LONDON – The thud of fists hitting the pads of hands echoed through the studio as pairs of women surrounded each other, punching and blocking them, with singular focus. A solid bang from a woman elicited an approving whisper from her sweaty partner. Another dodged in anticipation of an incoming left hook.
“Just two hits! Enough! ”The instructor called.
The women – lawyers, teachers and traders from across town – were in the north London studio to practice the techniques of Krav Maga, a self-defense combat system.
“When things happen to you, there is a lot you can do to fight back,” said Jia Li, 26, a business consultant who said she joined the course in part because a man physically had her. harassed in the streets this year. “You are not just completely helpless and helpless.”
Combat sports like boxing and martial arts, and self-defense techniques like Krav Maga, had gained popularity as a form of physical fitness and protection for women in Britain, according to many instructors. before the pandemic increases the chances of close contact.
But after a year marked by the isolation and loneliness caused by the virus, and high-profile cases of violence against women, gyms say there has been renewed interest from women wanting to learn. to fight and defend.
An east London gymnasium, Fightzone London, said the number of women who wanted to take classes doubled after it reopened this year compared to 2019. At Miguel’s Boxing and Fitness Gym in south London, where about 70% of members are women, asks because boxing education is so high that it has added several new classes per week. And several branches of Safari MMA, a female-only martial arts venue, have waiting lists.
“When we started opening up after the lockdown, we were maniacs,” said Khadijah Safari, its founder. She said the waiting lists got so long that the gym had to turn people down at first. “These were new people who contacted us,” she said.
Many women said they were drawn to self-defense because the physical and mental fitness it requires has alleviated the toll they endured during the closures; the training helped them gain self-confidence, relieve stress and make new friends.
“A lot of people hit an all-time low during the lockdown,” Ms. Safari said. “They found it very difficult to come back to social situations. And when you feel vulnerable, you look for strength.
There are distinctions between sports like boxing, martial arts, and Krav Maga, which was developed by the Israel Defense Forces and draws on the skills of other combat sports to teach self-defense. Indeed, Krav Maga instructors say that retaliation should be a last resort when a person is faced with a potentially dangerous situation; they advise people to give up their valuables during burglary attempts, for example, and to avoid confrontation if possible.
Many women said their experiences of harassment or aggression were factored into their decision to participate in combat sports.
“It played a big part in choosing the sport,” said Shaaista Lalla-Saib, 22, a recent college graduate, as she finished a Thai kickboxing course in east London. “I feel more confident.”
She said she was tired of being harassed by drunk men at parties with friends. “At least you know some moves – not to fight someone but basically to be like, run away,” she said.
Sarah Brendlor, an instructor at London Krav Maga, said she received a wave of interest from organizations and individuals wishing to learn self-defense after Sarah Everard, a young woman from London, was kidnapped and murdered by a policeman in March.
The details of her murder – which sparked national awareness about women’s safety – have become a catalyst for conversations about violence, she said. “It sparked a lot of fear and anger, and it definitely got people to share their experiences,” Ms. Brendlor said.
For women who had already taken conventional precautions – walking on well-lit roads and wearing light-colored clothing – Ms Everard’s murder only intensified the horror.
“When I heard about Sarah Everard it hurt a lot,” said Dimple Gorsia, 23.
She said she started Krav Maga after surviving a violent crime several years ago, as a way to overcome her post-traumatic stress from the attack.
Ms. Gorsia said she now hopes to become a full-time instructor. “There was a little part of me that was saying, that’s why I do self-defense as a way of life,” she said. “It made my passion so much stronger to make this as a living.”
On a recent Sunday morning, Ms. Brendlor subjected a class of a dozen women to warm-up exercises before pairing them up to do the exercises. Several said they have used some of the lessons already, for example creating distance and not turning their backs on potential attackers.
Yet this seriousness was offset by a sense of camaraderie. A poorly targeted punch made a pair laugh. Ms. Brendlor made jokes by demonstrating certain techniques.
After all, she said, the classes were meant to be both pragmatic and fun.
“It’s a good place to get in touch with other women and know that you are not alone in the situation,” said Ms. Li, the business consultant, who said she was assaulted on the street one day. months before Mrs. Everard’s murder. “It became real that there was a possibility that something like this could happen to me,” she said. In addition to classes, she received therapy to help her cope with the aftermath of the attack.
Gyms have noticed the renewed interest and are trying to welcome new students and make the culture more inclusive.
“Historically, the martial arts environment was probably a pretty intimidating one, with a lot of aggressive men, and now it’s not like that,” said James Roach, owner of Fightzone London. He said the gym was experimenting with a women-only class on weekends to gauge interest.
“A lot of women really have a hard time going to the first class,” Ms. Safari said, adding that Safari MMA instructors were trained to deal with the anxieties and insecurities of learning a combat sport for the better. first time.
“We try to make it as realistic but as respectful and fun as possible,” said Ijaz Akram, founder of Urban Krav Maga 360, where classes are scaled down to stay personalized. “There is no such thing as a stupid question. ”
Although learning sports and combat skills gave them a greater sense of confidence and security, participants said they lamented having to live in a society where such lessons were necessary.
“It really shows how unfair it is, because it’s the responsibility of men to stop being predators,” Ms. Li said. “But now it’s our responsibility to choose martial arts or whatever. whether to stop these predators. “
Nonetheless, she said the course gave her a lasting belief that she was not helpless after all. “I’m going to be stronger than what I experienced in class,” she said.