Atlantic Cities

Lessons in Self-Defense for Women, From Tahrir Square

Lessons in Self-Defense for Women, From Tahrir Square
Arming Sisters

Patty Stein is just about the definition of a global citizen. A 21-year-old Lakota woman who grew up outside Bismarck, North Dakota, she started studying the Korean martial art of taekwondo at age 13 and eventually moved to Cairo to study with her coach in his native country. She holds a black belt in Hapkido.

Once in Egypt, she became part of a community that is educating women in self-defense techniques. Most recently she has gotten involved with Tahrir Bodyguard, a group of volunteers who patrol the square that has been the epicenter of Egyptian pro-democracy protests, protecting women against the sexual assaults that have become all too common there.

The group also works to end the culture of sexual harassment and assault that extends well beyond Tahrir Square. Stein has been helping to teach classes that give women both the physical and mental skills they need to avoid becoming assault victims.

Now, she wants to bring it all back to where she started.

“I looked around and asked myself, 'Why am I here doing this when the stories I hear from back home are just as bad?'” Stein says on a Skype call from Cairo. She cites frightening statistics about the epidemic of violence against indigenous women in the United States: one in three are sexually assaulted, and two in five experience domestic violence.  

The recent debate over protections for American Indian women in the Violence Against Women Act has brought renewed attention to the depressingly routine nature of assaults against indigenous women, both by members of their own communities and by those from outside the community. The passage of the act earlier this month is a step forward, says Stein, but it will not solve the larger cultural problems that underlie the violence. Women, she says, need to learn how to respond to the threats that face them on an individual level.

So Stein is raising money through Indiegogo for a project she calls Arming Sisters. Her plan is to return to North America and visit the 20 reservations in the United States and in Canada, giving two-day self-defense courses that will teach women how to be more aware of risks in their environment, as well as how to perform 10 physical moves that could save their lives.

“The awareness mentality is actually more important than the moves,” she says, although knowing about pressure points and how to use techniques such as joint locks can help to empower women who find themselves being attacked. “You have to know that your attacker will be stronger than you and bigger than you,” says Stein.

Stein has had to deploy those moves herself on a couple of occasions since she's been in Egypt. In one incident, she says, a man groped a friend of hers as they walked together down a dark street. She grabbed a pressure point on his throat and punched him. He fled the scene. In another instance, when a taxi driver taking her home one night tried to assault her, she broke his finger and then was able to get out of the cab and attract the attention of people on the street, who came to her defense.

The rate of harassment against women in Egypt has been on the upswing in the two years she's been living there full-time, says Stein. "It's gotten worse since the revolution, for sure." But she emphasizes that violence against women is not a regional issue. “It’s worldwide,” she says. “It’s not about East or West.”

On reservations in North America, Stein says, complex social problems with deep historical roots add to the dangers indigenous women face. “On the reservation is a different world,” she says. “It’s amazing and fun, but there is also every stereotype that’s out there. People don’t have pride in themselves, especially women.” That lack of self-respect can spiral into a cycle of sexual assault and violence, she says. Part of her website is reserved for American Indian women to tell their stories of assault, and the posts there are chilling.

Stein’s message about self-defense puts a lot of emphasis on prevention. When women are out for a night on the town, she says, they should be aware of their surroundings, stay with their friends, and never leave their drinks unattended lest they be spiked with a “date rape” drug.

“I hate telling people you can’t go out and drop your guard,” says Stein. “But that’s the reality.”

Stein is hoping that if her Arming Sisters project gets the funding it needs, it could eventually become a permanent fixture on reservations around North America. That would only be part of the much more comprehensive response that she says will be necessary to reduce sexual violence against women in every part of the world, but it would be a start.

“Education needs to change,” says Stein. “We’ve been teaching how to avoid rape. We need to teach [men] not to rape.”

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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