crime by Catherine Johnson, the writer behind the film Bullet Boy. Her hijab-wearing teenage heroine from Tower Hamlets, Shehana, discovers the city beyond the confines of her estate while solving the murder of an Albanian prostitute. When the bad guys corner her, “Shehana thought she should scream and run. Maybe scrape the guy’s shin with her heel, the way they were shown in self defence class at school, or pull away suddenly, or knee him in the….” Shehana is based on ‘sparky confident young women’ Johnson met at sixth-form colleges in Tower Hamlets while researching the book. Would Shehana take up Ninjabi classes?
“Absolutely,” says Johnson, “She could probably sell it to her parents. The issue a lot of these kids have is finding the space to be herself. I wanted to convey to young people the sense of London as a city being a resource. Being non-white, London is a place we can really belong which is really important – it’s ours.”

As Uzma says, “Now you’ve got this generation of Muslim girls who have got the time, their parents are quite lenient, they’re ok to go out but if you’re a practising Muslim where do you go? You need things to do, there’s a market out there for events like this.”




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