A Feminist Response to Critique of Self-Defense
This past October, at a high school gym in Astoria queens, the girls in the junior and senior classes had the opportunity to participate in a self-defense class.
But while most of the students were practicing techniques for getting out of a hair/hijab grab or a grab from behind, a student named Batoul Saleh looked on from the sidelines.
In an article entitled “A Feminist Critique of Self-Defense,” Saleh explains that her reasoning for skipping the class was that she considers herself a pacifist. Due to her curiosity and the fact that she also considers herself a feminist, she chose to stay nearby and listen to what the instructor had to say.
Long story short, she was not impressed.
Saleh would probably be surprised to learn it, and it would probably take some convincing before she believed me, but even with my twenty-five years of teaching women to defend themselves and my fourth-degree black belt in judo, I also consider myself to be a pacifist, which means anti-violence.
To be specific, I am anti-somebody being violent towards me. Actually, I’m anti-anybody being violent towards anybody, which is why I have dedicated my life to doing the work that I do. Providing violence prevention education to girls and women is at the heart of all of the work I do.
According to Saleh, though, “The solution for combating violence against women, therefore, is for men to more actively take the responsibility for self-protection off women. They can do this at least in part by redefining masculinity, and what it really means to be a man — something that can arguably only be done within male communities.”
The organizations working towards redefining masculinity are doing great work, and we don’t want to minimize their importance. We believe that movements like “#AskMoreOfHim” and organizations like “A Call to Men” are a valuable part of a puzzle-like solution. However, we also believe that eradicating violence is the responsibility of both men and women. Yes, we need men to change how they view masculinity and how they model it for young boys. We need them to change how they see women and model respect.
Still, it’s more than that. I don’t want my grandsons to grow up being treated as people who need to be to prevented from turning into perpetrators of violence. There is so much more that they, like all boys, can offer the world, and let’s be clear, while there is definitely a problem with toxic masculinity, not all men are toxic and they certainly aren’t born toxic. As a matter of fact, many of them are really good caring people who also want to be part of the change.
But, guess what. Many of them don’t see the truly toxic behavior because they choose not to engage in it. When we talk about how we’re treated, they may think we’re exaggerating. Because other than an off-color joke here and there, to which they’ll likely respond with a “hey, that’s not cool,” their less than appropriate guy friends learned early on how to either monitor their behavior in the presence of the good guys or to, at least, find birds of a feather to flock to.
Let me give an example. I manage a team of about fifteen employees, who I see daily. Over the years, I have had people come in and complain that so-and-so spoke disrespectfully or behaved in a mean and unprofessional manner. I can promise you that, as the “boss,” no one behaves like that in front of me. It is very hard for me to “catch” anyone being inappropriate. Just ask any parent of more than one child.
Then, there is the issue of the anatomy of sexual assault that we just don’t want to think about. We shouldn’t be focusing all of our worry on the big scary thing jumping out of the bushes, or lurking in parking garages, because we know that the majority of sexual assault is perpetrated by people known to “point of objectification.” Yup, I don’t want to write victim because this person might actually be a victor. What they clearly have been “marked as” is a person who the perpetrator of inappropriate action and/or violence has deemed as not deserving to have their rights, autonomy and wishes regarded. So yes, you can base fixing the world solely on trying to get them to change, but, honestly, how much you think that a person who has not been taught to respect others will listen to, “Hey, don’t do that. It’s not cool?”
Let’s go even further. Let’s take a moment to look at how the law works. In order for me to accuse you of stealing my car, I need to provide proof. And even if you have my car in your driveway, that does not prove that you stole it. Especially if your answer to the police is, “Well, Yudit lent me her car. Sure, I’ll give it back.”
At this point, there is nothing that the law or the police can do. When it comes to sexual assault, in the majority of cases, it will always be about my story versus their story. There are almost never witnesses. There may be suspicions. There may be hearsay. But actual proof? There is usually very little and the pieces are often difficult to put together into one big picture.
Which is exactly why we can’t wait for men to change, for the culture to change, for laws to change, and for prosecution and punishment to change.
Depending on men to change their behavior is essentially putting all responsibility for our safety into their hands. Honestly, I would rather not trust anyone with my safety other than myself. I am the only person I am with, all of the time! I am the only person whose behavior I can trust, at least for the most part. And, when it comes to learning to navigate this world as safely as possible, I am responsible for investing in my own education.
It’s not a perfect solution, but it is the only one that I believe I can count on time and time again.
