Toronto

These Toronto women are, literally, fighting Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric in a self-defence class

A wave of anti-Muslim rhetoric south of the border and a string of incidents in Canada have some Muslim women feeling anxious about their safety, prompting some to take up self-defence classes as a way of empowering themselves.

Fears grow that anti-Muslim rhetoric in U.S. election campaign will have consequences here

Nafiza Aziz says she and Ryhana Dawood have opened the self-defence classes to girls as young as eight. (Martial Smarts/Instagram)

​Nafiza Aziz is nervous again.

It's been almost a year since her friend Sundus A., also a Muslim woman, was told she "should be raped" and go back to her "own country" on a Toronto transit bus. (Sundus requested CBC News not use her last name, something that she does not use publicly.)

Now, a wave of anti-Muslim rhetoric south of the border and a string of incidents in Canada have her once again feeling anxious about her safety as a Muslim woman, once again wondering if she might be the target of an assault.

This time, though, she's taking matters into her own hands, transforming her Mississauga "Islamic lifestyle" boutique, Modah, into a hub for Muslim women's empowerment, with the help of a hijab-wearing martial artist with black belts in karate and taekwondo.

"I haven't been attacked, but I feel that it might be something that could happen any moment now," Aziz told CBC News. She's worried that the language of Donald Trump's campaign will make anti-Muslim sentiment acceptable here at home.

It's not far-fetched, Aziz says.

String of incidents has many anxious

Just two weeks ago, a series of hate posters targeting Muslims was plastered around the campus of the University of Calgary. A few days later, Islamophobic flyers were anonymously distributed in a southeast Edmonton neighbourhood, prompting a police investigation. This past Friday, a northwest Calgary mosque was vandalized overnight.

And south of the border, three Kansas men were charged last week with conspiring to bomb an apartment complex that is home to many Somali immigrants.

Anti-Muslim bigotry is no surprise to Sundus.

Sundus A. had been worried her hijab would make her a target for abuse, but was still shocked when she was sworn at on a TTC bus and nobody stepped in to defend her. (CBC)

"This happens in our community on a daily basis. It happens to a lot of people who are afraid to come forward," Sundus told CBC News. She worries the heated rhetoric, specifically Trump's earlier call to ban Muslims from the U.S., could have repercussions in Canada.

"This is a man who has an incredible amount of power standing on probably one of the biggest stages in the world making heinous comments about Muslim women and women in general."

That's in part why she says the need for self-defence classes like those at Modah is very real.

"I feel like we almost wait for things to get really bad and then we respond to it. And we just can't let it get to that point."

'Get big and get loud'

Instructor Ryhana Dawood agrees. The 28-year-old has been teaching self-defence to Muslim women at mosques across the Greater Toronto Area over the past eight years, but says demand has increased considerably over the past year. 

At the end of the day your voice is your strongest weapon, no matter what situation you're in.- Martial artist Ryhana Dawood

"A lot of women feel unsafe.… I think a majority of women face issues of sexual assault and sexual harassment," she says.

"But this added pressure and this added fear that's heaped onto them with how Muslims are being treated lately has been making a lot of women want to come out to these sessions."

Aziz says she knows of two other instructors in the Greater Toronto Area also offering martial arts training to Muslim women, including one at Umma Martial Arts based largely in Etobicoke and Scarborough and at Wen-Do Women's Self Defence in Toronto.

Ryhana Dawood has been teaching self-defence to Muslim women at mosques across the Greater Toronto Area over the past eight years, but says demand has increased considerably over the past year. (CBC)

One of Dawood's biggest messages to women she teaches is: "Get big and get loud."

"You don't need to be the strongest person, you don't need to be the tallest person, you just use the strength that you have individually."

Dawood says she often begins her classes by asking her students what they think their strongest weapon is.

"It's interesting because none of them ever say, 'Your voice.' But at the end of the day your voice is your strongest weapon, no matter what situation you're in."

'I don't think you can sugar-coat it'

That's a message Aziz feels not only Muslim women her age need to know, but one she wants her own daughter to learn as well.

Aziz, owner of Modah, an 'Islamic lifestyle' shop in Mississauga, Ont., says she decided to offer self-defence classes at her store because she felt growing anti-Muslim rhetoric in the U.S. could have consequences here at home. (CBC)

"You wouldn't want your child to think that somebody can come up to them and just attack them out of the blue." But knowing what happened to her friend, Aziz says, the possibility is very real. "I don't think you can sugar-coat it."

That's why she and Dawood have opened the classes to girls as young as eight.

The value of that preparation is perhaps clearer to no one more than Sundus herself.

When she was sworn at on the bus back in December, what surprised her most was that no one seemed willing to speak up for her.

"No one felt the need to say anything or step in and take a stand.… So if no one is going to be there and support you, you need to handle the situation somewhat on your own."

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