Nisma Zakria stood in a basement gymnasium in the West Village on Saturday afternoon, demonstrating how to strike an attacker grabbing her hijab. Her partner, also in hijab, gripped the cloth draped across her chest. "I'm going to take my arm inwards and out," Zakria said, raising her dominant arm up high and sweeping it down in a wide circular motion, hooking her "attacker's" arm up and away. Completing the circle, Zakria brought her hand down to her side. "I am slapping my thigh," she said with a smack. "You make them lose their grip."
A second-degree black belt from Staten Island, Zakria teaches self-defense classes through the Women's Initiative for Self-Empowerment (WISE), a self-defense nonprofit for Muslim women. Last weekend, the Muslim Community Network invited her to lead two sold-out workshops for Muslim women and their allies. Interest has been overwhelming—in large part, the organizers said, because of President-elect Donald Trump, who has stoked Islamophobia and called for a ban on Muslims entering the US. "We were not expecting that when we published the event the election would have gone the way that it did," said Emaan Moosani, Program Director at the Muslim Community Network. "Within ten hours it was sold out, [and] our Facebook event had 500 shares."
"We are here because we feel that we are being targeted," said Amirah Aulaqi, a 26-year-old modest fashion designer and one of Saturday's guest speakers. Reports of hate crimes have increased significantly in New York City this year to date. As of November 13th, 328 hate crimes had been reported in NYC, compared to 250 during the same period in 2015. Of that total, 25 have allegedly been committed against Muslims—a 108 percent increase from last year. Last week, men screaming 'Donald Trump' attacked a woman wearing a hijab on the subway.
Aulaqi took her first self-defense class last winter, following the Paris attacks and residual uptick in bias attacks on Muslims in the US. On Saturday she helped facilitate a class that was half self-defense, half emotional check-in—similar to classes she taught last year. "We didn't want to just do self-defense courses. We really needed a support group," she explained. Many of her participants have been recent immigrants. "We [worked] with a lot of mothers and women who wear full garments that are really normal to them back home, and when they get here [to America] they don't understand other people being fearful of them."
Zakria said she draws on her religious beliefs to diminish a hypothetical attacker. "In Islam we believe that men and females are created out of mud and god gives you life," she said. "That's how Prophet Adam was created. [So] I was like, since when are we afraid of mud?"
Nisma Zakria (Sai Mokhtari / Gothamist).
For forty-five minutes, women split off into pairs to practice offensive and defensive moves. One involved disarming an attacker who grabs your hair (grab their hand, step on their toes, then swing your free arm around to hit their elbow). The group also learned the attacker's most vulnerable body parts—eyes, nose, throat, knees—how to palm heel strike someone in the chin, and how to protect your head from a blow using fists and forearms.
Also, how to speak—and yell—in self-defense. "Repeat after me," said Tish Tabb, a volunteer instructor with the Center For Anti-Violence Education: No! No! No! No! NO! NO!
Another tactic—the "broken record"—is geared towards verbal harassment. "Let's say someone comes up to you and says, 'You're ugly. Why are you wearing that? What are you doing here?,'" Tabb said. "One of the things you can say is just the same phrase over and over again: "I don't want to talk to you. I don't want to talk to you. I don't want to talk to you. Go away. Go away. Go away."
Magda Kamel, in her early 60s, wore a bright blue hijab covered in white dots. She said that she has been verbally harassed many times since she moved to the US more than 35 years ago.
"Mostly they say the f-word and, 'Get back to your country,' and, 'You have no right to be here,'" Kamel recalled. Since the election, things have been worse. "It gives them affirmation to do what they want. It's okay to [say], 'We hate you.'"
The class, Kamel said, was a confidence boost. "Sometimes I get nervous and cannot explain myself in a normal way," she said. "This encouraged me to put my hand the right way."
Earlier, Aulaqi said one goal of the class was to help women simply go about their daily routines. "Even though something may have not happened to us already, it can probably happen to us," she said. "We cannot be crippled by the limitations that other people set on us."
MCN is hoping to offer self-defense workshops for all 2,700 women who have expressed interest. You can donate $25 to sponsor one woman's class here and check out their work here. The group is also working with a filmmaker to produce short instructional videos from the class to post online.