LONDON (Reuters) - Anyone tempted to pick on a headscarf-wearing Muslim woman better hope they don’t run into a Ninjabi.
Every week around 30 Muslim women, most wearing veils, gather in a community centre in east London to learn how to block, knee and punch would-be attackers or lecherous men targeting passive-looking victims.
The organizers, who named the classes after Japanese Ninja warriors and women who wear the hijab, say Muslim women are looking to fight back against unwanted advances and a rising number of anti-Muslim attacks.
“The ladies love the Ninjabi thing. It gives them a good giggle,” said class instructor Dee Terry, who is not a Muslim herself.
One of the attendees, 31-year-old mother Mahmuda Mazid, said she took up the classes after a gang of youths tried to rob her teenage brother while she was with him in a local park.
“There was this sheer feeling of helplessness that I couldn’t help myself or my brother... and there was absolute rage,” she said. “I knew I had to do something to equip myself.
“In the classes I saw protection and self defense. That’s what I needed.”
The classes start with a warm-up and then the women — no men are allowed — practice punches, strikes using the heel of the hand, knee strikes to the groin and defenses against knives and sticks. Terry also teaches the women how to deter potential attackers by looking assertive.
The loose full-length clothing favored by Muslim women rules out high-kicking maneuvers but does not otherwise hinder movement, says Terry.
The Hijab and the Niqab — which covers the face and leaves only the eyes visible — clearly identify Muslim women, increasing their chances of becoming victims of anti-Muslim hostility. But Terry says Islamic clothing itself does not make it easier to attack a woman.
“An attacker can pull your headscarf but they can also pull your hair, so Islamic clothes don’t make that much of a difference,” added Terry, who also teaches Judo, Jujitsu and Kickboxing.
In the dilapidated area where the classes are held, Muslim women said their biggest worry was harassment from “pervy men” and the violent anti-social behavior of teenagers from urban low-income communities, popularly called “hoodies” and “chavs”.
In other areas of London, Muslim women said growing hostility towards Muslims — commonly called Islamophobia — since London’s July 7th bombings in 2005 was a big fear.
Attacks on Muslims in London nearly quadrupled in the days after the July attacks. Figures collated by London’s Metropolitan Police, and presented in a report by the Muslim Safety Forum, showed 303 attacks in July 2005, up from 82 in the previous month.
Azad Ali, chairman of the forum, said the attacks ranged from verbal abuse and vandalism of mosques to physical attacks. But because of limitations in the way attacks are reported, the real number is likely to be far higher, he added.
National figures are lacking because there are no universally agreed criteria among the country’s police forces for what constitutes an Islamophobic attack, said Ali.
Muslims, who make up about 3 percent of Britain’s population, also do not readily report attacks.
An initiative by London’s police to engage with Muslim women found many did not report attacks because they felt the police would not act. Others had limited English and were unable to register complaints without help.
“The issue of reporting crime... was a major concern amongst certain (Muslim) communities,” the police said in a report on meetings with Muslim women.
“This may lead to disenchantment with the process and eventual disengagement from the police and justice system,” the police added in the report.
Official figures cite London as having the largest proportion of Muslims in the UK at 3.8 percent. The Ninjabi classes are held in the Newham area of the capital, where Muslims make up 24 percent of local inhabitants.
The organizers said the classes were a response to overwhelming demand from Muslim women.
“It was a need. Women were coming and asking for self- defense classes. We had heard of increasing Islamophobia and other sorts of attacks on Muslim women,” said Mizan Raja, a coordinator of Islamic Circles, the organization running the classes.
The organizers say although similar self-defense classes are common the light-hearted approach which respects the women’s faith has made the Ninjabi classes massively popular.
“We could fill a class a day. It’s totally oversubscribed,” said Raja.
The organizers plan to split the class according to experience, using names inspired by 1970s Hong Kong films starring martial arts legend Bruce Lee.
The beginners’ level will be called “Enter the Ninjabi”, the next will be “Return of the Ninjabi”, then “Way of the Ninjabi”. The organizers also plan to expand the Ninjabi concept.
“It’s about empowering Muslim women... We could do it throughout the country,” Raja added.