Amman, London- A few years ago, Batool Mohanad’s worst moments would come when she had to stop in the street and hail a taxi to go from university to her workplace in the Jordanian capital Amman. She never knew how to react to catcalling, or when men stopped their cars offering her a ride, nor when they stood too close to her.
Working as a receptionist at a self-defense studio, she decided to learn some moves to reclaim her personal space in public. Batool says she started training and fell in love with kick-boxing.
“I used to sit on my desk watching girls leave training classes, and as time passed I could see how their attitude changed; they became stronger and happier, and I just wanted to be like them,” she added.
According to DPA, at SheFighter studio, Mohanad moved from being a shy receptionist to a trainer, after around three years of honing her skills.
They also teach mixture of martial arts based on taekwondo and boxing, as well as organize workshops to teach women and children how to respond in certain situations, like how to tackle a harasser, or simply how to be firm in asking them to stay away.
“There isn’t a woman in Jordan who does not face harassment,” she said.
Yet, while many women complain about it, no recent data have been compiled on harassment cases. Recent amendments to the penal code do not mention nor define sexual harassment.
Punishment for “indecent gestures” or “indecent words” is a minimum of six months in prison. Previously, six months was the maximum. The new law, which was approved this month by parliament and awaits ratification by the king, also increases the minimum punishment of indecent physical acts from two months to a year.
The amendment that received the most positive attention was the repeal of Article 308, which allowed rapists to escape punishment by marrying their victims.
Hala Ahed, legal consultant at Jordanian Women’s Union, a non-governmental women’s rights group based in Amman says: “We are not 100 percent satisfied, but it is better than before.”
She acknowledges that the absence of a legal definition for what exactly constitutes “indecent acts” will make implementation hard. It will also not help rights groups collect data on sexual harassment. “This might have been done on purpose, because the lack of data makes it hard in comparing the phenomenon with other countries,” Ahed said.
A third of women were victims of physical violence at least once since the age of 15, according to a 2012 government survey, the most recent available. It also found that one in 10 women experienced sexual violence, but less than 2 percent would seek help from the police.
“Women are now bolder to discuss violence and harassment, but maybe the lack of knowledge about legal steps is what discourages them from reporting it,” Ahed added.
At SheFighter’s studio in Amman’s residential Khalda neighborhood, Mohanad recalled the first time she was harassed on the street.
“I was 15 and a man started talking about my body,” she said. “I did not know what was happening, or what to do, so I went home and cried.” There was a catch in her voice before she cleared her throat and straightened her back. “I face less harassment now, because I am not afraid. I know I can respond, and I can hurt them even if I had to.”
The studio also offers training sessions for children between 5 and 13 years.
Enas Khalifeh, a trainer said: “One of the goals of this summer course is to make children aware of things that their parents might not think of. We hear stories of children being assaulted or kidnapped, and they probably do not understand what is happening especially if the attacker is a family member.”
SheFighter was established by Khalifeh’s cousin, Lina, after “not finding one real solution for violence against women.” It started in the basement of Lina’s parents’ home before the first studio space opened two years later.
“In our society, women should grow up to be confident and strong. I have something that I can teach others, to boost their physical and psychological power,” added Khalifeh, who studied sports at the University of Jordan.
Khalifeh, Mohanad and other trainers also volunteer to train women and children at schools and refugee camps. Mohanad was still excited about a recent six-hour training she gave to refugees in the northern city of Irbid.
“They learned a few moves that I believe can change their lives. Why not? It changed mine,” she said.