LONDON – A growing number of British young Muslim girls are joining fencing classes in London, challenging the stereotypes of young Muslim women and following the dream pursuit by US Muslim Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad.
“When I fence, I take a step forward to lunge at my opponent,” 13-year-old Seher Chohan told Aljazeera.
“I also think that it is what you do in life. You step forward to get what you want.”
Chohan, as well as her classmate Sarah Saeed, belong to a more experienced group of fencers who have been practicing their skills for a few months and now help out as mentors in the additional series of workshops.
The classes are part of the ‘Muslim Girls Fence’ project launched by the community-based NGO, Maslaha.
“I like fencing because it is different from all the other sports,” Saeed said.
“It is more about your posture and how you look. It isn’t as violent as all the other sports because it’s more to do with your mind than your own physical strength. That’s one thing I liked about it when we started off the lessons.”
In collaboration with British Fencing and Sports England, the project has been successful in challenging the stereotypes of young Muslim women while at the same time changing perceptions of the activity, which is traditionally seen as a white-dominated, elite sport.
“A lot of people we have spoken to thought of fencing as an elite sport, mostly the forte of white men,” Maslaha’s project manager, Latifa Akay, said.
“In simple terms, we are aiming to challenge misperceptions and raise aspirations among young Muslim women, in the light of the complex discrimination experienced by this group on the basis of both faith and gender.”
The organization also wanted to reach out to other young girls in schools across England, so the project expanded with more Muslim girls participating in taster sessions.
“It’s refreshing when we do fencing because people don’t expect it,” Chohan said.
“If Muslim girls are doing it, it shows that we can do anything because it’s at the top of the list of things you wouldn’t think a Muslim girl could do. Raising awareness about the issue and how many people have supported it really boosts your hope that the stereotypes will change. It’s not going to be a picture-perfect world, but we can always aim to make it a better place and less oppressive and less judgmental.”Islamophobia
Islamophobic abuse and attacks in the UK increased sharply by 326 percent last year, the majority of which targeted Muslim women, according to a report by monitoring organisation Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks).
Therefore, the confidence given to girls by the fencing classes were urged to restore Muslim women feelings of confidence and self-esteem.
“Islamophobia is pervasive and relentless,” Akay explained.
“In the face of new challenges we need to come up with new and radical responses that can make people think again, educate and give a platform to voices that are being silenced and ignored. Muslim women and girls are frequently spoken about as opposed to being spoken to.
“Challenging this means supporting groups and individuals who aren’t being heard, building community resilience and, through this, educating and challenging discriminatory attitudes and practices on both a local and a policy level.”
Both Chohan and Saeed say they have experienced or witnessed Islamophobia, recalling one friend being verbally abused for wearing a headscarf.
“A nun is allowed to wear a headdress and not be called oppressed because she is devoting her life to Christianity, but as soon as a Muslim woman wears a headscarf, suddenly it’s called oppression and racists say these women are being forced to do things, but people forget it’s their own choice,” Saeed said.
“We are free to do what we want. We are not forced to cover our hair. It’s my choice. People need to learn to zoom out of what social media zooms into, see the bigger picture, open their eyes and look at what’s actually happening, not just what the right-wing media shows you.”
Maslaha organizers aim eventually to expand fencing classes throughout the UK.
“A lot of the girls spoke about how fencing made them feel more confident, how it had been uplifting to be part of a journey and be immersed in a new activity,” Akay said.
“While some of the girls got a lot from the fencing and are keen to continue in the sport, others really enjoyed the opportunity to discuss their identities as Muslim girls, think about tackling stereotypes and have the opportunity to articulate this on their own terms to national and international audiences.”
Chohan concluded while removing her helmet after the end of the class, “One last thing I wanted to say,” she smiled. “I’m going to keep fencing and I’m going to make a difference.”