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kick box

The Middle East’s First Self Defence Gym For Women

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charlotte grieve, michaela morgan

Like many teenagers, Mira Kurdi once suffered from low self-esteem and struggled in social interactions. Since joining She Fighter four months ago, she has attended classes almost daily.

“I’ve changed a lot,” she says. “Not only physically but also as a person.”

Kurdi is one of the 12,000 Jordanians who have benefitted from the opening of the Middle East’s first self-defence studio for women.

For over a decade, She Fighter’s founder, Lina Khalifeh has been on a mission to make self-defence trendy for boys and girls. She jokes it’s like smoking, but is actually good for you.

“By focusing on the youth, you can change the world,” she says.

The studio is on the fourth floor of an unassuming building in Amman, Jordan. Students enter through a lift. They ring a bell and a trainer unlocks the door. Inside there’s laughter. People are concentrating intensely as they practice boxing. Many are wearing pink gloves, the walls are also pink. Rihanna songs are playing. There’s a smell of sweat. 

Khalifeh has more than 17 years’ experience in Taekwondo, kickboxing and Kung Fu. She has represented Jordan in many domestic and international competitions. She started using her skills to empower women in 2004 after hearing that her close friend had been abused by her husband and father.

For the first eight years, Khalifeh held occasional self-defence sessions in her basement. During this time, she heard many more stories of abuse. 

She started using her skills to empower women in 2004 after hearing that her close friend had been abused by her husband and father.

One in four Jordanian women have experienced physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner at one point in their life, according to a 2013 United Nations’ survey. While this figure is among the highest in the world, it is not the prevalence of violence that most concerns Khalifeh. 

“The problem is also coming from women. They believe it’s right, it’s discipline and that being a man means being in control,” she says.

Marital rape is not considered a crime under Jordanian law and social stigmas prevent women from speaking out about experiences of abuse. While women’s rights have greatly advanced since several awareness campaigns in the late 1990s, violence against women is still a “big problem” in Jordan, says Khalifeh.  

"The problem is also coming from women. They believe it’s right, it’s discipline and that being a man means being in control.”

For these reasons, She Fighter has been criticised by people in the community. Lina tells SBS that Jordanians don’t like to “make a mess” by raising issues that occur behind closed doors.

“They prefer if you just don’t break the norms in society,” she says.

 She Fighter also holds classes for young girls and boys.

She Fighter also holds classes for young girls and boys.

Her training uses a four-tiered system that enables students to defend themselves in a range of violent situations. Khalifeh holds seminars to inform women about their rights and encourages the students to spread the message in their own communities.

“I like to create leaders, I don’t like to create followers,” she says.

She Fighter trains not only people in Amman but also across the country. She partners with NGOs like Oxfam to provide self-defence training for vulnerable women in refugee camps at Irbid and Ramtha near the Syrian border.

Khalifeh is modest about all the international attention She Fighter has received. There is a signed letter from President Obama hanging above her desk. She has given a one-on-one lesson to actor UN Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson and is often invited to speak at international conferences.

There is a signed letter from President Obama hanging above her desk.

“They encourage other women and people to do something in their lives,” she tells SBS.

Khalifeh wants to turn She Fighter into a global movement by establishing franchises across the world. She has received interest from both Kuwait and Dubai and plans to open studios in the coming year.