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‘You just want to be prepared’: Why some Muslim Canadian women are taking up self-defence

WATCH: How martial arts is empowering young Muslim Canadians

Lined with farmland and few street lights, the road that leads to a local mosque in Oakville, Ont., is rather quiet.

But inside, there’s plenty going on.

It’s a Wednesday night, and the mosque is filled with young children. Some are chasing each other around the prayer room’s striped carpet; others are tucked in a corner sharing stories with their friends.

It’s the mosque Jaseena DaCosta frequently visits. But for the past few weeks, since the New Zealand mosque attacks, she’s had some unwelcome thoughts.

“If this were to happen to us, and we’re in a very rural area here, how would this class react?”

“Would we be able to do anything about it to change the situation and have a better result out of it? It hits all of us,” she told Global News, motioning to the class happening just behind her.

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It’s a martial arts and self-defence class taught by Toronto-based organization UMMA Martial Arts.

Jaseena DaCosta demonstrates a self-defence move.
Jaseena DaCosta demonstrates a self-defence move. Maham Abedi/Global News

The 19-year-old hijab-wearing Muslim woman both teaches and takes the classes.

The children are lined up across the room dressed in martial arts robes. They’re told to warm up.

Their instructor walks between the rows. He tells one boy to fix his form while doing a plank then looks at another, saying he’s “super cheating” on his pushups.

Children take a self-defence class at a local mosque.
Children take a self-defence class at a local mosque. Maham Abedi/Global News

Like many of the other students, DeCosta she says she began taking the classes mainly as a means of physical activity. But now, Islamophobic attacks reported in the news give her an added motivation.

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“It’s constantly getting to me now. I don’t know if I’m safe sometimes. That’s why I’m so happy because this class has taught me to be prepared for anything,” she said.

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The anxiety DeCosta and other Muslims feel is backed up by statistics that show reports of Islamophobic attacks rise whenever Muslims are in the news — even if they are victims of a crime.

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That’s something the National Council of Canadian Muslims has been independently tracking since 2013, using police and media reports as well as incidents that are directly reported to the organization.

Leila Nasr, who works with the organization, explained to Global News that upticks in reports were noted following the Parliament Hill shooting in 2013, then also following the van attack in Toronto last year.

“The same thing happened after the Quebec mosque shooting as well. Quebec’s highest number of anti-Muslim hate crimes in the year 2017 happened in the month directly following Jan. 29,” she explained.

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According to Statistics Canada, Quebec’s hate crime reports increased by 50 per cent in 2017. The government agency noted the increase was a result of crimes against Muslims, which nearly tripled — there were 41 in 2016 and 117 the year after.

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Overall in Canada, police-reported hate crimes based on religion grew in 2017, with those against Muslims seeing the greatest rise.

And after the New Zealand shooting, NCCM found the same result.

In the first two months of 2019, the organization recorded an average of roughly one hate-related incident per week — a total of 11.

In March, there were a total of 12 incidents — nine of which occurred in the week following the New Zealand attack.

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Sarah Hussain, an instructor at another Toronto-based self-defence organization called Martial Smarts, said the group has also noticed upticks in self-defence workshop requests following world events.

Hussain said the organization — which offers workshops primarily for Muslim women — noticed the biggest increase after the Paris attacks in 2015.

“It’s usually when people who identify as Muslims do these terrorist attacks when the community feels most vulnerable. That’s often when we get the most backlash, and that’s when we really start noticing a lot of requests for workshops,” Hussain said.

READ MORE: Islamophobia in Canada isn’t new. Experts say it’s time we face the problem

“People want to feel like they have some sort of power,” she added, noting that’s one thing the non-profit organization seeks to bring out in Muslim women.

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“Often, society puts them down so much, often they internalize that they don’t have the power,” she said.

“After the workshops, you really see the change in people. When they come in, they might be kind of nervous or they feel like they can’t do this. At the end of it, they’re making friends and they’re loud and they’re raising their voices.”

