According to recent reports from the Middle East, an all-female Kurdish militia group called YSJ announced an initiative last Saturday aiming to avenge the inhumane crimes against the victims and rescue remaining survivors. That’s right, a group of women has been assembling to fight the Islamic State in Iraq, which is responsible for the rape, assault, slavery, and murder of as many as 3,000 Yazidi women and girls in Northern Iraq’s Sinjar region. But they aren’t the only group of women standing up to defend their own honor.
Last week, the Polish Ministry of Defense announced a novel initiative to launch a free self-defense training program for women 18 and up. The training will teach hand-to-hand combat techniques, including disarming an armed assailant and breaking out of holds, focusing on skills from the martial arts disciplines of aikido and jiu-jitsu. Some suspect that the program, which will run from mid-November until next June, is part of a larger plan to incorporate trained women into a paramilitary defense force against Russian aggression.
And here in the U.S. this past March, the military finalized plans to open combat jobs to women, stressing that physical requirements of the positions will not change.
So what does it tell us when women across the globe are preparing to fight battles that have traditionally been left to men? At the very least, these recent news stories suggest, women are turning to self-defense as an answer to infringements on their safety.
This isn’t just a problem abroad. Women in the United States are being exploited in sex-trafficked prostitution and porn; sexual harassment and sexual assault are persistent problems. It appears that women in the United States and around the world are creating a new narrative—one which equips them to fight back and defend themselves.
Perhaps that explains why throughout the country, programs have formed to foster strong, resilient women through the widespread education of self-defense from metropolitan communities to college campuses. One leader in self-defense training, the Rape Aggression Defense Systems (RAD) reports having educated 900,000 women in self-defense since the program began in 1989.
“We don’t really want to wait for someone else to protect us,” said Carol Mainardi, a second-degree black belt in Okinawan Goju-Ryu Karate and an instructor for the Street Smart Self Defense program at Montclair State University. “We really do need to take action immediately.”
Mainardi, now a 49-year-old mother of two daughters, began studying Tae Kwon Do in 1989 after being the victim of two attacks on her college campus in Philadelphia. She has since dedicated her life to self-defense, training people of all ages—from Girl Scout troops to college students to those in their sixties and seventies.
“I realized that there was nobody really able to help me except myself,” she said, explaining that attacks and sexual assaults often happen when no one else is around. “Females—I don’t want to generalize—but because of our strength compared to a man, we have to learn more technique. We’re not overpowering people with our muscle. You really have to get an inner power to defend yourself…. You have to find your own technique that’s best for your body and what’s happening.”
Natalie Mirchuk, a senior in high school preparing to enter college, echoed Mainardi’s philosophy with insight into her own experience taking kickboxing classes. “These classes give you a whole new confidence,” she said. “They gave me both mental and physical strength that I didn’t expect. I am have been educated on how to defend myself properly. In an emergency situation, I’m prepared.”
“For some people, personal empowerment and self-advocacy involves learning any number of personal protection strategies,” according to Colorado State University’s Women and Gender Advocacy Center. “For some folks, simple tasks like walking across campus at night, declining a date, speaking up for a promotion at work, speaking in class, etc., feel daunting and at times, impossible. For this reason, some people often report feeling more empowered to navigate their daily lives after having completed personal protection training.” Though a victim of violence or sexual assault is never the one at fault, self-advocacy through self-defense training can be the first step toward helping some women feel more empowered.
As Mainardi put it, “If you already know how to defend yourself, you’ve already won. You can take control of the situation that normally would take control of you.” If violence against women continues to grow as it seems to be, I could see self-defense initiatives, as we’ve seen on a local and global level, only continue to grow as well.
Photo Credit: Farhang News