“It’s badass as hell”: Building an empowered community of women through Krav Maga

“It’s badass as hell”: Building an empowered community of women through Krav Maga

A slim dirt path leads up to The Crag’s Centre, a large, beige, brick building with a sloped metal roof. The building is ordinary, as is the neighbourhood, with a typical suburban feel that could be anywhere.  There is no aesthetic connection to the recognizable architecture that Edinburgh is known for. Just to the right of the front door, however, is a stunning expanse of greenery accented by patches of yellow and blue flowers and a grassy hill climbing to the foot of a ridge of steep cliffs that shares the community centre’s name.

Pressing the buzzer on the side of the brown brick building, a man in a bright red sweater with greying hair walks to the door and pushes the buttons on the keypad unlocking the doors to the community centre. A set of white doors reveal an open and airy room with light shining in from the two massive windows that brighten up the entire space, and leave boxes of light on the pale linoleum floor boards. This small space is where Linn Haraldsvik, the head instructor and director of Rencounter Krav Maga since 2015, runs the women’s only self-defence class in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The space gives off a bright, peaceful and positive atmosphere that is made even brighter by the smiling faces entering the room greeting each other one by one as they place their bags and shoes on the ground. Once everyone has arrived for the day, they work as a team to set up the class: all grabbing mats from the stack piled at the back of the room to place on the floor, connecting them in a checkered pattern of red and blue squares.

Once the class begins, the women form a circle in the middle of the floor, one by one introducing themselves and sharing a word that represents their feelings towards Krav Maga, “strength,” “confidence,” “power,” before jumping into the first activity.

Krav Maga is a hand-to-hand combat discipline practiced all around the world, initially developed by the Israeli Defence Forces for military personnel. According to the article “History of Singularity of Krav-Maga,” over the last few decades the craft has gained much more attention from the general public for self-defence purposes.  According to the Rencounter Krav Maga website, Krav Maga differentiates itself from other martial arts as it is primarily a self-defence system and the skills and techniques taught to participants within the discipline are based on an individual’s capabilities and natural reactions to simulations that mimic realistic violent or dangerous situations. The craft uses “strong and simple strikes using hands, feet, knees and elbows, nails and teeth and also bags, backpacks, heels, and whatever else you might carry with you as additional weapons or shields”.

Linn first started the women’s program at Rencounter Krav Maga in an attempt to bring more women into the sport by providing a comfortable place to train. “Krav Maga was very male dominated in the beginning and I wanted to change that. I know that some women find it difficult to get started when there is maybe two women and a bunch of big sweaty dudes so I wanted to create an environment that felt safe enough to take that first step”.

Linn says that she has found that women’s only classes provide a space for women to talk about their questions and share personal experiences that would not be fully understood in a mixed class. “We have a lot of discussions that I think are as important or even more important than the physical skills that we practice”. 

According to the Scottish government, 81% of domestic abuse cases committed in 2021-22 had a female victim and a male suspected perpetrator. In regards to the percentage of sexual assault against women, Public Health Scotland states that “20 per cent of women and 4 per cent of men have experienced sexual assault as adults between the age of 16 and 59”.

Laura, originally from Spain, grew up in an abusive home where she was made to feel uncomfortable and unsafe at all times. “I have been feeling all my life that I was made to be scared or feel I wasn’t enough, wasn’t strong enough to say no”.

Looking back at her first class at Rencounter Krav Maga, Laura recalls feeling immediately safe and accepted by the other women within the class. “The first day was great, I was feeling like I could be understood. I didn’t need to say anything but we were all friends without really knowing anyone”. She said she felt instantly relaxed and safe to enjoy herself within this environment centred around violence.

Three participants work as a group on a reaction drill where one individual jumps forward and the other two must bring their knees up to defend themselves, on May 24th, 2023 at the Crag’s Centre in Edinburgh, Scotland.

After spending the last two months consistently taking the women’s class, she says she feels more confident in her everyday life. “I think my reaction used to be to cover myself or to be scared…now I think I can defend myself…I can have my head up and not be scared”.

The prevalence of violence against women all around the world is a main societal factor inspiring fear within the female population and is relevant to the formation of female only self-defence classes but it is not the only factor bringing women into Rencounter.

The tight-knit group of women attending these classes all come from different backgrounds with a wide range of life experiences and therefore have all come to the course with different goals: to gain physical strength, find inner confidence or learn to protect themselves.

Emma began attending classes at Rencounter Krav Maga in September of 2022 after scouring the internet for self-defence programs that would fit into her busy schedule.

Joining a martial arts program had been a goal of hers for years but she said she never felt confident enough to put herself out there until after the COVID-19 lockdowns ended and she was invigorated with a new determination to find a class. “I decided it was just time to do something. I’ve always been really shy and not confident about doing things and joining groups…but I was like screw it let’s just do it and I went to a Kung Fu class which was really fun and so hard and also not really what I was looking for”.

Emma said that since she was a teenager, she has always been drawn to Krav Maga so finding this class was very special. “It’s not fancy, it’s realistic. It’s not a sport, it’s not done for competitions. It’s done for protecting yourself and it’s badass as hell,” she says.

The slapping of skin against the large rectangular polyurethane strike shields rings through the room as participants hold them tightly against their bodies while their partners thrust knees through the air connecting with the padded surface. The floor quietly creaks as feet sink into the colourful floor mats as women shuffle from one space to the next resetting and reacting to the pad holder’s movements with a quick hit before racing towards the studio door.

The activity is a drill Linn uses when teaching the women’s class to show that it can at times be impactful and safer to use their training to create distance and to be cognizant of one’s own surroundings at all times, providing them with the ability to remove themselves from a dangerous situation.

