CAIRO – Taking American Olympic fencer called Ibtihaj Muhammad as a role model, a group of British Muslim schoolgirls are taking weekly fencing lessons to gain confidence, challenge stereotypes and raise their aspirations.
“It is not an easy time to be a Muslim girl in the UK,” Latifa Akay, Project Manager of Muslim Girls Fence, told The Telegraph on Tuesday, March 15.
“Persistent negative media stereotyping, combined with counter-extremism policies that are operating to stigmatize young Muslims, mean that more than ever girls and women find themselves spoken for – as opposed to spoken to.”
Akay is the leader of ‘Muslim Girls Fence’ project that is led by charitable organization Maslaha.
The project works to tackle long-standing issues in Muslim communities in collaboration with British Fencing and Sport England.
Under the project, thirteen lively 12-year-old Muslim girls from Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow take weekly fencing classes led by former Commonwealth fencer Linda Strachan.
Along with fencing, the girls are engaged in discussions around their identity, and the challenges they face in the UK today.
“I thought it was a high-class, white man’s game – it wasn’t really for girls,” Assiya, one of the girls, said, explaining why she joined fencing classes.
“But I’ve started to realize what fencing actually is. It isn’t just about fighting – there’s something more behind it,” adding that it offers “confidence.”
Rodya, another girl, agreed.
“When I’m fencing I feel proud because you know what you’re doing it for – you’re raising awareness about stereotypes and Muslim women. I just feel like it’s a new beginning,” she said.
Many of the young girls take American Muslim Olympian Muhammad as a role model for competing in hijab.
“She’s spoken a lot about how, as a Muslim woman, she thinks fencing is uniquely accommodating because for the first time she felt a part of a team,” Akay said.
“In the UK, we talk about ‘integration’ and ‘inclusion’ – just being able to do something where you don’t feel like exceptions have to be made for your headscarf is quite important.”
When asked what makes fencing so special, Assiya and Rodha said it’s because “you’re fighting but you’re not hurting your opponent. It’s just showing how much power you have – and strength.”