Forget Pepper Spray: Indian Women Use Martial Arts to Protect Themselves

According to a 2006 National Crime Records Bureau report, 18 women become victims of crime every hour in India. The number of women raped every day has risen to 53 -- a nearly 700 percent increase since 1971. India ranked fifth out of 84 countries studied by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in 2006, with 19,000 reported rapes per year. Even though this is far behind the United States, which stands at the top of the ladder with 95,000 reported rapes each year, we ought to treat every single case of rape as inhuman and saddening.


Some women’s groups in India say that fewer than 2 percent of women who have been sexually assaulted in India actually come forward to report the crime, largely because this could undermine a woman’s chances at marriage. These groups also assert that the conservative attitudes of Indian families and the public harassment the victim is put through during questioning in court to prove that she was raped often leads to further social ostracism. Many Indian women would rather suffer in silence than appeal for justice and see the culprit convicted.

Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) is an organization working for the improvement of laws related to violence against women. Lawyer and coordinator of HRLN’s Kolkata branch, Debashis Banerjee, says of the reluctance of victims to report this violence, “Although a majority of women experience some sort of sexual harassment in public places or at work, only a few speak up. Loss of job, social stigma and lack of family support are the main reasons why women remain mum. A lack of sexual harassment committees in the workplace make matters worse for working women who want to take up such matters but have no place to report sexual harassment. Now as more women have begun to step out for work, the situation is all the more grim.”

This cruel reality has spurred Indian women on: after all these years of subjection to social hierarchy, some women are finally stoking the fire within them and taking up self-defense training. Martial arts schools now teach women various techniques and strategies to combat sexual harassment. Yet while this personal decision to defend oneself would be considered an individual choice in many parts of the world, for Indian women it did not come easily.

Tired of facing regular harassment, Mrs. Swati Jhanwar decided to begin training in martial arts. Now a 2nd Degree Dan black belt in Karate and an instructor at a renowned Karate Do training center in Kolkata, she initially had a tough time convincing family members.

“When I decided to join Karate classes six years back, I found it difficult to convince my family about my purpose. They were skeptical and believed that martial arts were not for girls as it makes them lose their femininity. They’d rather lock girls indoors than allow them to learn how to tackle harassment in public places. It took lots of persuading for them to agree.”

Working women in urban metros like Kolkata and Mumbai are citing sexual assault as the main reason behind their decision to enroll at martial arts schools. Even teenage girls are becoming inspired to take up training in preparation for the expected tough times ahead.

Working women expose themselves to the most crimes against women happening in the country. Recent incidents like television journalist Saumaya Vishwanathan’s murder in south Delhi while she was returning from office after a night shift in October this year only reinforce the dangers women face.

Ours is a society where women are held responsible for every single crime committed against them and victimization, in terms of sexual harassment, is no exception. Women have grown up believing that it is their own fault when they are abused, be it through different forms of domestic violence or rape. When a woman is beaten by her husband if there is extra salt in the food, she imagines it to be her fault -- the same goes for incidences like Eve Teasing (sexual harassment) and molestation. Here, her liberal affluence is pointed out as the reason for her harassment. Being at the wrong place at the wrong time is another excuse offered against her. Another skewed justification is that she invites male attention by dressing provocatively. Notions like these are driven into a girl’s head right from the day she steps out of the house. When a woman complains, people scandalize her character instead of prosecuting the culprit, and so women simply accept the ugly situation.

Unfortunately, women have come to believe that there was no way around this reality. They have accepted this violence as “just another debt” for their decision to follow the unconventional path by stepping into the male domain -- the job market.

However some martial arts organizations have recognized this tragedy and have created special programs. They not only train women in self-defense, but also help spread awareness about the different forms of sexual harassment that women seldom seem to recognize.

When men deliberately brush against women in crowded buses and trains, most women don’t object. They are too scared, as men are considered more powerful than women, and they lack self-confidence in their own abilities to defend their self-respect and dignity. Martial arts training has a solution for this psychological block too.

“It’s not the physique that matters, but the confidence that makes all the difference,” says Shihan Premjit Sen, President of Karate Do Association of Bengal and Indian Sports Kick Boxing Association. He has been working over a decade through his training center in Kolkata to ensure that women empower themselves - not only to fight Eve Teasing and molestation, but to also regain her self-respect and confidence. He says, “Even a petite woman can overhaul a strong oppressor if the right technique is applied. The actual strength lies in the head. Psychology plays a very important part in a decisive situation and with simple techniques like punching in the nose or poking the eyes, a woman can release herself from her oppressor.”

In India, where we are yet to enact a stringent law guarding against sexual harassment at the workplace and in public transport, self-defense programs like these seem the only viable option left. Sexual attacks occur mostly on public transport like buses, trains and auto rickshaws where men pray on women from close proximity. Martial arts techniques of close combat like elbow jabs and chin punches are proving very effective in getting the offender to lay off. A temple punch is enough to knock a man unconscious. Here, women are taught to deliver kicks and punches with force and precision when it is most needed.

Dr. Komal V.S., Deputy Director for the Unarmed Commando Combat Academy (UCCA) in Mumbai says that the UCCA civil chapter specializes in training women in self-defense crash courses through various forms of martial arts.

“The prime concern of working women in Mumbai is their safety during commuting. Incidents of Eve Teasing, molestation and rape are rampant on local trains and buses - which is why a lot of women who return late at night are coming to us to learn self-defense,” says Dr Komal.

Shocking incidents like the rape and murder of two BPO employees in 2007 and 2005, both allegedly by the drivers of their pick up vehicles, remind us that women are still vulnerable, no matter how liberated they are. Fortunately corporate houses have awoken to the difficulties their female employees are experiencing and have begun to hold martial arts workshops for their benefit.

“Since working women do not get the time to take a full course in self-defense, we give them some easy tips that they can implement if in a dangerous situation. Women must be aware of what is happening around them. Men who approach women don’t expect them to retaliate. A sudden sharp jab or a punch can surprise the attacker and allow her sufficient time to escape,” says Shihan Premjit Sen who also regularly conducts workshops with corporate houses in Kolkata.

Women no longer rely on digging their teeth into the offender or throwing red chili powder in their eyes as often depicted in Bollywood Masala flicks. Simply being alert is the best self-defense. Shreeti Prasad, a teenager in Kolkata who is aware what dangers this city holds for girls says, “Practically everyday I got nudged and grabbed until one day I left some goons bleeding in the face thanks to the kicks and punches I have empowered myself with through a course in Karate.” Her face breaks into a satisfied grin as she recalls the lesson she taught those men.

Across India, Karate is empowering women to regain their dignity and take control of their own lives.

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