Krav Maga is based on realistic self-defence scenarios meaning that the main goal is to defend oneself in any way possible, so understanding how to leave a dangerous situation as quickly as possible is a necessary tool.

Emma says she feels much more empowered since joining the gym, in both her physical ability to protect herself and to recognize dangerous situations as well as her general confidence and self-esteem which has been heavily affected by the gym’s community.

“You feel looked after here. Everyone comes in with the ‘we’re here to look after each other’ kind of mentality. It’s supportive and it’s a safe space… we’re coming from a place of understanding what it’s like to be scared whereas guys will never really understand, or not in the same way”.

Nicole grew up in the countryside without the dangers and worries of one living in a highly populated city. Now a sociology undergraduate in Edinburgh, she is plagued by the fear of being alone, especially at night.

“It’s not really the risk of it [being assaulted] happening to me it’s more the fear that I feel, the anxiety that I feel”. Her anxiety plays a major role in the way she lives her daily life, controlling her interactions and activities, pushing her into partial isolation in an attempt to outrun the dark.

“I have to plan things differently around it [the night], I try not to go anywhere where I’m going to be there until after it’s dark which can get hard in the middle of winter when it gets dark at like 3-4 o’clock. I’m planning my day around being back at my house at 3-4 o’clock which is incredibly impractical and not very fun”.

Nicole says she thinks it’s sad that she has this internalized fear of being alone at night and that this fear has been normalized. Nicole took her first class at Rencounter on May 24th, 2023 to feel more confident and to prove to herself that she can be her own protector. “You can’t change the environment, you can’t change the world around you, but you can change yourself and the way that you can handle situations”.

As she closes her eyes there is a moment of silence between movements, a stillness in the air filled with the loud breaths of students anxiously and impatiently waiting for an attack to come. She stands in place with her right leg shifted back into a defensive pose while listening for movement all around her, wondering where and how she will have to defend herself before a sudden attack occurs from the left side as her partner taps her on the arm with the strike pad giving her a second to react. She opens her eyes, and instinctually brings up her right leg, thrusting her foot into the pad before regaining her balance, closing her eyes and resetting for another attack as she embraces and conquers the darkness.

Nicole felt this activity was an effective way to practice real life situations because you can never know how an attack will occur. “You don’t know where someone’s going be, you don’t know what angle they’re going to come at you from and just having to do that quick thinking of like what is going to be most effective in this situation, I feel like that was really good”.

After spending a single class with the women’s program, Nicole said she felt like she was immediately accepted into the tight-knit community the course has created. “It’s really nice that it’s a group of women, it changes the dynamic slightly and it just felt like a safe space for everyone”. This deep-seated understanding provided her with the comfortability to open up and after only one class she said she felt more confident in herself and her abilities.

Rencounter Krav Maga’s women’s program is not designed to produce expert fighters but rather to inspire confidence in those who walk through the gym’s doors providing participants with the tools and support to believe in themselves.

Linn has spent nearly her entire life in a martial arts gym. She began with Taekwondo at the young age of eight as it was the only discipline available in her hometown. Once she went to university, Linn expanded to Judo, Karate and various forms of martial arts but still felt that she had not found something that fit her desires. “I was looking for something that was more practical. So, in Taekwondo there was a lot of contests, a lot of things that looked pretty but it didn’t feel like I was more able to defend myself”.

Years later, when training as a member of the armed forces and army reserves in Norway, Linn had her first experience practicing Krav Maga from an expert brought in to teach troops hand-to-hand combat. “What I liked about it compared to the other martial arts that I’d done or studied was it immediately felt more practical. It felt like this was making a substantial and very quick impact on my ability to defend myself”. Shortly after in 2011, Linn moved to Edinburgh and found a Krav Maga group to join.

Since then, she has continued her training and is currently the only woman in the UK to have achieved the expert level rank with Krav Maga Global, an internationally active Krav Maga organization.

The element of trust and open communication within the club is an important factor Linn focuses on in the women’s course, striving to provide a safe space for the students and whatever form of support they need even if that’s asking to be punched in the face.

Two students pair up to work on a reaction drill, on May 24, 2023 at the Crag’s Centre in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Maisarah has been attending the women’s class at Rencounter for the last two years and has built up quite a rapport with the staff and students at the gym. About six months after initially joining the club, she decided she was comfortable enough to participate in the mixed class held by the gym.

During the class she was partnered with a tall, burly man who towered over her as they worked on a punching activity where one partner would try to punch while the other dodged or blocked. After a few minutes, the man hit Maisarah in the side of the head and she had this sudden realization that she had never been hit in the face before and she had no idea how it was supposed to feel in a controlled environment.

This realization made her feel nervous, stressed and uncomfortable about approaching this unknown experience with someone she didn’t know or trust so later that week, after a women’s only training session, she approached Linn and simply asked her to punch her in the face.

After the initial surprise diminished, Linn grabbed her gloves, asked Maisarah to put her hands up in front of her face in a defensive pose and began to hit her in the side of the head starting very lightly and gradually building up pressure with each hit.

Maisarah said that she felt safe throughout the entirety of the exercise because she was given the attention to ensure she was comfortable, and that she had some control over the situation and was not just getting punched.

The level of open communication and focus on personal boundaries between women that Linn has established within the gym is a significant factor in why Rencounter has become such a safe and inviting community. “There’s a group of people here saying that this behavior [violence against women] is not okay…I think a lot of the time, we might think that ‘maybe it’s just me, maybe I’m making too much of a fuss’ while at the same time we feel strongly that this isn’t okay. So, I think having that community, that makes a big difference” Linn said.

The safe space that is Rencounter Krav Maga’s women’s course has created a powerful and empowered community of strong and confident women, giving them the opportunity to be themselves and be heard.

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