Even after a couple of years of training in martial arts, Fauzia Lala felt unsure about being able to defend herself from real-life threats to her safety. Now she’s learned a lot more and is helping other women build confidence and learn techniques for self-protection.
Eight years ago at about 6 p.m. at Sixth and Pike in downtown Seattle, Fauzia Lala was heading home after class at Seattle University when a man came up and wrapped his arms around her in an unwelcome bear hug.
People streamed by, and some stood just feet from her talking on their phones or reading, but everyone ignored what was happening.
“It was so scary that I was surrounded with people and nobody was there to help me,” said Lala.
She already had studied martial arts for a couple of years by then, and had practiced fancy flying kicks and breaking boards. Now 30, she’s earned black belts in tae kwon do and Arnis.
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But in that moment, she questioned her training. Would she be able to get away?
Since then, she’s taken a lot more steps to make sure she never feels helpless and vulnerable again. And she’s helping other women do the same, especially other Muslim women, who might feel uncomfortable in typical gyms but have become more likely targets in the current political climate.
Lala had long feared crowds. In Dubai, where she grew up, public markets were crowded with single, working men from other countries. Incidents of groping and stalking were widespread.
“In the crowd, you don’t really know what happened and who this person was,” Lala said. Like many young women in the conservative city, she said she endured assaults quietly throughout her childhood.
After coming to the U.S. to pursue her education, Lala earned a degree in computer science and got a job at Microsoft. Now she consults on intellectual-property issues and has several startup ventures of her own — including building an antibacterial contact lens case and an automatic smoothie machine.
She is proud to be an independent woman who has chosen her own path.
And she wanted to be able to protect herself.
So she started studying martial arts rooted in self-defense, like Krav Maga, developed by the Israeli Defense Forces, and Wing Chun, which focuses on close-range combat. In the back of her mind she had long thought about starting her own self-defense classes geared toward women.
Then a sign at the Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS) in Redmond was vandalized. The Islamic Center of the Eastside, in Bellevue, burned down. And in Portland, two light-rail passengers were killed in a knife attack as they tried to intervene when a man yelled hate speech at two young women, one wearing a hijab.
“A lot of people ended up asking me, well why don’t you have your own classes?” said Lala, who lives on Mercer Island.
After networking to find space, guidance and startup funds, she settled on using the newly created women’s gym room at MAPS. The mosque offered $500 to help Lala get her Defense Ninjas classes off the ground.
Her first class, on Sept. 4, had eight students. Now, she teaches classes every Saturday and Sunday. On the fourth Sunday of every month, she hosts a seminar with a guest instructor.
Amelia Neighbors, 39, of Redmond, has been a regular from the beginning. For her, the class offers stress relief at the end of the workday as well as self-defense skills.
“I’m pleased with the opportunity for people to become more aware, confident and self-reliant,” said Neighbors, who is on the safety committee at MAPS.
She said no one really used the women’s gym at MAPS until Lala’s classes began.
“Even though it’s in a mosque, it’s for any woman who wants to come and train in self-defense and wants this closed environment where they feel comfortable with other women,” said Lala, who charges about $15 a class.
In her classes, Lala not only teaches techniques for getting out of collar grabs, wrist grabs and bear hugs, she also encourages her students to change the way they think, the way they carry themselves, how they use their voices.
“A lot of women, in general, but more so in the (Muslim) community, they are very traditional in the sense that you know they went to college, they got married, they have kids, they’re very quiet, polite and gentle,” she said. “I’m none of those.”
As for the incident in downtown Seattle, she was lucky that her bus soon arrived, and she was able to wriggle away to seek refuge. After it happened, she didn’t commute by bus again for a long time. But now, she does it every day.