It started out as an ordinary day for Rasha Salih, a young woman who works as an accountant for a private trading company in the centre of Amman. Like most women in Jordan, she wears a headscarf and modest clothes when she goes out.
After a long day at work, the 26-year-old returned to her compound in the Shmeisani district at around 6pm and took the lift to her flat. A young man was already in the lift when she got in. He started to flirt with her, and before she knew it, he was trying to rip off her shirt. There was nowhere to escape, so Salih put her self-defence training to use by directing a few kicks to her attacker’s head and stomach.
She followed her attacker out on to the street when he tried to flee, and handed him over to the police. He was eventually sentenced to three years for attempted rape.
“I only recognised the value of self-defence training when I was struggling to escape at the hands of my attacker,” says Salih. “I felt I had a confidence that I hadn’t had before, I was able to overcome my fear and protect myself. It was an incredible feeling.”
Salih is one of more than 2,000 women who have been trained in self-defence at Amman’s SheFighter studio.
“I could never have imagined when I first established a SheFighter centre in Amman in 2012, to train women how to kick, punch and build up their self-esteem, that this [training] would save one of my trainees from being raped,” says Lina Khalifa, founder of SheFighter and a taekwondo fighter.
“I take tremendous pleasure in seeing what I have done for my trainees and what they have done for themselves,” she says.
Khalifa, who took up taekwondo and kickboxing as a child, is herself no stranger to sexual harassment.
“I had to change the sports centre where I practised taekwondo six times to avoid harassment from male coaches,” she says. “I didn’t feel at all comfortable with the coach gazing at my body in a weird way or leaving his hand on my shoulder, sometimes caressing my back.”
When a fellow student arrived at university with bruises and scratches on her face, inflicted by her father and brother, Khalifa decided to take action. “I could not help my colleague at that time but I started to think how to pass my training on to other women who suffer domestic violence and street harassment.”
She converted the basement of her family’s two-storey house in the Jabha district of Amman into a training base, with mats, punchbags and kick targets. “I invited my colleague with another friend to come to my home to train in self-defence exercises for free,” she says.
Soon, the number of women wanting classes outgrew the space. With savings and financial support from her father, Khalifa rented two studios in another district, and SheFighter was born – the country’s first self-defence centre for women.
“Street harassment is a common problem for most of the women in Jordan,” says Batool Muhanad, an English literature student in Amman who has been training at the centre for more than a year. “It has nothing to do with a woman’s clothes, age or beauty. The moment you take to the street, you will get a man who is either pointing to you to go with him or commenting on your body and hair – or another [man] in a car will keep following you, offering a lift. It is like being in a jungle.”
Figures vary, but according to 2013 statistics, almost a quarter of women and girls in Jordan, aged 15 to 49, experience physical or sexual violence from a partner in their lifetime. About 14% had been abused in the previous 12 months.
Jordan has a law against domestic violence, which gives survivors access to protection orders and compensation. But the definition of violence is unclear and critics say the law favours reconciliation over the woman’s rights.
Rape within marriage is not a crime and rapists can escape charges if they marry their victim.
Dania Natsheh, 18, a student, approached SheFighter a year ago to help build her confidence. At the beginning, she was too nervous even to walk to the centre alone.
“I had a serious problem in communicating with either sex. I didn’t know how to react if I got in a peculiar situation like being harassed or chased by a man in the street,” she says.
After three months of intensive kickboxing, taekwondo and self-esteem classes, Natsheh started to go to the centre on her own. “I can’t say enough about the benefits of self-defence exercises ... We get lectures on how to walk, how to behave, what to say if you get harassed in addition to kickboxing exercises and self-defence moves.
“For example, if someone raised a knife in your face, what would you do? If someone put you against the wall and [tried to] suffocate you, or held your hand or your hair? How to expect the next move by your attacker? How to hold your suitcase while you are using your mobile in public?”
Human rights lawyers give lectures at the centre – which charges 70 Jordanian dollars (£68) a month – to help women understand their rights and how to report incidents to the police. The SheFighter team, which includes more than 12 coaches, visit schools in Amman to increase awareness of harassment and domestic violence and to teach self-defence.
Khalifa and her team plan to run courses for Syrian women in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which hosts 80,000 people. SheFighter has already held classes in smaller camps in the provinces of Zarqa and Al-Salt.
“We have a law in Jordan that stipulates that if a man rapes a woman, he has to marry her to correct his mistake,” says Muhanad, who recently visited the US for an advanced course in kickboxing. “This law is good for the raped girl’s family as it spares them shame among their community, but in the end it is a double punishment for the victim.”
She adds: “I realised in Texas that there was no relation between modern dress and street harassment, as people claim in Amman. A girl might be in a tight short skirt walking in Texas but no one harasses her, while a woman in hijab in Amman gets harassed any time she goes on the street.”