Gender-based violence can take many forms, according to the United Nations (UN), including intimate partner violence, sexual violence, and street harassment. While these UN statistics indicate that one in three women and girls worldwide will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes, other UN statistics estimate that figure to be as high as 76 percent. The statistics on Jordan are limited.

The UN Women’s Global Database on Violence Against Women reported that 24 percent of Jordanian women suffer physical and/or sexual violence from a partner at least once in their lifetimes, although they do not offer statistics on the percentage of women who suffer physical and/or sexual violence from a non-partner.

One explanation for the lack of statistics stems from the shame that victims feel after being assaulted. Victims often do not report cases of abuse because of “fear of family fragmentation, fear of losing custody of children in the case of divorce, and fear of affecting the family’s reputation.”

Tackling Gender-Based Violence in Jordan Using Self-Defense

Sexual harassment is difficult to gather data on. According to the UN database, it is “a globally denied phenomenon. Attempts to study and understand it are usually confronted with resistance, denial, and underestimation of its presence as a social phenomenon, and victims still face a culture of blame and bear the burden of proof.” Unfortunately, the disavowal of sexual harassment only leads to its recurrence and the potential for it to evolve into more aggravated forms of abuse.

To combat this lack of knowledge and shed some light on the serious consequences of gender-based violence, the Jordanian National Commission for Women (JNCW) released a study on sexual harassment while hosting an event for the 2018 “16 Days of Activism” campaign. The annual campaign, which runs from November 25 to December 10, calls for the elimination of gender-based violence. The event slogan, “Speak Up . . . Harassment is a Crime,” highlighted the gravity and significance of sexual violence in Jordan, a country where most victims and perpetrators do not realize that the law penalizes sexual harassment.

In its study, the JNCW recommended that the Jordanian government clearly define the term “sexual harassment” in the Jordanian Penal Code and include an explicit definition within all levels of the education system to allow more Jordanians to understand what sexual harassment is, what resources exist to help victims, and what the penalties are for perpetrating sexual violence.

The JNCW study included a sample of 1,366 Jordanians, 322 of whom were perpetrators. The study showed that around 76 percent of participants had been exposed to some form of harassment. Of those who had been impacted, approximately 70 percent had experienced physical harassment, while nearly 81 percent had been harassed online and 89 percent experienced harassment in the form of intimations on the street.

The study also revealed that “88 percent of victims and 84 percent of perpetrators know what harassment means, but only 70 percent of victims and 68 percent of perpetrators know that the law penalizes sexual harassment.” These statistics show that the existing anti-sexual harassment law is too timid and not visible enough. The organization recommends that the government make a clearer and more effective commitment to ending sexual harassment, possibly in the form of a public campaign, to educate the Jordanian public and, especially, the victims of sexual harassment.  

Tackling Gender-Based Violence in Jordan Using Self-Defense

However, even though the Jordanian government did make an important step towards ending gender-based violence in 2017 when it abolished Article 308 (a law that allowed rapists to marry their victims in order to avoid a prison sentence), the bigger problem of societal perceptions and beliefs remains.

It is, in fact, the ability, or perhaps the willingness, of Jordanian society to follow and enforce the laws in question. For even when victims of sexual harassment choose to report their mistreatment, they often face countless barriers in their pursuit of justice. According to the JNCW, the rate of reporting of sexual harassment varies from just two to five per week.

Choosing a hands-on approach

In the U.S., self-defense workshops became popular during the women’s rights movement in the early 20th century. When American women’s presence and visibility began to increase in the public space, so did instances of sexual assault. In order to protect themselves, women began to take boxing lessons. Workshops of this nature continued to grow in popularity in the 1960s and 1990s, following the second and third-wave feminist movements.

Some Jordanian women have taken similar steps towards protecting themselves against sexual assault by learning self-defense. Instead of waiting for the government to change the country’s laws, for social attitudes to change, or for others to stand up for them, women in Jordan are increasingly trying to learn how to stand up for themselves.

Since its establishment in 2012, SheFighter, the first self-defense studio in Jordan and the Middle East, has been teaching women how to protect themselves in situations of harassment and assault.

