One morning, as Rana Abdelhamid was walking through her neighbourhood, an incident took place that would go on to shape her future trajectory. She found herself in a situation that many women globally are all too familiar with, to varying degrees: she was assaulted. A man grabbed her as was walking down the street, and attempted to pry her veil off.
This was not an isolated attack, it was a hate crime.
In that moment, the seed that would grow into MALIKAH — a grassroots organisation fighting against gender and hate-based violence — was planted.
“We shouldn’t live in a world where we need self-defence,” Abdelhamid tells Egyptian Streets. “We should automatically be in a world where we feel safe. And how do we live in a world where we feel safe?”
It is by listening to these marginalised voices, by having strong female representation, and by empowering women.
“The purpose of MALIKAH as a power-building organisation, is raising people’s awareness about their rights; raising women’s awareness about the possibility of a world where there is justice and there is safety and we don’t have to fear for our lives in our homes, walking down the street, and in our communities, which is not the case for so many women around the world.”
How it Began
A few months after the assault, the young Egyptian woman — brought up in a working class neighbourhood in the New York City borough of Queens known as Little Egypt — took matters into her own hand.
Abdelhamid started to host informal gatherings where she would teach the young women in her neighbourhood self-defence techniques. During these meetings, women were given the space to share their experiences and be heard.
What started in the basement of a neighbourhood community centre with thirty women has since grown into an organisation that works towards ending gender-based violence through healing, economic empowerment, and self-defence training.
“If you look at the status of women, and the status of just progressive vision in general [sic],” explains Abdelhamid. “We are becoming more regressed, the reality of gender-based violence, the reality of economic violence, of xenophobia, islamophobia, and classism that is impacting particularly working class people and low-income communities continues to be something that is increasing, not decreasing.”
MALIKAH hinges on four pillars.
The first, which is self-defence, stems from the conviction that every single woman should be free of all forms of physical violence, whether sexual or gender-based. The second pillar is mental health, while the third – economic justice and financial literacy – aims to honour and uplift the working class. Leadership and representation is the fourth cornerstone, and it is one where the organisation advocates for women and their experiences to be heard.
MALIKAH, which caters mainly to North African women, looks at the battle for women’s rights and safety through a nuanced lens that takes into account the intersection of feminism with race, class, and nationality.
Intersectional feminism is one that is conscious of the different kinds of inequalities that may all be at play, at the same time, for different women. This branch of feminism understands that varying aspects of one’s social identity can be prone to multiple forms of discrimination at once.
American law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw — who formulated the basis for intersectional feminism — says “we tend to talk about race inequality as separate from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality or immigrant status. What’s often missing is how some people are subject to all of these, and the experience is not just the sum of its parts.”
A North African in North Africa is not fighting the same battle as a North African woman in the West. Similarly, feminism for western women does not look the same as feminism for women of colour. The incident that propelled Abdelhamid into action was not one purely based on gender, but rather, spoke to a deeper truth.
Following the bombing of the Twin Towers, now known as 9/11, which took place on September 11, 2001, the U.S witnessed a registered increase in hate crimes targeting Arab and Muslim minorities within the country. These attacks, while not necessarily new, differed in intensity and brutality.
“The experience of being the child of working-class immigrants but also seeing the inequity that existed in my community, particularly in a post 9/11 environment where we experience systemic racism, police violence, and discrimination is what brought me into the organising space,” says Abdelhamid of the beginnings of her activism.
The grassroots organisation’s work is focused on – but not limited to – engaging North-African women who are a part of the communities in Queens. MALIKAH works with public schools, community organisations, and religious entities to provide services for these women.
Within these communities, racial and gender-based violence is flagrantly present where women in particular are excluded. The aim of MALIKAH is to give these women control, autonomy, and a voice. It is not merely about self-defence but mental health, representation, and empowerment.
“In a lot of immigrant communities, particularly in the Egyptian community, people don’t talk about mental health” continues Abdelhamid, “I wanted to create this space where, as North-Africans, we were able to talk about our experiences being immigrants, being hyphenated people, being working class people in the west.”
When she had first started MALIKAH, Abdelhamid faced a few obstacles as she had many who did not necessarily see her vision.
“You just imagine being a 5ft 1 (154.9 cm) Muslim woman in a post 9/11 context with a black belt in karate and being like ‘I wanna start a self-defence organisation’ given the stereotyping of Muslims, given the stereotyping of Muslim communities, and particularly Muslim women.”
However, the majority supported her, particularly women and those who could see her vision.
“When women’s voices are at the table, our societies are more safe, just. There’s less violence, less war, less famine. That’s proven through research time and time again. That is what we’re trying to cultivate in our work.”
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