This story is part of “At Risk in the Trump Era,” a four-month investigation by advanced radio students at the USC Annenberg School for Journalism and Communication. It explores how vulnerable communities across Southern California react to the first months of Donald Trump’s presidency. The series profiles individuals burdened by new worries — looking for work, signing up for school, or even deciding whether to publicly express their sexual orientation or religious affiliation.
Not long after Donald Trump first called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, hate crimes against mosques and the Muslim community spiked. That led 22-year-old Marwa Abdelghani to reluctantly remove her headscarf after wearing it for five years. She says she feared becoming a target, and that she’s not the only Muslim woman who feels this way.
But Marwa also decided she would try to overcome her fears and fight back. Literally.
Shortly after Trump’s election, Marwa signed up for a self-defense class taught by coach Asa Fuller at a jiu-jitsu studio in Fountain Valley, California. Marwa knows that close contact with the male self-defense teacher while in class violates Islamic social norms of modesty for women. But, she says, these are not normal times, and that she would never have taken a self-defense class before Trump’s presidency.
At 6-feet-2, Coach Asa towers a foot above Marwa. He boils the hourlong lesson down to a single strategy: Whenever possible, put as much distance as you can between yourself and your assailant. But at times confident Marwa has a little trouble with that concept. She often tries to attack Coach Asa in the training simulations, and he has to remind her that her goal is to defend herself and keep her distance.
In one scenario, Coach Asa tells Marwa that a car has driven up alongside her; someone jumps out, grabs her and throws her into the back seat. The doors lock.
He shows her how to use the crook of her elbow to do a chokehold, to use all her might like her life depended on it. Choking a driver could end up in a crash, but that might give her the chance to escape. After a few tries, she squeezes his neck so hard that he taps her on the arm — a signal of surrender.
Then, he moves on to the final lesson, which is a simulation of a rape attempt. He tells her that when she is on the ground, she’s in the worst possible position. After teaching her the proper defensive posture when you are on the ground, he tells her to lie on her back and then lunges at her.
Coach Asa tells her to bend her knees to her chest and then kick at his shoulders. Any lower and he’ll fall on top of her. As he tries to pry her knees open, Marwa pushed both feet forcefully at his shoulders. She sends him tumbling backward. She smiles triumphantly.
Marwa leaves the class feeling confident and pumped. She says she didn’t have a problem with the physical contact. She knows that the more accurate the simulations are, the more prepared she will be if someone were to ever attack her.
She may not be able to prevent something from happening, but she says she’s much more confident, especially at a time when Muslim women are feeling especially vulnerable.