By Zab Mustefa
London, United Kingdom – Under the bright lights of a northeast London school sports hall, a group of Muslim girls sit on wooden benches, awaiting the start of a class.
This would normally be a mandatory physical education session of netball or athletics, but today is different: the students will be learning fencing.
The girls look curiously at the protective masks and plastic replica swords carefully lined up on the ground.
Then the former Olympic fencer and instructor Linda Strachan blows her whistle and signals for the girls to assemble in front of the equipment.
“En garde,” she shouts. The girls quickly grab their swords from the floor and get into attack position, ready to lunge forward. “I want you all to make sure you have a firm grip of your swords, and remember to ensure that when you step in front, your arms are at a stretch,” Strachan tells them.
Once the beginners are talked through some basic moves, they are divided into pairs and attempt to perform the techniques they have learned on their partners.
“When I fence, I take a step forward to lunge at my opponent,” 13-year-old Seher Chohan explains. “I also think that it is what you do in life. You step forward to get what you want.”
Her classmate Sarah Saeed agrees. “I like fencing because it is different from all the other sports,” she says. “It is more about your posture and how you look. It isn’t as violent as all the other sports because it’s more to do with your mind than your own physical strength. That’s one thing I liked about it when we started off the lessons.”
|Sarah Saeed, left, and her classmate Seher Chohan are now mentors for other Muslim girls attending the beginner fencing sessions [Zab Mustefa/Al Jazeera]|
Chohan and Saeed belong to the more experienced group of fencers who have been practising their skills for a few months and now help out as mentors in the additional series of workshops, as part of the ‘Muslim Girls Fence’ project launched by the community-based NGO, Maslaha.
In collaboration with British Fencing and Sports England, the project has been successful in challenging the stereotypes of young Muslim women while at the same time changing perceptions of the activity, which is traditionally seen as a white-dominated, elite sport.
“A lot of people we have spoken to thought of fencing as an elite sport, mostly the forte of white men,” says Maslaha’s project manager, Latifa Akay.
“In simple terms, we are aiming to challenge misperceptions and raise aspirations among young Muslim women, in the light of the complex discrimination experienced by this group on the basis of both faith and gender.”