ABU ZAABAL, Egypt – Four young Egyptian women, wearing scarves, leggings and boxing gloves, kick and kick each other, cheered on by their coach Samah Ahmed, founder of Monsters Academy.
Ahmed, known to everyone as Trainer Samah, started learning Thai boxing, or Muay Thai, five years ago after being sexually harassed, and now teaches about 40 people, mostly martial arts. women and girls, in his own training camp.
“Muay Thai turns every part of your body into a weapon: your elbows, knees, fists and even your chin,” Ahmed told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from his one-year academy in Abu Zaabal, around 30 years old. km northeast of Cairo, the capital.
“Girls won’t need to own guns to defend themselves. They can use their body for defense, ”she said, adding that she named it Monsters Academy because it takes the courage and power of a monster to learn Thai boxing.
The debate over sexual harassment is growing in this socially conservative country, where women routinely face offensive comments, stares and fumbling on crowded public transport, which can deter them from traveling for work or business. studies.
A 2017 poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation found Cairo to be the most dangerous megalopolis for women, and a 2013 United Nations survey found that 99% of women had been sexually harassed in Egypt, where women have long felt disadvantaged.
Ahmed’s parents initially refused to let her train, saying martial arts were only for men.
“I insisted on learning it and even teaching other girls,” she said, standing in front of a black wall painted with white silhouettes of women performing lift kicks and photographs of others. Muay Thai fighters in the ring.
Many young Egyptian women like Ahmed are pushing for change, and hundreds of people speak out against sexual assault on social media, echoing the 2017 #MeToo campaign in the United States.
Young fighters at the academy say it is important for them to feel safe in order to live fully and move freely.
Only 26% of women in Egypt, compared to 79% of men, participate in the labor force, according to the 2015 Global Gender Gap Index, which ranked the North African country at 136 out of 145 countries for gender equity.
Psychologists say female role models in sports, like Ahmed, are valuable to women and girls because they provide evidence that success is achievable and challenge negative gender stereotypes about them as the weaker sex.
It can boost self-confidence, create a sense of control over their own bodies and motivate them to be more independent, researchers at the Canadian University of Toronto found this year.
“I think it’s a fundamental right for girls to play whatever sports they want, and it’s also very important for them to be able to defend themselves against any aggression,” said Ahmed, who raised funds from friends and family to open the academy. .
“He is getting really famous, especially in our region.”
Malak Ahmed, 17, trained with Coach Samah for two years and is one of his teaching assistants.
“It’s not safe here and learning a self-defense sport like Muay Thai can help many women protect themselves from sexual harassment or any form of violence,” she said, adding that she was walking now in the streets with more confidence and felt more secure.
“I can go to my school without fear of being sexually harassed,” she added.
The trainees said Muay Thai also helps them shed negative emotions, heal themselves from sexual harassment, and feel empowered – rejecting traditional attitudes where women are accused of sexual assault, rather than the men who charge them. attack.
“We share the incidents of which we have been victims and we tell ourselves how we should have dealt with them,” said Oswa Abdel Nabi, 16.
“Muay Thai is not just a sport, but a real weapon against sexual harassment and violence.”
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