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Mumbai women master martial arts for safety

Insecurity following surge in rape cases prompt more women in India's financial capital to learn self-defence skills.

Last updated: 13 Feb 2014 08:41
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Twenty-eight-year-old Malaika Joshi from Mumbai does not go partying with her friends on Saturday nights. Instead she spends her time learning self-defence skills.

"I am releasing [my attacker’s grip] with one hand and striking with the other. Then I place my knee [between my attacker’s legs] so he can’t come back. I kick and get away from the attacker," Malaika demonstrates, while continuing to look for an escape route from the attacker.

Krav Maga, an Israeli martial art technique, is not a hobby of Joshi’s. It is a necessity. "Crime rates are rising around us. And I decided that I needed to take action and do something for myself to protect myself and my loved ones."

Joshi works as a ballroom dance instructor and often travels alone late at night. "I sometimes take the last local train at around 1am to get back home and there are just a couple of other ladies in the entire compartment. I don't want to be in a situation where I am caught unaware," she said.

Growing insecurity

It is not just Joshi who feels a growing sense of insecurity in Mumbai - India's financial capital that was long considered to be the safest for women in the country. More and more women here are enrolling themselves for self-defence classes and workshops.

Shihan Sharif Bapu, 42, an award-winning martial arts coach in Mumbai, told Al Jazeera that the number of women voluntarily enrolling for self-defence classes had seen a sharp spike since 2012. "I have trained women for 25 years. I can tell you that earlier women were taking up self-defence because they were forced to. It was part of their curriculum or something of that sort." Now, they are choosing to join.

I tell them what the weak points are - solar plexus, temple, shin etc. And the main thing they learn is to practice these skills every day

Shihan Sharif Bapu, martial arts coach

Bapu said women who came to his classes wanted to learn not any one particular form of martial arts but hands-on knowledge and skills: "They ask me what to do when someone gropes them in a crowded place or when they are travelling alone late at night. And I teach them these specific skills. I combine different martial art forms and come up with something simple to teach women locking and wrestling techniques.

"I tell them what the weak points are - solar plexus, temple, shin etc. And the main thing they learn is to practice these skills every day."

Bapu, who holds a black belt in Judo and Karate and used to coach the national Karate team, says the number of companies opting to train their female employees has also gone up.

"Previously, they would organise picnics or parties for their staff but now they use the budget to organise one-day self-defence workshops," he said, adding, there’s also been a change in the parents' attitudes. "It used to be that parents in the city were enrolling only their boys for karate or judo classes, but now they bring their girls along too."

According to Bapu, there are about 30-40 self-defence institutes in Mumbai and most of them are headed by former martial arts fighters like himself. These institutes are spread across the length and breadth of the city - from Colaba in South Mumbai to Malad in the western suburbs and Ghatkopar in the eastern suburbs. They offer a whole range of martial arts - Karate, Judo, Taekwondo, Krav Maga, Kickboxing, Aikido or Muay Thai - and cost anywhere between 500 to 2,000 INR ($8.30) for 12 sessions.

And it is not just private self-defence classes that are gaining ground. In September 2013, the state government of Maharashtra announced that it would include self-defence lessons in school curriculum from the academic year 2014-15. The decision came as a result of a public interest litigation (PIL) in a Mumbai court demanding compulsory self-defence classes.

"Schools in the north of India have included this in their curriculum, so there’s no reason we shouldn’t have it here in Maharashtra," said Jamshed Mistry, the lawyer who argued the case.

‘Shocking’ incident

Insecurity is in the air following a recent surge in sex assault cases in Mumbai and across the nation, prompting women to seek measures to protect themselves.

The August 2013 Mumbai gang-rape of a photojournalist in a deserted textile mill compound in broad daylight shook the city. Journalists and activists led protests demanding strong and speedy action. Five accused men are currently being tried in a fast track court in Mumbai and a verdict is expected soon.

Himanshu Roy, joint commissioner of Mumbai police’s crime branch, told Al Jazeera, "The Shakti Mills incident has disturbed all of us. I police this city, but I am a proud Mumbaikar. I was born and brought up here. I never imagined that something like this could happen in my city."

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However, only a month prior to the much-publicised Shakti Mills incident, another woman was gang-raped in the same building compound. The survivor, an 18-year-old call-centre employee, later gathered the courage to come forward and identify her perpetrators. Three of the accused men were accused in the Shakti Mills case as well.

In 2013 alone, the number of crimes reported against women nearly doubled in the city. In response to the statistics, Roy said, "I wouldn't say that the crimes against women have increased.

"But because of the increased sensitivity towards and awareness about what needs to be done in these cases, more and more women are coming forward and registering these cases ... which is very good."

Although increasing levels of awareness have resulted in a spike in the number of rape cases being reported, that has not necessarily translated into the culprits being booked in India.

One such case is that of a 16-year-old girl from Kolkata who reported a rape committed against her in December 2013. The perpetrators, on learning that the girl filed a report against them, took revenge by raping her again. She reported the crime again. The police still did not provide her any protection and a week later, she was allegedly set ablaze by those who raped her. She succumbed to her injuries in hospital a few days later.

Changing attitudes

In recent times there has been a shift in the way Mumbai's women gauge their safety. Lyandra D'Souza, a 27-year-old PR professional, has been reading about ways to combat possible attacks against her. She has downloaded a new smartphone app called "VithU", which notifies a chosen set of contacts from her address book when triggered in times of distress.

"It is just one cautionary measure. I wouldn't have thought I'd have to use this app in Mumbai, but times have changed," she said.

While Delhi was always viewed as an unsafe city for women, Mumbai held a better reputation.

Mumbai's women are not just opting for unarmed ways of defending themselves. About a year ago, 21,000 city-dwelling women eagerly accepted knives from Shiv Sena - a right-wing political party with its stronghold in Mumbai. Moreover, late last year, sales of pepper-sprays went up after the Shakti Mills rape incident.

Back at the training centre on one Saturday, Malaika finished her class an hour and a half later. "I'm just way more confident now with Krav Maga. It's given me confidence in all levels. I am not watching over my shoulder with fear anymore," she said, adding, "Fortunately, I haven't had to use my skills in real life. But if it comes to that, I am ready."

Malaika's mother Deline Joshi watched her daughter practice from the sidelines that evening. "Initially, I used to be very worried, but now I have more peace of mind. She is better equipped to deal with dangers now," she said.

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Al Jazeera
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