Violence against women is an epidemic, says the World Health Organisation, estimating that one in three women and girls around the world experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes. A growing group of activists believes the solution is self defence, but can teaching women to fight back stop sexual assaults?
Studies carried out at Canadian universities and in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi state that cases of sexual assault have reduced by up to 50% among women who have been taught “empowerment self defence.” This differs from more familiar forms like martial arts because it’s been developed specifically for women to protect themselves, teaching things like assertive body language and how to avoid a potentially violent situation along with physical skills to fight off an attacker.
US-based activist Ellen Snortland is the author of several books and the documentary Beauty Bites Beast, advocating for empowerment self defence to be recognised as the best way to prevent gender-based violence. She says the widely accepted solutions are either preventative – “don’t walk alone at night,” “don’t wear revealing clothing” – or deal with the aftermath by counselling victims and catching offenders, but women are not given the tools to protect themselves during an attack.
Ellen became an advocate for women’s self-defence after an intruder broke into her home and threatened to stab her. After she screamed he dropped his knife and ran off. “I was just furious and adrenalised” she says of how she felt afterwards, “when I came out of that I couldn’t let go of how unprepared and how stupid I was about violence.”
Upon asking colleagues whether they knew anything about self defence, not a single female said yes. Nor did she find much relevant information in books. Then her husband got her a class for her birthday. “There was a profound difference between me before and me after” she says.
Women’s self defence dates back to the early 20th century, when the first women’s rights movement was emerging with the fight to vote. Suffragettes commonly faced brutal attacks from police during their protests – London’s Black Friday march of 1910 to the Houses of Parliament earned its name because of the severity of the violent assaults officers subjected them to, many of which were sexual.
Edith Margaret Garrud had become the first woman trained in jujitsu in the 1890s, and she was running a class in the British capital when the Women’s Social and Political Union, led by Emmeline Pankhurst, approached her to help the plight of the suffragettes. By 1910 she was their official self defence trainer, earning the practice the name “suffrajitsu” in the press.
On both sides of the Atlantic women were becoming more visible in workplaces and on the streets, and their appearance in traditionally male spaces was not well received. Cases of harassment and sexual assault increased, leading to an interest in martial arts and boxing, giving women the chance to defend themselves.
Subsequent waves of feminism opened up the concept of self defence to include training in assertiveness and verbal self-defence, and it became an important part of the women’s lib movement of the 1960s and 70s, with the proliferation of classes and printed information.
“We could save so much money if we train women to prepare for inappropriate behavior, because evidence indicates they are going to run into it”
Today’s campaigners want to see a wider adoption including adding it to the educational curriculum, but not all feminists agree. There is a view that fighting back puts women at further risk because the attacker will perceive it as a threat to his masculinity.
“That’s always, been the argument for [not] letting women do dangerous things” Ellen says. “Women were kept from driving because they might hurt other people and they might hurt themselves, and it was best to let men do it. And people wouldn’t say to a man, well, if you fight back, you might get hurt worse.”
“The kind of men that attack women are very big cowards. They’re not looking for fights. If they’re looking for fights, they go find other men that like to fight. They’re picking on a woman because they think it’s going to be easy.”
Contrary to what a lot of people would assume, size and strength are not the most important factors. “Courage is the element that nobody can give anybody” Ellen says. “Anecdotally, when I’m teaching women to fight back, the fiercest, most lithe and fast women are the smallest.”
“It’s not for knockout fights, it’s aimed at getting this person to leave you alone and get out of there. I don’t want to hurt another person so badly that they’re incapacitated. I just want to protect myself and my loved ones.”
Implementing self defence in schools could be problematic because of the kind of message this sends from what will usually be a majority male government. Won’t this absolve men of responsibility and place it squarely on women’s shoulders, as opposed to putting more funding into education to teach boys about gender equality?
“Boys always get the funding” Ellen says. “[In the US] they have 80% of the sports funding, they get so much more than the girls do and for me that is unconscious binary thinking. We’re not saying only teach girls, we’re saying don’t leave us out.”
“We could save so much money for corporations and educational institutions if we train women to expect and prepare for inappropriate behavior, because evidence indicates that they are going to run into it, so to not prepare them for it doesn’t make any sense” she says.
“If I had a magic wand, I would train as many mothers as I can, because a lot of mothers unconsciously pass on their fears, especially to girls” Ellen adds. “In my book I talk about what would happen if a dog breeder separated puppies by gender at birth, and if you scolded the girl dogs every time they were loud or every time they played or barked, and you gave the boy puppies full throttle, and just let them be puppies, you would soon within a generation have some pretty fucked up puppies, and the female puppies would be passing on this fear of everything to their litters.”
“We’re not talking about encouraging women to fight all the time. We’re talking about knowing that we are formidable, and that knowing we can deliver consequences gives us power. That would be what I’d do with my magic wand, that women all over the world could claim their ability to be dangerous.”
Featured image by Freepik