Let’s take a really close look. We have been changing laws, slowly but surely, for decades. We have been supporting the re-education of men and boys for decades. While some of the resulting changes are clear and tangible, we have a very long way yet to go.
I am not willing for my granddaughters, and certainly not my great-granddaughters, to be the guinea pigs in the experiment of “let’s sit back while men learn to take responsibility for their behavior.”
Until things change, we all need and deserve to have the skills to defend ourselves when encounters with other people go in a direction that we are not okay with.
That’s not to say that it’s fair for the responsibility to fall solely on women, either. But as the instructor in Saleh’s self-defense class repeated several times, “. . .self-defense in this context takes care of immediate protection, but it doesn’t address a systemic solution.” I argue that the more people we teach to set and respect boundaries, the better chance we have at changing the systemic problem.
Moreover, in empowerment self-defense, or what was formerly known as feminist self-defense, we don’t advocate, as Saleh’s instructor did, that, “As women, we have to be aware of how loud our music is, what street we are walking on, and constantly alert on our end.” That type of instruction is a fear-based, stranger-danger based response to a small percentage of attacks.
What do we tell students? We constantly reinforce that whatever their choices, they should be aware of what the risks might be and decide if they are worth taking. We say, “You, and only you, have the right to decide how you want to march through your life.” We can choose which battles we fight.
In life, we are constantly making decisions about our safety. But, outside of the context of sexual assault, we rarely take notice. For example, I believe in driving safely and wearing my seatbelt, but, in an ideal world, every driver would always drive safely and not give into distractions like screaming children or cell phones and always be sober. It would be nice if the burden of my safety was taken off of me and put on all the drivers who aren’t as careful or responsible as I am.
Now, as part of the solution, we can work on improving driver’s ed programs, cracking down on speeding and making the consequences for drunk driving more severe. But unless I see proof that all of those things are making a substantial difference, and I get a written guarantee that everybody will drive as carefully as I do, I’m going to continue to drive safely and wear my seatbelt. Should I have to? That’s debatable. And there is a very tiny chance it could cause death or injury in an accident. But I’m going to take advantage of that immediate protection anyway, even if, systemically, it changes nothing. I’ll still think twice before driving in snow or on New Year’s eve, not because I don’t have the right to, but because if I don’t have to, or want to, it is my right to choose not to. And, if I do drive in those circumstances, I am still not responsible for the driver who might crash into me. Their bad driving, their responsibility.
Empowerment self-defense has been proven to be one of the most well-researched and most proven violence prevention interventions that exists. There is clear evidence that shows that when empowerment self-defense training is introduced into a community, like a college campus, the incidence of completed acts of violence drops by about fifty percent.
In her recent speech at The Hollywood Reporter's Women In Entertainment Gala, comedian Hannah Gadsby passionately stated that, “The last thing I need right now, in this moment in history, is to have to listen to men monologue about misogyny and how other men should just stop being ‘creepy,’ as if that’s the problem.”
We, as women, not only have the responsibility, but the right to be part of the conversation about violence prevention. We are the ones who get to write the rulebook on how we insist on being treated. It is our ideas, and our stories, that must be heard.
Or, as Hannah Gadsby put it so eloquently, we are the ones who get to define, draw, and move the line in the sand.
Try to imagine The Civil Rights Movement in the United States without the voices of African Americans, or the fight to pass The Americans With Disabilities Act without the voices of the disabled, or the ongoing battle for LGBTQ+ rights without the voices of the LGBTQ+ community.
Why would we even think of excluding women from the fight to prevent violence?
How can we expect men to learn to do better or change their behavior if we don’t make our expectations clear? We hear over and over again that men must be taught to “do better.” The good news is that we have the power to do that by setting and enforcing boundaries, both verbal and physical. Think of what the world could potentially be like if someday, the expected response to everything from harassment to attempted sexual assault was a loud, crystal-clear “NO!”
Maybe then my job as a self-defense instructor would no longer be necessary and the beautiful world that Batoul Saleh dreams of, in which physical force would not be a necessary form of self-preservation, would become a reality.
We sincerely hope that day comes.
But in the meantime, I am done waiting.
I am tired of waiting for change.
Of waiting for laws to change.
Of waiting for men to change.
Of waiting for violence to stop.
And until the day ninjas fly out of my phone when I yell “help,” the only person I’ll be able to rely on to take responsibility for my safety is me. I have dedicated my life to making sure that I, and the women and children I teach, are able to do just that.