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April 11, 2021

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Thai boxing keeps Egypt women safe

Four young Egyptian women, wearing headscarves, leggings and boxing gloves, punch and kick each other, encouraged by their female coach Samah Ahmed — founder of the Monsters Academy.

Ahmed, known to everyone as Coach Samah, started learning Thai kickboxing, or Muay Thai, five years ago after being sexually harassed, and now teaches the martial art to about 40 people, mostly women and girls, at her own training camp.

“Muay Thai turns every part of your body into a weapon: your elbows, your knees, your fists and even your chin,” Ahmed said at her 1-year-old academy in Abu Zaabal, about 30 kilometers northeast of Cairo.

“Girls will not need to hold weapons to defend themselves. They can use their bodies as defense,” she said, adding that she named it Monsters Academy because it takes the courage and the power of a monster to learn Thai boxing.

Debate over sexual harassment is growing in the socially conservative country, where women regularly face offensive comments, stares and groping on crowded public transport, which can deter them from traveling for work or education.

A United Nations’ survey in 2013 found 99 percent of women had experienced sexual harassment in Egypt, where women have long felt disadvantaged.

Ahmed’s parents initially refused to let her train, saying martial arts were only for men.

“I insisted on learning it and even teaching other girls,” she said.

Many young Egyptian women like Ahmed are pushing for change, with hundreds speaking out about sexual assault on social media, echoing the 2017 #MeToo campaign in the United States.

Only 26 percent of women in Egypt, compared to 79 percent of men, participate in the labor force, according to the 2015 Global Gender Gap Index, which ranked the north African country at 136 out of 145 countries for gender equity.

Psychologists say female role models in sport, like Ahmed, are valuable for women and girls because they show success is attainable and counteract negative gender stereotypes of the “weaker sex.”

“I believe that it is a basic right for girls to play any sports they want, and also it is very important for them to be able defend themselves against any assaults,” said Ahmed, who raised money from friends and family to open the academy.

“It is really getting famous, especially in our area.”

Malak Ahmed, 17, has trained with Coach Samah for two years and is one of her teaching assistants.

“It is not safe here and learning a self-defence sport like Muay Thai can help many women protect themselves against sexual harassment or any kind of violence,” she said, adding she now walks the streets more confidently and feels safer. “I can go to my school without worrying about getting sexually harassed.”


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