London, United Kingdom – Under the bright lights of a northeast London school sports hall, a group of Muslim girls sit on wooden benches, awaiting the start of a class.
This would normally be a mandatory physical education session of netball or athletics, but today is different: the students will be learning fencing.
The girls look curiously at the protective masks and plastic replica swords carefully lined up on the ground.
Then the former Olympic fencer and instructor Linda Strachan blows her whistle and signals for the girls to assemble in front of the equipment.
“En garde,” she shouts. The girls quickly grab their swords from the floor and get into attack position, ready to lunge forward. “I want you all to make sure you have a firm grip of your swords, and remember to ensure that when you step in front, your arms are at a stretch,” Strachan tells them.
Once the beginners are talked through some basic moves, they are divided into pairs and attempt to perform the techniques they have learned on their partners.
“When I fence, I take a step forward to lunge at my opponent,” 13-year-old Seher Chohan explains. “I also think that it is what you do in life. You step forward to get what you want.”
Her classmate Sarah Saeed agrees. “I like fencing because it is different from all the other sports,” she says. “It is more about your posture and how you look. It isn’t as violent as all the other sports because it’s more to do with your mind than your own physical strength. That’s one thing I liked about it when we started off the lessons.”
Chohan and Saeed belong to the more experienced group of fencers who have been practising their skills for a few months and now help out as mentors in the additional series of workshops, as part of the ‘Muslim Girls Fence’ project launched by the community-based NGO, Maslaha.
In collaboration with British Fencing and Sports England, the project has been successful in challenging the stereotypes of young Muslim women while at the same time changing perceptions of the activity, which is traditionally seen as a white-dominated, elite sport.
“A lot of people we have spoken to thought of fencing as an elite sport, mostly the forte of white men,” says Maslaha’s project manager, Latifa Akay.
“In simple terms, we are aiming to challenge misperceptions and raise aspirations among young Muslim women, in the light of the complex discrimination experienced by this group on the basis of both faith and gender.”
During March, after the initial pilot scheme ended, Maslaha featured portraits of the girls in a special exhibition at the Southbank Centre for the Women of the World Festival in London.
The organisation also wanted to reach out to other young girls in schools across England, so the project expanded with more Muslim girls participating in taster sessions.
“It’s refreshing when we do fencing because people don’t expect it,” Chohan says. “If Muslim girls are doing it, it shows that we can do anything because it’s at the top of the list of things you wouldn’t think a Muslim girl could do. Raising awareness about the issue and how many people have supported it really boosts your hope that the stereotypes will change. It’s not going to be a picture-perfect world, but we can always aim to make it a better place and less oppressive and less judgemental.”
‘Islamophobia is pervasive and relentless’
Both girls say they were inspired by American sabre fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who became the first hijab-wearing Muslim woman to qualify for the United States Olympic team.
She had to overcome many hurdles, some of which the girls participating in the fencing workshops can relate to. Islamophobic abuse and attacks in the UK rose by 326 percent last year and in the majority of these incidents, Muslim women were the main targets, according to a report by monitoring organisation Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks).
Some Muslim women and girls feel their confidence and self-esteem have been affected as a result.
“Islamophobia is pervasive and relentless,” Akay explains. “In the face of new challenges we need to come up with new and radical responses that can make people think again, educate and give a platform to voices that are being silenced and ignored. Muslim women and girls are frequently spoken about as opposed to being spoken to. Challenging this means supporting groups and individuals who aren’t being heard, building community resilience and, through this, educating and challenging discriminatory attitudes and practices on both a local and a policy level.”
Both Chohan and Saeed say they have experienced or witnessed Islamophobia. They recall one friend being verbally abused for wearing a headscarf.
“A nun is allowed to wear a headdress and not be called oppressed because she is devoting her life to Christianity, but as soon as a Muslim woman wears a headscarf, suddenly it’s called oppression and racists say these women are being forced to do things, but people forget it’s their own choice,” Saeed says. “We are free to do what we want. We are not forced to cover our hair. It’s my choice. People need to learn to zoom out of what social media zooms into, see the bigger picture, open their eyes and look at what’s actually happening, not just what the right-wing media shows you.”
Both teenagers laugh and joke as they help each other into their protective vests, in preparation for the next group of girls who will be participating in the workshop. Raising their swords and getting into position, they are keen to show off their skills.
Maslaha organisers aim eventually to arrange fencing classes throughout the UK.
“A lot of the girls spoke about how fencing made them feel more confident, how it had been uplifting to be part of a journey and be immersed in a new activity,” Akay says. “While some of the girls got a lot from the fencing and are keen to continue in the sport, others really enjoyed the opportunity to discuss their identities as Muslim girls, think about tackling stereotypes and have the opportunity to articulate this on their own terms to national and international audiences.”
Before starting the next class, Chohan removes her helmet. “One last thing I wanted to say,” she smiles. “I’m going to keep fencing and I’m going to make a difference.”