When you think of fencing, what comes to mind? Probably not Muslim girls.
Across London, in community centres and secondary schools, Muslim women and girls pick up a foil, and get ready to spar. "We're breaking stereotypes because fencing is a white male dominated posh sport," says 12-year-old Zaynab from Redbridge. "Muslim girls can do whatever we want to do, we're sporty, we're confident, we’re strong, we can be whatever we want to be."
Muslim Girls Fence is a collaboration between Maslaha — a charity that takes a creative approach to tackling social issues affecting Muslim communities — and British Fencing. We run in schools and communities at a grassroots level, focusing on facilitating a space for girls and women to verbally, creatively and physically challenge assumptions and narratives relating to their gender, racial, religious and other identities. "You might think a fencer wouldn't look like me, but I am a fencer," says 14-year-old Latifa from Tower Hamlets. "When I'm fencing I feel powerful, I feel strong, I feel sisterhood and I feel free."
A uniquely accommodating sport
Not only is fencing a great sport for Muslim women and girls to physically disrupt stereotypes and narratives cast over our bodies — that we are weak, lacking agency — it is a very accessible sport for Muslim women. US 2016 Olympic medalist in fencing, Ibtihaj Muhammad — widely known for being the first Black American Muslim woman to wear a hijab while competing at the Olympic Games — has described fencing as "uniquely accommodating". With fencing, says Muhammad, she could wear the same kit as everyone else. For the first time she truly felt like part of the team.
At Muslim Girls Fence, once you put on your kit, all that matters is the energy and joy you bring to the session. It's a safe space for people to come as they are, without having to worry about being accepted, celebrated or conforming to the stereotype of an athlete. Fencing attracts those who may not be typically involved in sports — and combined with the focus on creativity and political discussion at Muslim Girls Fence, the appeal is only heightened. "The social aspect has helped me increase my confidence, self-esteem and build friendships and community," says Sara from the Redbridge community sessions. "It's good for my health and wellbeing, as well as learning a new skill with my daughter. It gives us time to build our relationship and have fun."
"Young Muslim women are seen as having no aspirations, we can't have dreams, it's horrible"
Fencing in and of itself is a powerful art form. We take advantage of this and focus on the power of embodiment, building confidence, resilience and the self-determination that comes with picking up a sword and lunging forward to take up space. "I love saying to people I’m a fencer," says 12-year-old Zaynab, "People don’t expect me to say that because I'm a girl. I feel when I've got the sword in my hand I'm strong."
Alongside fencing in the weekly sessions, creative tools such as collaging, drawing, photography, reflective activities and poetry are used to facilitate self-expression and therefore begin the process of equipping young Muslim girls to tell their own stories without having to internalise tropes associated with them in wider media and political rhetoric. In our creative sessions we explore body image, racism, sexism, Islamophobia.
Such a space is rarely afforded in a climate of the cost of living crisis, cuts to social, therapeutic and youth services and Islamophobia in media and politics.
Speaking of which. The government's counter-terrorism policy Prevent duty aims to root out extremism before it happens. It legally requires public sector workers, doctors, teachers and social care workers to work in what is sinisterly described as "the pre-criminal space." And again, it is Muslims who have been disproportionately targeted. Prevent has been widely condemned by stakeholders both within and outside the UK including leading civil liberties groups, politicians, community groups, lawyers. In reality we've seen the impact of Prevent — such as young Muslim women and girls censoring themselves and parents avoiding having conversations about politics or religion at home in case their child says something at school that could be misconstrued. We have had participants discuss feeling trapped into a single identity by other people's expectations and language, such as 'terrorist' and 'oppressed'. One young person said: "young Muslim women are seen as having no aspirations, we can't have dreams, it's horrible. I've got dreams and I know I can do anything I want."
Moreover, we have heard multiple pupils and students say they deliberately avoid mental health services because they do not think they would understand the experiences of Muslim young people. One participant said, "I do think Islamophobia has affected young people's mental health. I think that this is something that is rising sadly, some people don’t feel they are safe, or that they’ll be listened to or understood, which kind of makes it worse." When policy-makers see only one aspect of people’s identity, they can make far-reaching errors that prevent their objectives from being realised and can directly impact young people's wellbeing and sense of self. We are now seeing a generation of young Muslims who are afraid to express themselves authentically. This is why Muslim Girls Fence is so important. It goes beyond the usual sexist tropes that 'girls don't play sport', but much more insidious and criminalising rhetoric too.
"We have coaches who are currently doing their A-Levels, and coaches who have grandchildren"
We are working to change public imagination, seeking to influence and shape public debates and media narratives about Muslim communities. We've done this through being part of incredible events such as Eid in the Square and Southbank Centre's Women of the World Festival where we have performed fencing, poetry, showcased our art work, and ran art and self-portrait photography exhibitions across the country. We have also shown our film Nobody's Metaphor at the Tate and at film festivals; it follows the journey of four teenage girls from west London who embark on the Muslim Girls Fence project. As the film unfolds, the initially reluctant girls find new means to express themselves and speak back to people's expectations of them.
When the initiative first began in east London, 25 students learned how to use their swords for two-hour lessons over the course of 16 weeks. Now we have weekly on-going sessions in community centres and secondary schools across the UK in London, Doncaster, Bradford and Birmingham. After the 10-week school fencing sessions, many of the young women and girls continue fencing and join the community sessions, in intergenerational grassroots community fencing. Many become fencing coaches. We have coaches who are currently doing their A-Levels, coaches who are professional fencers, coaches who have grandchildren, and coaches who are activists and organisers in their communities.
"There aren't that many projects aimed at Muslim girls, not many specifically for Muslim girls," says 14-year-old Aisha, from Tower Hamlets, "It's really nice to be able to explore what that means to me and say I feel proud to be a Muslim girl!"
Learn more about Muslim Girls Fence on their website. If you are interested in joining or starting your own Muslim Girls Fence club, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.