CAIRO – Falling target to a racist attack years ago did not turn Rana Abdelhamid into an introvert after the young American Muslim started an initiative for self empowering vulnerable young Muslim women.
“I remember the hate in his eyes, feeling very vulnerable, very alone, escaping, but locking myself up in the bathroom and crying for hours,” Abdelhamid told Elle magazine, recalling an act of violence she faced herself when a man tried to remove her hijab.
Founding WISE, or the Women’s Initiative for Self Empowerment, a self defense and leadership organization, was part of her “healing process.”
Abdelhamid stands in the basement of a mosque in a fighting stance, quickly hopping back and forth on her toes.
“I want to teach you a proper punch,” she tells the room of other young Muslim American women, all in high school and college.
As young women stand, holding back giggles as they try to mimic her movements, Abdelhamid pauses.
“I hope you girls aren’t smiling when you’re fighting someone,” she adds, before striking a boxing pad so powerfully it makes the room echo.
Though being a full-time student, Abdelhamid regularly travels outside of Boston to New York, Washington DC, and even as far as Dublin and Madrid to teach self defense classes to Muslim women.
The classes are the most unique part of WISE’s programming, which also includes entrepreneurial training and leadership development, and, members say, was the biggest draw.
Abdelhamid sees WISE as a community service to “block out the hate.”
She’s patriotic, exuding pride while discussing what she calls America’s “salad bowl” (in which people are “able to hold on to their own identities but contribute to their society.”)
In WISE full 13-week training program, the girls get more confident and less inhibited.
“I have felt threatened because I’m Muslim,” Neghena Hamidi, 21, a student at Hunter College, said.
“I’ve been a victim of verbal abuse just commuting to school, hearing very ignorant, hateful comments; People telling me to ‘go back to my country,’ people telling me I’m ‘ruining’ this country by simply being Muslim–where am I going to go back? I was born here.”
Hamidi calls the current 2016 presidential campaign “horrifying” because of the way Republican presidential hopefuls are fueling Islamophobia.
Natasha Sidiqqui, 19, a sophomore at Princeton University, shared a similar opinion.
“I didn’t have any background in self defense before WISE, which is part of why I joined,” Sidiqqui, who learned about WISE through Facebook and, two years later, now teaches self defense classes as a mentor herself.
The self defense classes, she says, gives her “a sense of confidence that not only extends physically, to protect myself, but to my mind, to realize my abilities…to the way I speak, the way I carry myself, to my goals for the future.”
Abdelhamid makes sure WISE is a safe space for young Muslim women who, she explains, face the unique challenge of “walking down the street feeling insecure; carrying this burden of anxiety.”
The young American woman plans to continue expanding WISE internationally to be a connected network of Muslim women supporting each other in leadership roles.
“We want this space that we create to be free of judgment, free of violence, free of any negativity so that girls are able to bring their full selves,” she added.