‘You’re Not Helpless’: For London Women, Learning to Fight Builds Confidence

LONDON — The thwack of fists hitting hand pads echoed through the studio as pairs of women circled each other, striking blows and blocking them, with a singular focus. A solid jab from one woman elicited an approving murmur from her sweaty partner. Another ducked in anticipation of an incoming left hook.

“Just two strikes! That’s enough!” the instructor called out.

The women — lawyers, teachers and retail workers from around the city — were in the North London studio to practice the techniques of Krav Maga, a self-defense fighting system.

“When things happen to you, there are lots of things you can do to fight back,” said Jia Li, 26, a business consultant who said she joined the class partly because a man physically harassed her on the street this year. “You’re not just completely helpless and powerless.”

Combat sports like boxing and martial arts, and self-defense techniques like Krav Maga, had been gaining in popularity as a form of physical fitness and protection for women in Britain, many instructors say, before the pandemic increased the risks of close contact.

But after a year marked by isolation and loneliness caused by the virus, and high-profile instances of violence against women, gyms say there has been a resurgence of interest from women who want to learn how to fight and defend themselves.

One gym in East London, Fightzone London, said the number of women who wanted to take classes doubled after it reopened this year compared with 2019. At Miguel’s Boxing and Fitness Gym in South London, where about 70 percent of the members are women, demand for boxing instruction is so high that it added several new classes a week. And several branches of Safari MMA, a martial arts gym catering to women, have waiting lists.

Training at London Krav Maga. Gyms say there has been a resurgence of interest from women who want to learn how to fight and defend themselves.Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

“When we started opening up post-lockdown, we were manic,” said Khadijah Safari, its founder. She said the wait lists had grown so long that the gym initially had to turn people away. “These were new people reaching out,” she said.

Many of the women said they were drawn to self-defense because the physical and mental fitness it requires helped ease the toll they had endured during lockdowns; the training helped them build confidence, relieve stress and make new friends.

“Lots of people hit an all-time low during lockdown,” Ms. Safari said. “They found it very hard to go back to social situations. And when you feel vulnerable, you look for strength.”

There are distinctions among sports like boxing, martial arts and Krav Maga, which was developed by the Israeli Defense Forces and draws on skills from other fighting sports as a way to teach self-defense. Indeed, instructors of Krav Maga say that fighting back should be a last resort when a person is faced with a potentially dangerous situation; they advise people to give up valuables in attempted burglaries, for example, and avoid confrontation where possible.

Many women said that their experiences with harassment or assault factored into their decision to take up fighting sports.

“That played a big part in choosing this sport,” said Shaaista Lalla-Saib, 22, a recent university graduate, as she finished up a Thai kickboxing class in East London. “I feel more confident.”

She said she was tired of being harassed by drunken men on nights out with friends. “At least you know some moves — not to fight someone but basically to be like, get away,” she said.

Sarah Brendlor, an instructor at London Krav Maga, said she received a wave of interest from organizations and individuals wanting to learn self-defense after Sarah Everard, a young London woman, was abducted and murdered by a police officer in March.

“It brought a hell of a lot of fear and anger up, and it certainly got people sharing experiences,” Sarah Brendlor, an instructor at London Krav Maga, said of the abduction and murder of Sarah Everard.Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

The details of her murder — which sparked a national reckoning over women’s safety — became a catalyst for conversations about violence, she said. “It brought a hell of a lot of fear and anger up, and it certainly got people sharing experiences,” Ms. Brendlor said.

For women who had already been taking conventional precautions — walking on well-lit roads and wearing bright clothes — Ms. Everard’s murder only intensified the horror.

“When I heard about Sarah Everard, that hurt me a lot,” said Dimple Gorsia, 23.

She said she took up Krav Maga after surviving a violent crime several years ago, as a way of working through her post-traumatic stress from the attack.

Ms. Gorsia said she was now hoping to become a full-time instructor. “There was a little part of me saying, This is why I’m doing self-defense as a way of life,” she said. “It made my passion a lot stronger for doing this as a living.”

On a recent Sunday morning, Ms. Brendlor put a class of about a dozen women through warm-ups before pairing them off to do drills. Several said they had already made use of some of the lessons, by creating distance, for example, and not turning their backs on potential attackers.

Still, that seriousness was offset by a sense of camaraderie. An ill-aimed punch left one pair laughing. Ms. Brendlor threw in jokes as she demonstrated some techniques.

After all, she said, the classes were meant to be both pragmatic and fun.

A boxing class at Fightzone London. Many women said that their experiences with harassment or assault factored into their decision to take up fighting sports.Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

“It’s a good place to connect with other women and know that you are not alone in the situation,” said Ms. Li, the business consultant, who recounted being attacked on the street a month before Ms. Everard’s murder. “It became real that there’s a possibility that something like that could happen to me,” she said. In addition to the classes, she went into therapy to help her deal with the aftermath of the attack.

Gyms have noticed the renewed interest and are trying to accommodate new students and make the culture more inclusive.

“Historically the martial arts environment was probably quite an intimidating environment, with lots of aggressive men, and nowadays it’s just not like that anymore,” said James Roach, an owner of Fightzone London. He said the gym was experimenting with a women’s-only class on weekends to gauge interest.

“A lot of women find it really hard to go to the first class,” Ms. Safari said, adding that Safari MMA instructors were trained to deal with anxieties and insecurities around picking up a combat sport for the 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 kept smaller to keep them personalized. “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.”

James Roach, an owner of the Fightzone gym in London, teaching a Brazilian jiu-jitsu class. Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

Though learning fighting sports and techniques have given them a greater sense of confidence and security, participants said they lamented having to live in a society where such classes were necessary.

“It really just shows how unfair it is, because it is the responsibility for men to stop being predators,” Ms. Li said. “But now it’s ended up being our responsibility to pick up martial arts or whatever to stop these predators.”

Nevertheless, she said the course had given her a lasting conviction that she was not defenseless after all. “I’m going to be stronger from what I experienced in the class,” she said.

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