At 16, Rana Abdelhamid was on her way to volunteer at a domestic violence shelter in New York City when she was assaulted by a stranger who tried to rip off her hijab. A black-belt in Shotokan karate, Rana was able to defend herself, but after her shock wore off, she realized that most women in her community didn’t have the same opportunity. A year after her own attack, she started a self-defense class.
The series of self-defense workshops became WISE, the International Muslim Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment, an organization dedicated to empowering Muslim women to fight back against physical attacks and cultural stereotypes. Now in six cities across the United States and three in Europe, WISE offers an intensive summer program, self-defense workshops and leadership development for young Muslim women determined, as Abdelhamid explained in a phone interview, to “shift ideas of where power and strength come from.”
At first, the idea was met with resistance. Muslim New Yorkers, Abdelhamid said, “had been so policed after 9/11. People just wanted to keep their head down. People didn’t want to talk about hate-based violence, didn’t want to bring more attention. A lot of parents weren’t enthusiastic.”
Still, the classes were met with high demand. Over the past seven years, Abdelhamid, now 24 and living in Palo Alto, Calif., and WISE have trained thousands of Muslim women in self-defense, leadership development and community organizing. There’s even an intensive summer program for girls ages 13-19, Mentee Muslimah. Those selected get eight weeks of training in all three program areas. Each cohort gets to partner with local entrepreneurs to help jumpstart their businesses. This year, WISE held its first National Muslim Women’s Summit at Harvard University, training 50 Muslim American women in leadership and community organizing. The work has become even more necessary following the election of Donald Trump. According to a study from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, in 2017, anti-Muslim hate crimes in the United States rose 91 percent in the first half of the year compared with the same period in 2016.
While self-defense was the initial focus, WISE added entrepreneurship training because “financial empowerment is so important. Within Islamic history, women have been entrepreneurs.” In addition to the self-defense introductions available on its website, WISE is creating a series of videos, to be released in early January, for training in basic financial literacy: how to pitch an idea, write a business plan and attract investors.
Abdelhamid notes that Muslim women are at the “intersection of two forms of violence, especially women wearing a headscarf,” violence against their gender and violence against their religion. People assume they’re weak, when in fact they’re incredibly strong. They’re fighting stereotypes both from Americans who don’t know Muslims personally, and so get their information from “horrific news stories about tragedies that happen unfortunately in the name of Islam,” as well as from their own communities.
It’s frustrating, and Abdelhamid admits “it shouldn’t be on women to learn how to defend themselves,” that women are expected to do the work, while men are not held accountable for their behavior, but unfortunately, “the current reality calls on us.” What makes Abdelhamid a little sad is some of the questions she gets following the workshops. At the Women’s Convention in Detroit, “one young woman raised her hand and said if this happened to me, I wouldn’t have the strength to react.”
Still, the work is both emotionally and physically empowering. For the self-defense component, WISE classes start with basic techniques, “defense and stiff grabs, basic strikes, how to use your voice, how to de-escalate with language.” A single class, she admits, “won’t make you Jackie Chan, especially after years of female socialization.” It takes practice, Abdelhamid notes; “it takes muscle memory. That’s why we have eight-week sessions, three-day intensives. We want this to be a reflex. I try to really emphasize that.”
The most rewarding part of the education is when women get over that hesitation and surprise themselves with their own strength. Abdelhamid heard one woman say, at a class she gave at the Women’s Convention, “I didn’t realize I could do this.” It’s a proud moment when she watches a 15-year-old topple someone twice her size.
WISE is about to get more national attention, now that Abdelhamid has been nominated for a L’oreal Paris Women of Worth award, which, she says, is a “huge honor for me because the other women are so incredible. Their stories are really incredible, and I’m so excited to meet them. Most remarkable is being part of a group, and an issue I care deeply about.” The nomination comes with a $10,000 donation to WISE. Starting November 1, the public can vote at L’Oreal’s website for the winner, who will receive an additional $25,000 donation.
The additional funding would help WISE achieve Abdelhamid’s ultimate goal: to expand its programming to multiple marginalized communities around the world.