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12/14/16 – Self-defense instructor, Zaineb Abdulla, among American Muslim women who “made America great in 2016”

The country’s recent spike in Islamophobia, fueled primarily by anti-Muslim rhetoric vis-à-vis  politicians and media, has been followed by increased hate crimes, violence, and discrimination against the American Muslim community at the rate of nearly 70% since last year, according to the FBI.  

Hijab-wearing Muslim women have specifically been targeted in these attacks, but it hasn’t stopped them from striving to advance their work for the greater good. The Huffington Post’s list of “17 Muslim women who made America great in 2016,” highlights the work of leading American Muslim women in the areas of government, sports, activism, media, art, and non-profits. One hijabi in particular, is taking teaching self-defense into her own hands, quite literally. 

Chicago’s own, Zaineb Abdulla, a self-defense instructor, was included as part of the Huffington Post’s prestigious list for developing a “Hate Crime Survival Seminar” in the wake of the US elections. The self-defense workshops began in November at Deaf Planet Soul, a Chicago-based non-profit that works with deaf and hard-of-hearing people.  

Like a hijabi superhero, Abdulla is a therapist for autistic children by day, but by night, she is teaching other hijabis how to defend themselves with Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a sport she has studied for four years. The specific martial art style is particularly useful to smaller people fighting off larger attackers or opponents.  

Her activist passion runs in Abdulla’s family, as her mother, Janaan Hashim, Esq., is a long-time Muslim activist and attorney from the Chicago area who has honorably served as professor, speaker, radio producer, and interfaith leader in the community. With Islamophobia long-plaguing the American Muslim community, Abdulla’s program is part of a new generation of American Muslim activism that effectively counters it. 

Abdulla has also published two online videos on how to defend against attackers who attempt to grab a woman’s hijab. The videos have gained immense popularity and have since gone viral on social media. What is especially unique about the videos is Abdulla’s use of American Sign Language (ASL) to make the lessons accessible to deaf women who also find themselves vulnerable to attacks.  

With the rise of violence against Muslims and the need for awareness and education, Abdulla’s program has been widely covered by news media around the world including the Washington Post, Yahoo, BBC, the Guardian (UK), Telegraph (UK), and a number of other outlets spanning Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America. Representing one-fifth of the world’s population, Muslims from Chicago to Indonesia have found support through Abdulla’s self-defense tutorials. 

“People wanted to know if [there were] strategies for defending against bigoted attacks. I looked online and saw there was nothing,” she says. “I kept hearing on the news that someone tore off this woman’s scarf and she sat on the floor and cried, or ran away crying; I’m so tired of that. Fear is a legitimate and reasonable reaction, but it’s not the only reaction we can have.” Abdulla explained in an interview with the Guardian (UK). 

In an interview with the Huffington Post, Abdulla said “Our self defense classes and Hate Crime Survival Seminars are designed to give women the tools they need to stand up and fight back … By working to increase self esteem and self confidence in addition to basic self defense knowledge, we are strengthening women in body, mind and spirit.” 

Photo: Brittany Palm Photography