Schirin Salem Teaches Women Wen-Do to Fight Sexual Harassment

Friday August 18, 2017
By: Jaylan El Shazly

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Schirin Salem

With the soaring rates of sexual harassment in Egypt, Schirin Salem, together with her friend Emmeline Lavender, launched Igmadi (Be Strong) Initiative in 2014, to empower women to stand up against harassment through Zumba fitness and Wen-Do self-defense training. With the series of events they organized across Egypt, Igmadi has since grown into a full-blown phenomenon.

In spite of growing up in Germany, Salem had always been aware of sexual harassment. She experienced it during her visits to Egypt. When talking about it with her Egyptian relatives, they told her that it’s best to stay silent and ignore these incidents “so they go away.” This passive approach, however, was neither convincing nor acceptable to Salem, who was introduced to Wen-Do in Germany since the age of 13. Wen-Do is a form of self-defense art for women, developed by a married couple in Toronto, Canada in 1964, after a woman was savagely attacked and murdered in New York that year. The name is a combination of the word women with the Japanese word Do, which means way. Wen-Do has since grown in popularity and expanded to Europe, US, and – with the help of Salem – now Egypt.

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Emmeline Lavender

Igmadi was born after a discussion between Salem, who had then received her Wen-Do training certification, and her friend Lavender, on how they can actively help women to fight sexual harassment in Egypt. In 2013, the Zumba craze in Egypt was at its peak.  Lavender – a Zumba instructor – and Salem paired up and held an event for women to help them build body confidence through Zumba and to teach them Wen-Do. While the Zumba Fitness part is designed to include empowering songs and movements, Wen-Do is where women learn how to deal with harassment. Wen-Do covers a wide variety of physical and verbal self-defense techniques, awareness and avoidance of threatening situations, and discussions of psychological, social, and legal issues involved in self-defense. Only 30-50% of the training focus on how to fight back through physical techniques. The class ends with each woman breaking a piece of wood by hand, an empowering moment that symbolizes women’s strength and resolution.

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Since their first event in Cairo, Igmadi has partnered with organizations such as Nazra Institute for Feminist Studies, Harassmap and Heya Masr (She is Egypt), with sponsorship from the German government, UN Women, Temmy’s Nutrifit and Samia Allouba Gym, to hold events all over Egypt. They held events in Alexandria, Mansoura and in Upper Egypt at Qena University, where more than 500 women showed up. With the growing appeal of Zumba, Igmadi also grew  and attracted many women who were interested to become  certified Wen-Do instructors as well.

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One of the biggest challenges the initiative faced at its early stages was the skepticism of intellectuals and feminist organizations on how a huge dance themed event could actually address a serious issue such as sexual harassment. This came as a surprise to its founders. But Salem who believes that traditional conferences, statements and meetings are not enough, proved to them that she was right. Pairing up a fun exercise such as Zumba with the empowerment of Wen-Do, succeeded in creating a positive experience that attracted and thereby helped many women.

Igmadi’s events have been very well received by men as well, who often brought their wives, sisters and daughters to these events hoping to empower them to stand up to this abusive culture. The rap music group Killah, remember of the Arab League Records wrote a song for Igmadi, also named Igmadi, which is used to kick off Igmadi’s events.

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One of Salem’s most memorable experiences since the inception of Igmadi was when a women she trained, used the same techniques she learned in one of the events, and managed to get an apology from her harasser. That woman has since become a Wen-Do trainer herself.

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However, there have also been plenty of sobering moments when dealing with these issues. Salem is often left at a loss when women ask for help to deal with domestic violence. It is a constant reminder of how hard life can be as a woman in Egypt.

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Igmadi relies on partners to sponsor the events so women can join for free. However, they have – in some events – charged attendants when funding was low. Also volunteers help in bringing these events to life, from ushers to editors, photographers and videographers. Equipment for setting the stage and sound systems are also donated or sponsored. Since both Salem and Lavender have full time jobs, it leaves them with little time to explore more funding options. Last year, through the German government’s funds, and with the help of the Egyptian Ministry of Youth and Sports, they were able to bring Wen-Do to youth centers in Cairo, Giza and Mansoura. Young girls and women in these cities will be able to train for free.  Salem hopes to find more sponsors so she can offer free Igmadi events to women  at least twice a year, if not more.

For more updates on Igmadi’s events, visit their Facebook page 

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