'Muslim Girls Fence' is a project collaboration between Maslaha and British Fencing which aims to facilitate spaces at a grassroot level for Muslim girls and women to challenge assumptions and narratives relating to their gender, racial, religious and other identities through both physical and creative methods. The girls are coached to learn the traditionally elite and white, male-dominated sport of fencing. Through this, they physically confront the stereotypes of fencers, but also the expectations our society has of them: that Muslim women and girls are weak, subordinated and lacking agency.
Alongside this, they engage in a range of discussions and creative exercises such as collaging, drawing, photography and poetry to reflect on their identities, the ways they are represented, and the limited narratives about their experiences that are usually given a mainstream platform in society.
We are currently running projects in schools and in communities.
WHY MUSLIM GIRLS?
Facilitating safe spaces for Muslim girls and women to express themselves on their own terms – both physically and creatively – is particularly important in the current climate in the UK where Muslim women are disproportionately and systematically excluded, Othered, surveilled and dehumanised.
Mainstream media is littered with tropes of oppressed Muslim women who need saving. Derision and objectification of those who wear hijab or niqab is normalised at the highest level of the state. 58% of reported cases of Islamophobic violence have targeted women. Moral panics about ‘British values’ are always accompanied by a Muslim woman’s face. And not to mention that Muslim women are especially silenced, stigmatised and criminalised in the context of the government’s Prevent duty which requires public service providers to ‘look out for signs of radicalisation’ that disproportionately target Muslim people’s behaviours, dress and traits - leaving them with less space to discuss, debate or express themselves freely.
In such a context where Muslims are institutionally targeted by the government and systematically stigmatised in the media and public space; where Muslim women are disproportionately harmed in Islamophobic attacks whether from politicians or people on the street; where BME women are found to be facing the brunt of austerity; a wider government-led removal of social, therapeutic, mental health and youth services from many communities, and where almost 50% of Muslim families live in the top 10% most deprived local council areas amongst other factors, we believe that Muslim Girls Fence is an urgently needed initiative. It provides a crucially absent arena for women and girls who are politically and socio-economically alienated, excluded and exploited, to express themselves beyond mainstream assumptions about them, and to find a reprieve from the structured violence of society to come together, be included, prioritised and equip themselves with the tools to speak back.
While the project centres Muslim girls and women we always encourage non-Muslim girls and women to also participate as we believe that breaking down harmful misconceptions of what it is to be a Muslim is relevant to people of all backgrounds.
US international fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, has described fencing as ‘uniquely accommodating’ for Muslim women, describing how having participated in sports for many years, the fact that with fencing she could wear the same kit as everyone else meant that for the first time she ‘truly felt like part of the team.’
Fencing is a sport that builds confidence, resilience and self-worth. Ibtihaj Muhammad’s mentor, former Olympic medalist Peter Westbrook, describes the strong potential of fencing as ‘a springboard to go to higher heights,’ in the face of religious or racial discrimination.
Fencing has also been shown to attract people who may not typically be involved in sports. Young women fencers in particular tend to have creative interests that set them aside from their peers. This offers an interesting opportunity to open doors for participation in physical activity to young women who may dislike other sports.
What We Did
Every school that works with the initiative receives ten weeks of weekly fencing sessions alongside immersive and creative Maslaha workshops, exploring identity, self-expression and challenging stereotypes.
The project involves collaborating with exciting artists, from film makers to theatre practitioners, to work with participants to find new and creative ways of expressing themselves and documenting their journey.
Participants have the opportunity to gain leadership qualifications accredited by British Fencing and start their own community or school-based fencing clubs.
Maslaha also supports participants through the Ambassador Scheme, where girls can act as advocates for the project at events and in the media, and build and nurture skills they are interested in — for example, public-speaking, media work, advocacy, mentoring and volunteering.
Muslim Girls Fence runs projects across communities in London, Doncaster, Birmingham and Bradford. These include sessions, open to both Muslim and non-muslim women, based around simple physical exercise through fencing, and in some locations, the chance to combine this with creative workshops, exploring issues such as stereotyping, identity, and community.