Self-Defence Classes for Women in Revolutionary Cairo

Perrine Lachenal obtained her PhD in social anthropology in 2015 from Aix-Marseille University (France). Her thesis is an ethnographic study conducted between 2011 and 2012 in Cairo on certain defence practices that have emerged in recent years in Egypt. Her dissertation conceives self-defence training for women as not only revealing but also producing ‘revolutionary’ physical and technical repertoires in which the emotional, gendered, social and moral dimensions of the period’s political upheavals are embodied.

Perrine Lachenal currently works in Germany as part of the ‘Re-Configurations’ research network at the CNMS (Centre for Near and Middle-Eastern Studies) at the Philipps-Universität Marburg.

Self-defence courses for women initially emerged in the Cairene urban landscape in the wider context of the mobilization of civil society to fight sexual harassment. Harassment in turn had become a worrying trend and a public cause. The first women’s self-defence training was probably organized around 2002 at a cultural center close to downtown Cairo. In the years that followed, similar courses multiplied in social centres and NGOs and the popularity of self-defence classes for women continued to grow. The revolutionary period can be seen as a turning point since it gave birth to a huge ‘security market’ that included self-defence classes as well as private security services and self-defence accessories like pepper sprays. The marketing was mainly aimed at appealing to women in the socially affluent districts of Cairo. The deep feeling of vulnerability that spread across Cairo after January 2011 contributed to legitimizing the choice, for a woman, to learn how to fight back and to acquire combat skills such as throwing kicks and punches.

By making visible the socially and sexually situated modalities by which categories such as ‘legitimacy’ and ‘illegitimacy’ are produced with respect to violence, self-defence classes for women constitute a valuable vantage point from which to contribute to a wider discussion about ‘dangerous women’. In self-defence classes, how do attendees and teachers describe and label violence? In which ways do they frame and justify the possibility for a woman to react physically? By focusing on the ways female violence is articulated in self-defence classes – the words and categories used to describe it – it is possible to identify different kinds of narratives which are used to describe women fighters.

The narrative to which people most commonly appeal relies on the association between female violence and ‘popular’ or working class areas, reflecting some mechanisms of social distinction at work within Egyptian urban society. It is important to specify here that most of the self-defence classes organized in Cairo take place in the wealthiest neighborhoods of the city. The attendees I met explained that they chose to learn how to fight ‘just in case’ and that they want to acquire techniques they plan never to use. According to them there is a huge difference between being able to use violence and actually using it. They clearly oppose the possibility of violence (what might happen) to its actual performance (what does happen). The second option is rejected to the side of social otherness – and to ‘other’ women to whom they cannot be compared. The capacity for being violent of these female figures is articulated with specific representations of their bodies, depicted as oversized – sometimes monstrous – and scary. Mona, one 40 year-old attendee, explained to me: ‘Women from popular areas are huge. Their husbands are so tiny compared to them! There, husbands are afraid of their wives (…). I saw on Facebook that there are a large number of men beaten by their wives in Egypt’.

The second narrative regarding women fighters relies on the impossible alliance – so the compulsory negotiation – between women’s capacity to fight back and conjugality. Doing self-defence can be judged problematic by the attendees themselves since most of them have reached the strategic age when it becomes crucial to find husbands and to conform to classic expectations of femininity. Their words depict models of conjugality in which gender roles are clearly defined, implying that the man is supposed to give protection to the woman. Because they do not want to scare away potential husbands, female attendees remain discrete about their unconventional defence abilities. Sarah explained to me: ‘Girls are afraid to appear too strong and not to be able to find any husband for this reason. Men want to protect women. What would happen if women were strong? Men might feel useless! Girls feel concerned about that because marriage is a fundamental issue for us’. In order to preserve the classic gender repartition, the transgression linked to the fact of being a girl and being able to fight back has to remain partial. Women can legitimately use violence only under certain conditions, which include there being no man present whose role is to protect them. Fady, a self-defence teacher, explained for example that ‘women learn defence techniques only in case there is no man around because it would shame a man to fight back on your own instead of calling him!’ Female violence has to be subordinate to male violence.

Another narrative, which is the continuation of the previous one, links women’s ability to fight to the risk of becoming men. The self-defence attendees I met express the fear that acquiring fighting techniques, commonly associated with men, could masculinize them. The bodily transformations resulting from physical training are perceived as particularly problematic, as Mona explained to me: ‘People tell me they can’t understand my choice [of practicing martial arts]. They say that it is not feminine and that I will become a man, with muscles and so on, and that no man around me will accept to marry me’. For a single young woman, ceasing to be ‘fragile’ – or at least giving the appearance of fragility – is perilous and physical power has to remain dissimulated. To cancel the masculinizing effects of attending self-defence classes, the female attendees consequently engage in compensation attitudes, aimed at maintaining the appearance of femininity. Their aversion regarding muscles and their preoccupation with remaining thin, and therefore constantly going on diets, offer good illustrations of their fear of being physically transformed – and perceived as less attractive by potential future husbands – as a result of self-defence classes. Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that the female ability to fight can sometimes be considered positively, even as a characteristic that could please men. Yasser, a self-defence teacher, posted a video on his Facebook wall, showing a woman successfully decking ten male opponents, and wrote underneath the following comment: ‘What a girl! I would love to marry her!’. Here, the reference to conjugality seems to undermine the feminine transgression by integrating it in a more conventional experience. Teachers also sometimes address female fighters in esthetic and even sexualized ways: the feminine use of violence is admitted under the condition of remaining connected to heteronormative matrimonial and seduction projects and of not threatening the sexual order.

The final narrative I identified, while doing my fieldwork at self-defence training classes for women in Cairo, is related to the Egyptian revolution. The revolutionary period has indeed given birth to a new frame in which the use of violence by women is admitted, and even positively represented. The transgression – the fact that women are not supposed to employ fighting techniques in their daily lives – is justified by the historical importance of the events. In times of emergency or exception, violence can be seen as a possible feminine resource. Radwa explained to me that she was fully part of the contestation since its first days, standing at the front lines and throwing stones at policemen: ‘Women always fought hand in hand with men. Even the Prophet was helped by women fighters during some crucial battles’. Quoting famous female figures, especially from the Qur’an, the attendees justify their choice to practice self-defence by referring to the intensity of the crisis and to the political cause. Not to mention that the deep feeling of insecurity that arose with the revolution gave obvious intelligibility to self-defence initiatives. This revolutionary narrative reveals a spectacular and heroic form of feminine violence, which nevertheless has to remain temporary. Women can exceptionally exceed their conventional attributions, but only until the end of the crisis and the restoration of the classical gender roles.

Popular, monstrous, subordinate, masculinizing, sexy, spectacular or even revolutionary: the words of Cairene self-defence attendees and teachers reveal different representations regarding the use of violence by women in times of political transformations. All these narratives give visibility to female fighters while undermining the subversive potential of their experiences. The transgression of being a woman and simultaneously capable of physical violence – of being a ‘dangerous woman,’ so to speak – destabilizes social and sexual hierarchies, and must be carefully restrained and framed.


Image: Perrine Lachenal
Image: Perrine Lachenal