Khalifeh is well aware of the systemic impunity – it’s something she hopes to help change by inspiring women to protect themselves, in the home, on the street and in the legal sphere. But, ultimately, she wants to stop gender-based violence and harassment from happening in the first place. And she thinks providing women with the confidence to break free of the submissive role that society has placed on them is one way to do that.
“We’re not weak,” says Khalifeh. “And if I see [my students] cry, I’m really hard on them: ‘You need to go to the bathroom, wash your face, and get in the training room right now.’ With time, they feel more empowered.”
Dania Natsheh, 18, has practiced and, now as a coach, preached this philosophy at SheFighter for the past two and a half years. After reading about the self-defense academy online, she enrolled in the program as a way to get over her debilitating shyness and fear of walking alone outside. Watching her pummel the punching bag while wearing SheFighter’s trademark pink gloves, it’s difficult to imagine her ever being that afraid.
“When you live in a community that’s wanting to control you, it’s hard,” she says. “So I needed to gain the confidence to be able to defend myself and know what to do in certain situations.”
While she’s been fortunate enough not to have had to use the physical training she’s learned at SheFighter, Natsheh has at times tapped into the emotional and mental skills to stop harassment on the street. “Sometimes you just need to say the right word to them to shut it down,” she says of the men who make crude comments to her or follow her in their cars. “Other times, it’s a look or a walk with confidence that will keep them away from you.”
Khalifeh’s mission is to help every girl and young woman find that confidence, one at a time. And, to her, that is how you build an army of change.
“Twenty years from now, I want to see branches all over the world,” says Khalifeh. “Yeah,” she continues, as if lost in her own thoughts. “It’s a movement.”
This article originally appeared on Women Girls Hub. For weekly updates, you can sign up to the Women Girls Hub email list.