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Syrian Refugee Women Learn Self-Defense with Predictably Badass Results

by Tasbeeh Herwees
August 30, 2014

Two women practice knee kicks during a QUWA self-defense course

“Today was tough,” wrote Zeinab Khalil. “Maybe the hardest session we’ve had yet.”

Khalil published this on the blog she runs with her friend and colleague, Nour Soubani, which documents the two Arab-American women’s experiences running a self-defense program for female Syrian refugees in Istanbul, Turkey. The project, called QUWA (the Arabic word for “strength”), is divided into two main parts: a physical self-defense class and a healing circle, designed to encourage emotional well-being through discussion. But the tough session Khalil referenced in this particular post wasn’t referencing a grueling workout, rather it was about a circle gathering that addressed relationships, and how the war and the participants’ displacement had changed how they now relate to other people.

“It was about naming and recognizing the violence we face in its multiple forms,” wrote Khalil. “People were eager to share the ways that the events of the past few years have changed their lives.” 

Since the uprising and subsequent civil war began in 2011, more than nine million Syrians have fled their homes, and over half a million have sought refuge in neighboring Turkey. These days, it’s difficult to walk the streets of Istanbul without hearing a Syrian accent among the crowds or running into displaced Syrian children. Although Syrians face better treatment in this part of the region than in Lebanon or Jordan, where they are often subject to violent racism, their refugee status leaves them vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation, including sexual abuse.

Three times a week, two hours per session, Khalil and Soubani meet with their class at the Sham’una school in Istanbul to oversee both the self-defense portion and the healing circle. In the first session, the women are instructed on how to protect and defend themselves against physical transgressions they may face on a daily basis, from employers, acquaintances, or strangers on the streets. 

“Our class gives [students] practical ways to really mark their own space,” says Khalil. “We talk a lot about boundary setting and saying no and what is their comfort level with different people.”

A self-defense instructor engages the women in hand-to-hand combat and they play out different scenarios in which they may feel threatened.  The self-defense component, however, is only supplementary to the healing circle. 

“Although the project started with self-defense as the main goal or purpose, we realized we needed to address the types of violence that are not physical and the ones that happen in other ways,” says Soubani. “In the healing circle, we try to do that.”

The women of QUWA know how to block (and pose)

During the tough session that Khalil recounted on the blog, she heard poignant stories of how the conflict and its attendant stressors shredded relationships with mothers and best friends. But the most difficult experience came as they moved on to discussing why people stay in unhealthy relationships. One of the older participants forcefully advocated for all Syrian refugees to stick together and forgive each other, no matter what. Khalil had the impression that this elder considered dysfunctional personal relationships to be petty concerns when compared to the collective experience of surviving Syria’s unrest. But younger participants were not so sure. Some tried to counter that their individual feelings were still valid, even in the face of widespread violence and displacement. Khalil was torn as to how to support these women with conflicting opinions, and allow space for the less strident to have their voices heard while giving due respect to the elder woman and her worldview. 

“I feel that I could have been more proactive with facilitating; less neutral,” she mused on the blog.

Apart from inter-community strife, many of the women have to deal with the uncertainty and isolation that comes with being a refugee. Hariri, a 23-year-old Syrian woman from the city of Dar’aa, originally fled to Saudi Arabia with her family when the conflict first began. When they realized it wasn’t going to end any time soon, they moved to Istanbul, where she could finish her degree in biology. 

“For a time, I just stayed at home, cut off from society,” says Hariri. “There was a period of one to two years where I did not mix with other people, and when I did, it was with people who were harmful to me.”

Hariri says attending the healing circles, meeting other women, and learning how to defend herself have allowed her to rebuild her life in Istanbul. It has also transformed the way carries herself. 

“Now when I walk alone, I can do it with some confidence,” says Hariri. “I used to be afraid, afraid for my safety. But now I even take my time walking outside.”

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