Lina Khalifeh, Founder of SheFighter, Jordan | 2018 Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards Nominee
You founded the first and only self defense studio for women in the Middle East Tell us about childhood..because you come from an area where what you've done is not the norm. How did this happen?
My background is in martial arts. I started taekwondo when I was five years old. It was always my passion to follow martial arts. I was a professional in taekwondo, I won about 20 gold medals, three of them international. I learned kung fu, boxing, and kickboxing, but at that moment I injured my knee really badly. My purpose was to compete at the Olympics, but it never happened because I could not compete after the injury. So then when I met a friend who was abused at the university we attended, I decided to solve the problem and I decided to help women through self defense because I thought that it would help them gain confidence and be more empowered. So I started SheFighter in the basement of my parent's house.
By the age of five you were learning taekwondo? But that's not a normal situation in Jordan in your generation. You were the only person that felt at such a young age, in the country that you come from, to be that person. You're labeled the troublemaker. The nonconformist. I love those labels.
So when I was a little girl, I was always going out in the streets. I played soccer with the boys. I was always outside. I could not stay inside, you know, playing with Barbies all the time and be around girls all the time. It was hard for me, so my parents found it a little bit hard to keep me off the streets. So they enrolled me in a taekwondo school and that's how it started. So one of my second cousins owns a taekwondo school and I started there. Then after that the instructors kept calling my parents saying I need to follow up on different levels because I was the best at it and they kept encouraging my mom to encourage me. So that's how I continued in taekwondo.
"We hire only women and we empower women, we support women..."
So you had the support of your parents - credit them with that - and you started in the basement of their home - credit them with that. But the credit goes to you for that aha moment. What was that turning point where you said, I need to do this for all women?
So when my friend at the university got beaten up by her brother and father and she came to the university with the bruises on her face, I decided that was enough. Someone has to take action. When I asked her to go to court, she said we cannot do anything. We are weak. So what I did, I said, since I have a background in martial arts, I'm going to start teaching women self defense techniques in order for them to protect themselves from different types of violence. So that's how I started. At the beginning I just wanted to help women, but then later on I decided to take it as a business and sustain and grow it.
There's nothing like this in the Middle East.
There was nothing like this in the Middle East. It's the first and only self defense to studio for women. We hire only women and we empower women, we support women, and it is a physical studio, so it's not just courses. There's actually a place that women can enroll in the training every day.
Who are these women? Does this include young girls? Where do they come from and what's their transformation like?
We start with kids. We have from four years old up to eleven years old, so we have kids classes and usually with kids, we have a mix between boys and girls because most of the time if you also involve boys in the training, especially when they're younger, they know that girls can be strong as well and they can learn in an environment where there is also a focus on empowering the girls. So we have a lot of little boys but after eleven, boys are not allowed to enter. So we have from eleven years old up to seventy five years old. They're all women, girls, university students, and school students.
You have students who are 75 years old?
Seventy five years old.
Tell me about those women.
So we have grandmas coming and joining the training. And one of the women told me, I was looking all my life for self defense studio for a woman. And when I found you, I said now I can join. And she was at that time seventy three years old.
So you are transforming the mindset of women in the Middle East with self defense because there's psychologically something that happens when you feel physically strong, right?
So during the training, you gain more confidence in yourself. You feel better, you start making better decisions and you know that you can use these abilities and you have power within you. But all women need someone to let them know that. So during the training, a lot of girls discover that and then they take it to the next level in the training or they do something bigger in their community.
What has it meant to you Lina to know that you're the one who's brought this to your country and other countries?
So I know that I am making changes and I have be a role model for all the kids, little girls as well, and teenagers because they need more female role models. Especially in the Middle East, we don't have a lot, and they need to know that if she can do it, we can do it too. So I want to keep that. I'm going to take full responsibility for it, and I'll keep going forward no matter what obstacles I will face.
What's it like for you to know that you are that role model for that span of ages?
I feel it's my duty on earth to do that. It's my job to impact and inspire other young girls and young boys as well. I'm just taking full responsibility. I know it's something important and I'm not going to be a kid about it. I have to continue doing that because if you fail one day... it's normal to fail, but it's not like you can give up on your dream because people have to know that they can follow their dreams as well.
What's next for Lina Khalifeh?
So next is a franchising SheFighter in different countries. We are already in three countries, and now going in different countries and definitely the United States.
Give me that message that you want any girl, any woman, any grandma to hear from you when they're feeling like they can't go on, or feel defeated.
So, if you feel powerless at some time, don't make (hasty) decisions, give it time, give it a couple of days, one week. Don't make any decisions, and because you don't want to make decisions based on your emotions. But then, make sure you're making the right decisions afterward. But make sure that you have to stand up and keep going. Do not feel that this obstacle will make you powerless at that moment because it's all just moments and experiences. Just keep going in your life. And don't forget to take any martial arts self defense lesson or join the SheFighter classes.
Can you give us some basic techniques of self-defense?
Some weak points, I can talk a little bit about in front of the camera is targeting the eyes, directly targeting the throat. It's important to target the throat when you are in a bad situation. Targeting the ears, the nose, these sensitive areas because you need to get out of the situation and these areas do not involve any muscles and you can also target definitely the groin, but when you hit, you have to make sure that you're actually damaging the person so you can get out of it. I mean, I know that a lot of girls feel that it's hard to do that, but sometimes if you want to escape a situation, a dangerous situation, you have to get out of this situation in any way. So always target these weak points, eyes, nose, throat, ears, and the groin.