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NEW YORK - Since the fall, in the months that followed the Paris attacks and the shooting in San Bernardino, the backlash against Muslims in America has been a steady hum — online and offline, on the presidential debate stage and in small towns in Iowa.
The vitriol has taken on many forms, but one target is the most common: women and girls who wear the hijab. In San Diego, a Muslim woman’s hijab was allegedly ripped off before her assailant began yelling racial slurs at her. In the Bronx, a sixth grader was attacked by classmates, who tore at her hijab during recess. And in Brooklyn, another Muslim woman accused a United States Postal Service worker of spitting on her and yelling derogatory words in her direction.
For the young Muslim women in America, like Amirah Aulaqi and Mariana Aguilera, every day has brought the possibility of an attack, physical or verbal. Aguilera recalled a recent confrontation in one of the most innocuous places: her neighborhood grocery store.
“I had these two males come up to me and … call me a terrorist in front of my face, out loud in front of people,” she said.
Aulaqi says things like this and everyday “small remarks under people’s breaths” began to affect their lives.
“We started to feel a little bit paranoid about going into crowded places, the subway platforms and things like that,” she told America Tonight. “We just felt like you know, a little bit more paranoid than normally what we would feel. And um, we thought okay ... we can't live like this.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) told America Tonight that in the days immediately following the November 13th assaults in France, there were at least 25 incidents of Islamophobia across the United States. The Huffington Post has reported 28 “anti-Muslim acts” in January of this year alone.
Instead of hiding, Aguilera and Aulaqi are reaching out to other Muslim women. The goal: to protect themselves against what they see as an increased possibility of attack.
They’ve started a monthly self-defense class in Manhattan’s City Wing Tsun studio, where attendees can learn the basics of self-defense. Their art? Wing Tsun, which focuses on survival. Eye gouges, throat jabs and palm strikes to the head — all outlawed in MMA and boxing — are perfectly legal in this arena. The goal is to make it home alive.
The first class, which took place in mid-December, drew 30 women: Old, young, converts and lifelong Muslims alike. One attendee brought her 12-year-old daughter. While the class does not exclude non-Muslims, Aulaqi and Aguilera do want those who come to know that at least one basic Muslim guideline will apply: No men can attend.
The self-defense class began as an attempt to prevent attacks, rather than react to them. But it’s also about fighting misperceptions, which both Aulaqi and Aguilera say are built into the prevailing narrative of Muslim women. They’re seen as weak, they say; victims.
Aguilera has first-hand experience with these misconceptions. She used to have them herself, until she converted to Islam a decade ago.
“I looked at [Muslim women] as weak,” she says, “I looked at them kind of like, you know, people in this country are looking at me right now.”
She says the class is a way for her to dispel those ideas and show people that the Muslim woman is strong both in mind and body.
To that end, the class has become a way for Muslim women to bond, all feeling the pressure to abandon parts of their religion in a country where religious civil liberties are guaranteed by the Constitution.
Here, women tell stories and share experiences, puddles of sweat forming on the floor.
“We want to create a pow-wow moment before and after the class where we share each other’s stories,” Aguilera told us. “It’s another way to channel our strength.”
Aulaqi and Aguilera understand that it is the hijab – as a symbol of Islam – that brought them here, to this sweaty gym, surrounded by punching bags and imaginary assailants. They don’t care. They’d rather take on would-be attackers than take it off.
Aguilera says if there's one thing she wants fellow Muslim women to know, it's this: “You’re strong. [Know] how to use [that strength].”