Its founder, Lina Khalifeh, has more than 17 years of experience in martial arts and a black belt in taekwondo. She began teaching Jordanian women martial arts in her parents’ basement after one of her university friends was beaten by her relatives. When Khalifeh told her friend that they had to do something about it, her friend refused. In spite of that, Khalifeh felt the need to help women.

“It was so hard at the beginning because women were not exposed in Jordan to a lot of martial arts or self-defense.”

When speaking with Inside Arabia about her experience founding SheFighter, Khalifeh said, “It was so hard at the beginning because women were not exposed in Jordan to a lot of martial arts or self-defense.” But she refused to give up, and to date has trained 18,000 women globally, the majority of them in Jordan, including Syrian refugees.

SheFighter has also led workshops for women with disabilities, and participants in wheelchairs have learned how to use their upper body strength to defend themselves. Women with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to abuse by their caretakers.

During a TedxPrague event, Khalifeh described an example of how her workshops have helped women to protect themselves from abusers. A Jordanian woman was able to defend herself from a rapist in the elevator of her own apartment building. The culprit tried to force himself on her and while she didn’t know how to react at first, she began to make so much noise that the man ran out of the elevator. Instead of letting him go, she chased him out of the building and, with the help of bystanders, caught him and punched him until he begged her to stop. The woman was able to press charges and the man is now serving a three-year sentence for sexual harassment.

In another case, a Spanish woman in Jordan was able to fend off a harasser simply by taking a fighting stance before he even laid a hand on her. The man had been following her for a while and as he was about to touch her shoulder, she scared him away by showing that she was prepared to fight if necessary. Her ability to show that she was not afraid stopped the man from getting any closer.

Khalifeh recalled yet another story about a Jordanian woman who had been assaulted in a taxi in the past and had been avoiding taxis until she took the self-defense course. After Khalifeh’s workshops, she was able to use taxis again because she was no longer afraid to tell men who tried to harass her that she was capable of defending herself if they did not leave her alone.

These are just some examples of how teaching women self-defense can help reduce instances of sexual harassment, not just in Jordan, but throughout the region. Not only do these courses support women to be physically strong and capable of protecting themselves, when no one else can help them, but they also make them feel empowered and self-assured.

When asked about the role of men in the movement to end gender-based violence, Khalifeh preferred to focus on the positive impact that self-defense courses have on women and the actions women can take to protect themselves. She told Inside Arabia, “If you try to talk to men to stop violence, they will never stop violence. If you look at developed countries, they still suffer the same problem. They tried with education.”

Tackling Gender-Based Violence in Jordan Using Self-Defense

Although education is a valuable tool to teach men and women about sexual harassment, it alone does not have the same power as teaching women self-defense.  

Khalifeh believes that “women need to support each other as men do.” Men already live in a world where they support other men, whereas women need to learn how to depend on each other rather than on men. However, this presents many challenges.

According to Khalifeh, “women do not stand up for their rights. They’re really satisfied with what’s going on. And it’s a big challenge for people like us, trying to lift women up.” If women themselves are not acknowledging the problem of sexual violence and being proactive in ending it, society as a whole will not change its perception of sexual harassment.

Fortunately, SheFighter has had success in fighting the insidious culture of sexual harassment throughout the Middle East, and Khalifeh’s activism has been recognized internationally: In 2015, she was praised by former U.S. President Barack Obama during the Global Entrepreneurship Forum, and in 2018, she received the Economic Empowerment Award by Vital Voices. The success of the movement to teach women self-defense has led to the expansion of SheFighter workshops outside of Jordan.

At the moment, there are about 500 certified trainers across Europe, Jordan, South Korea, and Mauritius. Khalifeh hopes to expand the program to the U.S. in the future. She is hopeful for its future success since “it’s not just [her] working to solve a problem. Now it’s a whole movement.” With the support of trainers across the world, women can learn to protect themselves.

The self-defense movement has existed in other parts of the world for decades, but SheFighter is now giving Jordanian women, and women throughout the region, the ability to protect themselves from sexual harassment in a world that is still far from providing a society free of violence towards women.