Tania Gulzar decided to take self-defence classes after the New Zealand mosque attacks.
Tania Gulzar decided to take self-defence classes after the New Zealand mosque attacks. Courtesy Tania Gulzar

It’s after the New Zealand attack that Tania Gulzar, a Toronto resident, decided she would take self-defence classes.

Gulzar wears the hijab and told Global News it’s her two young children that pushed her to learn self-defence.

“Most Muslims go to the mosque, and it’s such a peaceful place,” she said.

“And I think if it can happen in a mosque, it can happen anywhere so you just want to be prepared.”

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Beyond events in the news, some Muslim women have taken self-defence classes following more personal experiences.

WATCH: Muslim Canadian explains why she stopped wearing the hijab

‘I became very paranoid’: Muslim Canadian explains why she stopped wearing the hijab
‘I became very paranoid’: Muslim Canadian explains why she stopped wearing the hijab

Sahresh Tabrez was in university when she says she made the “personal” decision to start wearing the hijab.

As a Muslim who spent much of her life living in Canada, the 27-year-old says she didn’t expect the headscarf to impact her life the way it did.

In 2013, she found herself sitting on a public transit bus with a friend as a man yelled at them. It was Sept. 11.

“He just turned around and said, ‘Of course you Muslims are going to be happy today. It’s the 9/11 anniversary…this is exactly what you guys want,’” she recalled.

“To be told you wanted this, you wanted all these people to die, it was just really hard to hear.”

Sahresh Tabrez at her university graduation.
Sahresh Tabrez at her university graduation. Courtesy Sahresh Tabrez

In 2015, a similar incident occurred on the Toronto subway while Tabrez was commuting with a friend who wears the niqab.

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A woman started asking her questions about Islam at first, but she says the conversation turned confrontational.

“She started saying, ‘I think this is so wrong. You guys are dangerous, you guys are terrorists,’” Tabrez said.

“We were in shock and we didn’t know what to say,” Tabrez added, noting the woman grew angrier and eventually told them “they need to get out of the country.”

READ MORE: Canadian Muslims face anxiety, uncertainty about crossing U.S. border

“After that, I would take the subway to go to Ryerson University. I would never stand too close to the (platform edge) in case someone decides to push me,” Tabrez said.

She took a self-defence class, hoping that she’d be better equipped to protect herself.

The instructor taught them how to do basic moves: how to get an attacker to let go of your wrist. How to confuse an attacker. The places — like the subway or inside a bus — where she should be extra attentive.

But Tabrez says she became paranoid after those incidents. So much so that if someone came up to her to ask for directions, she would be nervous.

READ MORE: For Canadian Muslims forced to recall horror of mosque shooting, here’s how to cope

After five years, she decided to stop wearing her hijab.

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She explained to Global News that the decision was deeply personal — and difficult.

“I didn’t want to feel that way anymore,” she said.

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It’s been about a year now since she’s taken off her hijab, but many of her family and friends still choose to wear it.

That’s why Tabrez says she plans on taking self-defence classes again.

“My mom wears the headscarf, my friends wear the headscarf. I need to be able to protect my friends and family,” she said.

Sahresh Tabrez decided to stop wearing a hijab after experiencing Islamophobic incidents.
Sahresh Tabrez decided to stop wearing a hijab after experiencing Islamophobic incidents. Courtesy Sahresh Tabrez

Protecting others — whether they’re loved ones or strangers — is something NCCM teaches at its “Say Salaam” workshop geared toward helping bystanders understand the powerful role they can play.

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Attendees are given real-life scenarios and advised on how they can intervene and possibly dispel tension, Nasr explained.

It’s a way of relieving Muslims and other minority communities of some of the onus of protecting themselves.

But Nasr notes self-defence classes and bystander training aren’t real solutions to Islamophobia — Canadians need to do better.

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“It’s just a really sad reflection on us as a society that it’s come to the point where we feel the need to tell Muslim women how to defend themselves from assault or harassment,” she said.

Nasr said that conversations need to revolve around the perpetrators of hate crimes and prevention rather than just self-defence alone.

“We need to have wider conversations about systemic racism and why people feel so entitled to behave in such hateful and racist ways,” she added.

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