Learning to fight back

Learning to fight back

December 17, 2009 14:15
El Halev 248 88

El Halev 248 88. (photo credit: )


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When Abed Salaymeh, the municipality's coordinator for at-risk youth in Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem, heard about a five-week self-defense course for Arab woman, he found the idea extraordinary. With the municipality's backing already secured, convincing the parents to allow their daughters to participate in the program at the El Halev Women's Martial Arts Federation in Talpiot was the next step. "The girls always speak about what life on the street is like and how they are afraid to go walking alone, and their families are also very concerned about their well-being. Still, when we approached the parents about the program, they didn't understand the purpose of a self-defense course, so we had to educate them," says Salaymeh. Even after the families began to appreciate the benefits for their children, there were other concerns such as sending them in the evening from places like Beit Safafa and Shuafat to Talpiot, an unfamiliar part of the city for them. The parents requested to have the course closer to home, but El Halev had the proper facility, equipment and, more importantly, funding from a US organization. Another obstacle was the language barrier, as the coaches and staff of El Halev spoke only Hebrew. Eventually Salaymeh found a volunteer translator to accompany the girls for each four-hour meeting. After two months' preparation and courage from the girls, the parents and El Halev, the program took off. The Arab sector's at-risk age bracket spans ages 14 - 26 with 60 percent of children in Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem dropping out of school after the eighth or ninth grades. Although activities such as martial arts classes and career services exist, many youngsters still end up on the street, suffering abuse because of the tough neighborhoods they reside in. As El Halev founder and director Yudit Sidikman notes, devices women often carry for protection such as pepper spray and mace are useful in warding off attackers but are not necessarily available when you need them. When statistics show that one in three women suffers some type of traumatic attack in her life and most don't know how to react, Sidikman believes that women need to learn how to use their bodies to survive both physically and mentally. "Most women don't get into barroom brawls, yet most self-defense programs are about how men fight men, not how women fight men. The course we teach, called Impact, is a US-branded self-defense system for women based on the early 1970s Model Mugging system, which addresses the whole spectrum of how women are attacked," she explains. One of the particular disadvantages for the sheltered at-risk Arab youth is failing to recognize early signs that a situation is leading to violence. As a result, Impact uses adrenaline-based learning with male subjects who simulate menacing people that the women may encounter in real life. Over the course of five meetings, the men expose the girls to greater levels of seediness until they understand what to look out for and that they have a right to reject such a person's advances. "The first day, the male subject doesn't talk, he's more grabbing. But the women learn how to deal with the threat by speaking up and saying, "Go away!' If that doesn't work, we instruct them to say it harder and stronger. And if tougher action is necessary, we teach them what to do next," says Sidikman, referring to the physical defense methods the girls are taught. For protection, the male subject is heavily padded during simulations, allowing extreme blows by the young women without causing injury. The hits are usually directed toward the head or midsection - two of the most vulnerable areas on the body. In the end, the girls feel empowered and are not ashamed to fight back if necessary. "As a woman, learning I have the power to protect myself is a physical, emotional and spiritual process. Wherever you go, you carry your body. And if you know how to use it correctly, whether it takes two hits or 10 hits, fighting to the end is very different from just saying 'Don't hurt me' or standing there helpless," says Sidikman. "What's more, here is a group of wonderful men willing to get kicked really hard and then take off their helmets and say, 'You did an amazing job. And if a guy deals with you the way I just did, he deserves everything you just gave him.' What a powerful message to women from a man!" While Impact is taught internationally, there are no courses that teach Arab women self-defense in Israel, a reality that lends a tremendous advantage to an attacker and reduces the confidence of a victim. However, both Salaymeh and the El Halev staff noticed a marked difference in the girls' self-assurance after the first session. By the final meeting, the girls agreed to be tested in front of family members and strangers, thus fulfilling one of the goals of the course: not to be embarrassed to display the tools they learned. Both the coaches and the girls agreed that the 100 percent they gave during graduation was different than what they gave on day one. "I am so proud to know how to defend myself now. I had the power but I didn't know how to use it," says one participant. Another expresses gratitude and adds that she now understands the strength a woman has and appreciates how the course empowered her to realize how to use it. "From now on, I won't wait to react. I know how to use self-defense to escape," she says. According to Bayit Vagan-based psychotherapist Shimshon Meir Frankel, the impression a program like Impact makes on women provides them with a new sense of worldliness, and their interaction with the world changes physically. "They are stepping out of the protective box. To throw the first punches can be emotionally painful, but in the end it is eternally rewarding," says Frankel. "Additionally, they are establishing personal boundaries that, for first time, allows them to form a sense of identity, expanding their relationship within the world around them. Finally, they are coming alive for the first time, having gained a sense of dignity that they have boundaries, and men need to respect that," he says. Meanwhile, as El Halev plans the next session and parents and children eagerly await the schedule, one question begs to be answered: How did the Palestinian-Israeli conflict not become a point of contention when Arab women from Sheikh Jarrah met religious and secular women, some of whom live in settlements? Says Adi Wimmer, El Halev's director of communications, "Violence does not discriminate, and politics is left at the door."

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