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Alifa BegumJade Jackman, assisted by Sophia Lee

In the boxing ring at a self-defence class for Muslim women

With Islamophobic attacks on the rise, Dazed goes inside one of the UK’s first self-defence classes for hijabi women

"Hitttttt it, go, go, GO!Ruqsana Begum yells at her class. She spins around, high kicks and then, without pause for air, continues telling me about the new sports hijab she's recently brought to market.  

Begum is an impressive woman. An international kickboxing champion and captain of Britain's Muay Thai team, she's the only Muslim woman to be a national champion in her sport. When Begum isn’t fighting or developing sportswear for her sisters, she also runs a boxing/self-defence class that is geared towards the needs of Muslim women.

Begum has herself had to fight cultural attitudes to achieve her own sporting goals. She tells me that she "trained in secret when I was at university." For a while, Begum was concerned about telling her family she was participating in a male-dominated sport. "I had to also break down stereotypes and cultural boundaries in order to train and accomplish my goal of being a national champion."

I've headed down to one of Begum's self-defence classes on a Sunday afternoon in Bethnal Green. It took a while to set up the interview: Begum was understandably cautious that the class would be represented in an appropriate and non-judgemental way, given the ongoing rise in Islamophobic attacks across the UK. According to London's Metropolitan Police, Islamophobic hate crimes rose by 70% in London in 2015, while the anti-Islamophobia charity Tell MAMA reports that the bulk of these attacks are targeted towards women who wear the headscarf or face veil.

And as women stream into Begum's class on a sunny Sunday afternoon, all the women mention the ability to defend themselves in the face of Islamophobic violence as a motivating factor for coming. 

One of the class attendees, Amani Nsour, tells me, ‘‘Well, I used to go to the gym but I got bored of it and I felt people looked at me strangely because of the scarf. In these times, it is better to be safe than sorry, so with this boxing class it is a win-win situation, I can exercise and learn how to defend myself."

This sentiment is also shared by Alifa Begum who says, "the class has made me more confident when going out because whilst I do enjoy karate, this plain boxing makes me feel more aware. This is especially important now when you hear about the sisters being attacked wearing the hijab, which is sad but the boxing really helps my confidence." Laughing, she adds, "and it helps my posture too!"

Between punches, Alifa goes on, "After seeing the footage of the recent [Islamophobic] attacks in London, my husband said he will take me anywhere I want to go. To be honest, after hearing a lot of sisters being attacked, I haven't used the train as much. I know it sounds really bad, I should but I couldn't think about going into the city."

So, it seems that Ruqsana’s class has come to serve a dual purpose. On one level, the female-only training class gives women a space to workout and improve their fitness. It also helps them to feel more secure in British society – no mean feat given the ongoing demonisation of many Muslim communities by the right-wing press and far-right groups. 

Alifa agrees that the negativity towards Muslim women is in part reinforced by the the media. With a slight air of exasperation, she says "there is a lot to do with the negative media [coverage], people do not focus on the positives. Who is really talking about what a great thing she [Ruqsana] is doing here for mostly Muslim women, her community and other women of colour in general? On top of this, we [Muslims] are always expected to constantly justify ourselves and our actions."

The day after writing this piece the dreadful attacks in Brussels happen: a reminder of the very real threat faced by communities across the world from Islamic extremism. In the aftermath, a Twitter post goes viral after a man reports "confronting" a Muslim woman over the Brussels attack and asking her to "explain" their actions.

While his tweet was rightly mocked, the depressing reality for many Muslim women is that being the victims of indiscriminate physical or verbal abuse is becoming commonplace in 21st century Britain. Until a longer-term solution to rising Islamophobic violence is delivered by our policy-makers and government, it will be up to community laeders such as Ruqsana to find ways to help keep Muslim women safe.