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Fighting Their Abusers: How Egyptian women are using Indonesian martial arts to combat sexual harassment

Karim Zidan delves into the growing trend of Egyptian women learning martial arts to protect themselves from sexual harassment. 

On the western bank of the River Nile — directly across from Downtown Cairo — lies a district known as Dokki. The long-established neighbourhood is home to more than 50 foreign embassies as well as one of the city’s most renowned schools, the German Deutsche Evangelische Oberschule Kairo (DEO). It is believed that former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein lived in Dokki during his political exile from Iraq between 1959 and 1963, during which time he was best remembered for picking fights with locals at coffeeshops and restaurants. Beyond its historic roots, Dokki is also home to the Indonesian Cultural Centre in Cairo, where more than 1200 Egyptian women regularly train in martial arts to protect themselves from sexual harassment.

The centre resides within a modest four-storey building in the heart of the district, its white walls stained with the effects of Cairo’s air pollution and exhaust fumes. The building is surrounded by a fence of luscious trees that part at a gated entrance, lightly guarded at all times. The inside of the centre resembles a small school, with several classrooms spread out across the facility, providing resources and classes for all age groups. Some offer language courses for newly landed Indonesian emigrants looking to learn Arabic, or for Egyptian natives looking to learn the Indonesian language. There is also an outdoor area where martial arts demonstrations and self-defence training take place. On any given day, hundreds of women gather to learn how to defend against sexual predators.

Pencak silat — an umbrella term for the ancient Indonesian martial arts practiced in the cultural centre — is a fighting style that incorporates full-body strikes, grappling, and weaponry. Pencak was the term used in central and east Java, while silat was used in Sumatra, Malay Peninsula and Borneo. Penack is seem as the outward performance art (performed during wedding ceremonies and public holidays) while silat is the self-defence aspect of the martial art. The sport has since gained notoriety across the region and is now included in the Southeast Asian Games. It also made its Asian Games debut in Indonesia in 2018. However, few could have anticipated that Pencak silat would have such a profound impact on women in the Egyptian capital.

From West Sumatra to Cairo

While the origins of the words pencak and silat remain unclear, one of the origin myths of the ancient martial art involves a Sumatran woman named Rama Sukana, who witnessed a fight between a hawk and a tiger and then repeated the same techniques the animals used to fend off a group of drunkards that attacked her. She taught her techniques to her husband Rama Isruna, who passed them down through the generations. While there are various retellings of this origin story depending on the region it is told — one version has Sukana witnessing monkeys fighting, while another mentioned a monkey fighting a tiger — each involve a female as the catalyst for the martial art.

The history of pencak silat is elusive due to the fact that it was passed down through oral tradition. The earliest example of some form of pencak silat being practiced in a structured manner in Indonesia comes from the Riau province during the 6th century before spreading to the Minangkabau region in West Sumatra. The martial art and its various styles were greatly influenced by the other kingdoms in the region such as China and India, who introduced them to new caches of weapons and styles. However, it wasn’t until 1948 that the Indonesian Pencak Silat Association (IPSI) was founded and the term pencak silat was designated as a unifying term for more than 150 recognized Indonesian fighting styles.

Pencak silat historically used weapons as part of its combative training and performance. While no longer a priority in modern times, the vast majority of pencak silat schools continue to practice with weaponry. Given that there are a wide array of styles for pencak silat, weapons range from staffs and spears to knifes, cudgels, longswords, and even silks depending on the region.

Modern pencak silat tournaments are organized and regulated by the International Association of Pencak Silat (PERSILAT). The association was founded in Jakarta in 1980 and remains the only international pencak silat organization in the world. The martial art is also practiced in pencak silat schools around the world, including Indonesian cultural centres in places such as Cairo.

The Indonesian Cultural Centre in Dokki holds weekly training sessions involving all age groups. The main focus is on performative aspects of the martial arts, though it has become popular with Egyptian women, mainly teenagers and young adults, interested in learning a different form of self-defence. Dressed in red silat uniforms paired with black hijabs (head scarves), they would train in hand-to-hand combat and weapons, and do so alongside their male counterparts. When one of the women successfully disarmed and took down her opponent, the others clapped in support.

Fighting Sexual Harassment in Egypt

During the holy month of Ramadan, the Indonesian Cultural Centre in Cairo hosted group iftars (evening meals) for the men and women training in pencak silat. More than a dozen women attended the meal, some accompanied by small toddlers while others looked as though they were still in school themselves. They seated themselves on the carpeted floor and waited for the call to evening prayer that signalled it was time to break their fast. Despite the differences amongst these women, they were all united by a common goal: to defend themselves against sexual predators on the streets in Egypt.

Sexual harassment is a notorious problem throughout Egypt. A 2017 survey by UN Women and Promundo revealed that nearly 60% of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed while a 2017 Thomson Reuters poll that surveyed experts in women’s issues, Cairo was named the most dangerous city in the world for women. There are also no official statistic for crimes of sexual violence against women in Egypt because the vast majority of victim choose not to report the crimes, either out of shame or fear.

Over the past few years, sexual harassment has increasingly become a significant social concern in Egypt. There have also been a number of infamous incidents such as CBS reporter Lara Logan being sexually assaulted by a mob of men in Tahrir Square during the 2011 Egyptian revolution, that have led to the enhancement of punishments involving sexual violence. New laws were introduced into the Egyptian Constitution in 2014, while others such as Article 306 of the penal code, were amended to make verbal and physical assault punishable by up to 50,000 Egyptian pounds (approx. $2980 USD) and a prison sentence ranging from six months to five years.

Despite the recent changes to the legal framework, sexual violence remains a significant concern for most Egyptian women. They continue to face potential threats, which is why some have turned to self defence as a possible solution.

While offering women the opportunity to learn how to defend themselves is a way to improve their physical health and fitness, it can also increase confidence and mental strength. By teaching women to fight, Indonesian Cultural Centre in Cairo is empowering thousands of women who would otherwise be defenceless in the face of their harassers.

“Of course there are problems in the street,” Egyptian teenager Rahma Hatem told Reuters during a break from training. “If someone comes near me, I’m able to defend myself well. I have confidence now and no one can harass me because I can face them.”

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