Zaineb Abdulla, 24, is organizing self-defense classes particularly for Muslim women.
(Courtesy of Zaineb Abdullah)

Zaineb Abdulla says she was about 8 years old the first time someone spit on her for being Muslim. The 24-year-old — who wears a hijab, weighs 105 pounds and stands just over 5 feet tall — is used to feeling the need to protect herself.

Through her role as vice president of an organization called Deaf Planet Soul in Chicago, Abdulla has been teaching basic self-defense classes to help other women — including those who are deaf or who wear a hijab — feel prepared and empowered to fight back, she said in an interview with The Washington Post. The morning after Donald Trump won the presidency, a number of Muslim women called Abdulla, asking her for a specific type of self-defense training: What could they do if someone tried to grab them by their headscarves?

That same Wednesday, and in the days that followed, Muslim women in cities across the country reported being targeted for wearing hijabs. A Muslim student at San Jose State University reportedly struggled to breathe as a man yanked her headscarf from behind.  A San Diego State University student wearing a hijab reported she was robbed by two men who made comments about Trump and Muslims.

Abdulla immediately recruited help from a trainer, Misho Ceko, of Chicago Mixed Martial Arts, to teach women a set of moves to defend themselves in case someone tries to pull on their hijabs. On the Sunday after Election Day, Abdulla taught nine mostly Muslim women a two-hour “hate crime survival seminar,” during which they learned how to escape a “hijab grab,” how to identify and report hate crimes, and what steps to follow as a bystander.

“It gives us confidence,” Abdulla said of the self-defense classes. They help women realize that “if someone grabs you, you have the ability and the right to fight back.”

She decided to post videos of the moves on Facebook, and urged her friends to share the videos widely. “In this postelection hate-crime spike, self defense is more important than ever. Practice this move until it becomes muscle memory and teach your body to react before thinking,” she wrote.

In one of the videos, she shows women how to react if a perpetrator grabs a head scarf from behind. Enacting the scenario with a partner, and using sign language to explain the steps, Abdulla steps back, creates an “overhook” with the perpetrator’s arm, and elevates her elbow upward to lock him in a hold.

By the time she woke up the morning after posting the videos, they had already gone viral, she said. About a week later, one of the videos had received more than 3.5 million views and had been shared more than 57,000 times. She has since received nearly 75 requests for similar classes, from Muslim women in countries as far as the United Kingdom, Morocco and Nigeria.

She already has two self-defense seminars planned for early December and hopes to help coordinate sessions in other parts of the country as well.

“I have a lot of messages from women saying they didn’t think it was possible to fight back,” Abdulla said.

In the days following Trump’s election, at least three organizations — the Southern Poverty Law Center, Council of American-Islamic Relations and Anti-Defamation League — tracked a notable spike in hate-crime incidents, The Post reported.

In all of 2015, hate crimes against Muslims hit the highest mark in more than a decade, which experts and advocates say was fueled by anger over terrorist attacks and anti-Islam rhetoric on the campaign trail, Matt Zapotosky reported in The Post.

Law enforcement agencies nationwide reported 257 anti-Muslim incidents in 2015, an increase of 67 percent from the year before, according to FBI data released last week.

Many Muslim women have posted on social media describing “hijab grab” attacks similar to those portrayed by Abdullah.

A number of other Muslim women in cities across the country have been organizing self-defense classes in response to the postelection rhetoric and apparent spike in hate crimes.

In Memphis, a Muslim activist named Kalimah Azeez met with local police officials to plan a self-defense course at a local mosque, McClatchy reported. Participants will be able to learn “escape and evade tactics” and watch video tutorials on how to use an emergency-response app to record an attack and alert the authorities.

Other women are seeking out tools to help them feel a sense of security. One such item is the Tigerlady Self-Defense Claw, a handheld tool with plastic blades that is marketed to female joggers, according to the McClatchy article. A Tigerlady executive said the company has “definitely seen a rise in sales as a result of the election.”


Zaineb Abdulla takes part in a self-defense class. (Courtesy of Zaineb Abdulla)

Abdulla, whose parents fled to the United States seeking asylum from Iraq, said some Muslim women feel a sense of isolation walking outside alone while wearing a headscarf. She said she hopes these self-defense classes help them realize they are not alone in their fears.

“We have an army of allies,” she said. “Despite this increased anger, there’s also an increased sense of coalition building.”

One of the most important aspects of the “hate crime survival” training, Abdulla said, is the bystander intervention component. She frequently thinks back to time when she was on a crowded train headed to downtown Chicago, about two years ago, and a man began yelling racial slurs at her. When she asked him to leave her alone, the man spit on her.

“People were watching this man berate me and not doing anything,” she said.

Not all of responses to her videos were positive, she said. Some comments — which she later deleted — were violent or incendiary, making statements such as “’That’s why you don’t rip off the scarf. You shoot them in the head.’”

Others critics said that instead of teaching women how to defend themselves in such cases, people should be taught not to grab women’s headscarves in the first place. Abdulla said she agreed.

“Unfortunately that’s the state we’re in,” she said. But, she added, “I would rather be prepared while working to make long term change. I can’t do everything all at the same time.”

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