The Daughter of a Muslim Feminist Icon on the Many Faces of “Self-Defense”

Originally published in Fusion
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In Front Lines, Fusion speaks to activists leading the charge in all kinds of ways.

Nasreen Alkhateeb’s teenage rebellion wasn’t too different from other adolescent girls’ in the suburbs of Washington D.C. She wanted to go to parties and rock concerts with her friends. She got her nose pierced. Her parents worried about her.

But Alkhateeb wasn’t only opposing parental authority; she was resisting religious influence. The daughter of an Iraqi father and an American mother who observed the Five Pillars of Islam—praying five times a day, participating in Muslim holidays, and fasting twice a year—she struggled to navigate the conflict between her teenaged desires and her family’s religion.

“There was a constant clash between what my parents expected of me,” says Alkhateeb, “and how ‘regular’ Americans grow up.”

That clash would later influence her work as a filmmaker and an activist. Alkhateeb’s mother, Sharifa Alkhateeb, was a feminist Muslim activist and educator. As she traveled the world, working to cultivate cross-cultural and interfaith understanding, she would bring her daughter with her—a choice that left a deep impression on the younger Alkhateeb long after her mother’s death in 2004.

“I would see her building organizations from scratch and being a resource, not only in her Muslim community, but internationally, by [speaking to] journalists who wanted to know more about Muslim women’s identities” in America, Alkhateeb recalls. “Growing up, she was a voice for a lot of people who didn’t have one. I admired her for that.”

While Alkhateeb’s identity as an adult does not include active religious worship of her own, reckoning with her Muslim identity has become more pressing since Donald Trump’s election, as the president has repeatedly stoked anti-Muslim sentiments in his speeches and policies. In the last three years, the Council on American-Islamic Relations reports hate crimes targeting Muslims have increased sixfold. In 2016, there were more than 2,200 “anti-Muslim bias incidents,” an increase of 57% in a single year.

Enrollment in self-defense classes skyrocketed following Donald Trump’s election, particularly among women, Muslims, and LGBTQ populations. Part of Alkhateeb’s work is to empower women through such techniques: She takes and teaches classes with the organization Defend Yourself in Washington D.C.

Founded by longtime activist Lauren Taylor, Defend Yourself structures its classes around the individuals who attend each session. It specializes in helping traditionally marginalized groups protect themselves through assertiveness training, de-escalation techniques, and bystander intervention skills.

Alkhateeb lost her mother to cancer more than a decade ago, but her work continues to influence her daughter. During a phone call, we spoke about the personal and political forces that drive her. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jim Cooke

Why did you begin studying self-defense, and what drew you to Defend Yourself?

I wanted to find my voice and learn how use it to best benefit my life. Defend Yourself is all about empowerment. It’s about assertiveness training and de-escalation techniques, using them as a strategy. It works on a personal level, and in public: Everything from deciding, when someone’s touching you on the subway, whether it’s conscious or not; to setting boundaries with intrusive family members; to creating a dialogue with a colleague that’s threatened by your ideas. And all the way up to a full-on physical assault. We create plans for all those scenarios.

What techniques are taught as part of bystander intervention?

Bystander intervention skills help individuals who are being harassed. But it also helps people who are witnessing harassment to intervene in a safe way. That really depends on their judgment and how they assess a situation.

We just completed a training recently where it was a group of non-Muslims and one of the scenarios we posed was one where a Muslim woman was being yelled at on the subway. How could you intervene on her behalf, if she’s unable to do that for herself? I noticed multiple students learn techniques they didn’t even know were possible.

The techniques aren’t always fail-safe. Each scenario is going to be totally different, relative to the time of day, the amount of people around. What elements are making this experience unsafe, and how do you keep yourself safe—and also keep the people around you safe?

One example that we came up with was asking someone if they needed help. Or just sitting next to them, acknowledging them, and letting them know the situation they’re experiencing right now isn’t the best. But also letting them know that you’re there. We teach a spectrum of techniques that enable a person to react to subtle situations, from things like that all the way up through physical contact.

How is the class curriculum decided?

The words “self-defense” can be misconstrued. Taylor puts it best: It’s not about the stranger in the back alley or having a black belt in martial arts. It’s about people becoming aware of what they’re capable of; finding their voice and best utilizing it to defend themselves.

Lauren builds the curriculum based on the individuals taking the course. Sometimes it’s a class of 10-year-old girls, women in wheelchairs. Sometimes it’s multi-gendered, gender-nonconforming people in their late 20s. What we do is try to use challenges they might see in their everyday lives, and give them an idea of how they can react to those scenarios.

We don’t force anyone to share anything personal, but we invite people to put down scenarios that either they’ve experienced or they would consider dangerous—situations they worry about, or they’d like to know how to handle, or that their friends have faced, like street harassment or unwanted touching. And we ask them to place them on a spectrum from bothersome to dangerous to “could potentially kill you.”

Once they’ve shared we start coming up with solutions for them.

Has the atmosphere of the classes changed following the election?

After Trump’s inauguration there was an immediate increase in street harassment and assault. I had conversations with students and stories were coming in via social media. Notes left on cars, or in the neighborhoods where certain communities had lived and flourished for years. For groups that had been affected by street harassment in the past, dangerous scenarios tripled, basically.


How have these classes affected your own life?

I was raised by an inspiring feminist who fought for women’s rights. But culturally speaking I was taught to put everyone else’s needs before my own. As a woman in her mid-30s, someone who considers myself confident and leading a full life, I didn’t realize how much I put other people before myself until I took the course. I’m just surprised that it took me this long.

After I took the class, I was able to utilize skills I’d learned in the class in my professional life, on the street, in the subway. In the last year and a half I haven’t intervened directly in an attack, but when I see a Muslim woman or a Christian nun or anyone who’s at risk, I’m more conscious of where they are, their level of comfort, who might be threatening around them.

Do you think of your mother while teaching these classes?

I knew pretty early that my identity wasn’t centered around the religious household I grew up in. But I was raised by a Muslim woman who taught her daughters that women are equal to men in every aspect. Culturally, intellectually, physically, mentally. I witnessed her teach other Muslim women and teach men how to respect and recognize women’s voices within their religion. I respected her for that.

I am very confident I would not have reached this level of awareness in my life without that foundation. Without her instilling that very critical part of my identity, I might have never realized I needed more education like this.

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One Response to The Daughter of a Muslim Feminist Icon on the Many Faces of “Self-Defense”

  1. Jan Christensen says:

    Thanks for this, Carey.