So my story starts on July 4, 1992, the day my mother followed her college sweetheart to New York City from Egypt. As fireworks exploded behind the skyline, my father looked at my mother jokingly and said, "Look, habibti, Americans are celebrating your arrival."
Unfortunately, it didn't feel much like a celebration when, growing up, my mother and I would wander past Queens into New York City streets, and my mother with her hijab and long flowy dresses would tighten her hand around my small fingers as she stood up against weathered comments like, "Go back to where you came from," "Learn English," "Stupid immigrant." These words were meant to make us feel unsafe, insecure in our own neighborhoods, in our own skin.
But it was these same streets that made me fall in love with New York. Queens is one of the most diverse places in the world, with immigrant parents holding stories that always start with something between three and 15 dollars in a pocket, a voyage across a vast sea and a cash-only hustle sheltering families in jam-packed, busted apartments. And it was these same families that worked so hard to make sure that we had safe microcommunities—we, as immigrant children, to feel affirmed and loved in our identities.
But it was mostly the women. And these women are the reason why, regardless of these statements that my mom faced, she remained unapologetic. And these women were some of the most powerful women I have ever met in my entire life. I mean, they had networks for everything. They had rotations for who watched whose kids when, for saving extra cash, for throwing belly dance parties and memorizing Koran and learning English. And they would collect small gold tokens to fundraise for the local mosque. And it was these same women, when I decided to wear my hijab, who supported me through it. And when I was bullied for being Muslim, I always felt like I had an army of unapologetic North African aunties who had my back.
And so every morning at 15, I would wake up and stand in front of a mirror, and wrap beautiful bright silk around my head the way my mother does and my grandmother did. And one day that summer 2009, I stepped out into the streets of New York City on my way to volunteer at a domestic violence organization that a woman in my neighborhood had started. And I remember at that moment I felt a yank at the back of my head. Then someone pulled and grabbed me, trying to remove my hijab from off of my head. I turned around to a tall, broad-shouldered man, pure hate in his eyes. I struggled and fought back, and finally was able to get away, hid myself in the bathroom of that organization and cried and cried. I kept thinking to myself, "Why does he hate me? He doesn't even know me."
Hate crimes against Muslims in the US increased by 1,600 percent post-9/11, and one in every four women in the US will suffer some form of gender violence. And it may not seem like it, but Islamophobia and anti-Muslim violence is a form of gender violence, given the visibility of Muslim women in our hijabs. And so I was not alone, and that horrified me. It made me want to do something. It made me want to go out there and make sure that no one I loved, that no woman would have to feel this insecure in her own skin.
So I started to think about how the women in my own neighborhood were able to build community for themselves, and how they were able to use the very little resources they had to actually offer something. And I began to think about what I could potentially offer to build safety and power for women. And through this journey, I learned a couple of things, and this is what I want to share with you today, some of these lessons.
So lesson number one: start with what you know. At the time, I had been doing Shotokan karate for as long as I could remember, and so I had a black belt. Yeah. And so, I thought—surprise.
I thought that maybe I should go out into my neighborhood and teach self-defense to young girls. And so I actually went out and knocked on doors, spoke to community leaders, to parents, to young women, and finally was able to secure a free community center basement and convince enough young women that they should come to my class. And it actually all worked out, because when I pitched the idea, most of the responses were, like, "All right, cute, this 5'1" hijabi girl who knows karate. How nice." But in reality, I became the Queens, New York version of Mr. Miyagi at 16 years old, and I started teaching 13 young women in that community center basement self-defense. And with every single self-defense move, for eight sessions over the course of that summer, we began to understand the power of our bodies, and we began to share our experiences about our identities. And sometimes there were shocking realizations, and other times there were tears, but mostly it was laughs. And I ended that summer with this incredible sisterhood, and I began to feel much safer in my own skin. And it was because of these women that we just kept teaching. I never thought that I would continue, but we just kept teaching. And today, nine years, 17 cities, 12 countries, 760 courses and thousands of women and girls later, I'm still teaching. And what started as a self-defense course in the basement of a community center is now an international grassroots organization focused on building safety and power for women around the world: Malikah.
Now, for lesson number two: start with who you know. Oftentimes, it could be quite exciting, especially if you're an expert in something and you want to have impact, to swoop into a community and think you have the magic recipe. But very early on I learned that, as esteemed philosopher Kendrick Lamar once said, it's really important to be humble and to sit down.
So, basically, at 15 years old, the only community that I had any business doing work with were the 14-year-old girls in my neighborhood, and that's because I was friends with them. Other than that, I didn't know what it meant to be a child of Bengali immigrants in Brooklyn or to be Senegalese in the Bronx. But I did know young women who were connected to those communities, and it was quite remarkable how they already had these layers of trust and awareness and relationship with their communities. So like my mother and the women in her neighborhood, they had these really strong social networks, and it was about providing capacity and believing in other women's definition of safety. Even though I was a self-defense instructor, I couldn't come into a community and define safety for any other woman who was not part of my own community.
And it was because, as our network expanded, I learned that self-defense is not just physical. It's actually really emotional work. I mean, we would do a 60-minute self-defense class, and then we'd have 30 minutes reserved for just talking and healing. And in those 30 minutes, women would share what brought them to the class to begin with but also various other experiences with violence. And, as an example, one time in one of those classes, one woman actually started to talk about the fact that she had been in a domestic violence relationship for over 30 years, and it was her first time being able to articulate that because we had established that safe space for her. So it's powerful work, but it only happens when we believe in women's agency to define what safety and what power looks like for themselves.
All right, for lesson number three—and this was the hardest thing for me—the most important thing about this work is to start with the joy. When I started doing this work, I was reacting to a hate-based attack, so I was feeling insecure and anxious and overwhelmed. I was really afraid. And it makes sense, because if you take a step back, and I can imagine that a lot of women in this room can probably relate to this, the feeling, an overwhelming feeling of insecurity, is oftentimes with us constantly. I mean, imagine this: walking home late at night, hearing footsteps behind you. You wonder if you should walk faster or if you should slow down. You keep your keys in your hand in case you need to use them. You say, "Text me when you get home. I want to make sure you are safe." And we mean those words. We're afraid to put down our drinks. We're afraid to speak too much or too little in a meeting. And imagine being woman and black and trans and queer and Latinx and undocumented and poor and immigrant, and you could then only imagine how overwhelming this work can be, especially within the context of personal safety.
However, when I took a step to reflect on what brought me to this work to begin with, I began to realize it was actually the love that I had for women in my community. It was the way I saw them gather, their ability to build for each other, that inspired me to keep doing this work day in and day out.
So whether I was in a refugee camp in Jordan or a community center in Dallas, Texas or a corporate office in Silicon Valley, women gathered in beautifully magical ways and they built together and supported each other in ways that shifted culture to empower and build safety for women.
And that is how the change happens. It was through those relationships we built together. That's why we don't just teach self-defense, but we also throw dance parties and host potlucks and write love notes to each other and sing songs together. And it's really about the friendship, and it's been so, so fun.
So the last thing I want to leave you with is that the key takeaway for me in teaching self-defense all of these years is that I actually don't want women, as cool as the self-defense moves are, to go out and use these self-defense techniques. I don't want any woman to have to de-escalate any violent situation. But for that to happen, the violence shouldn't happen, and for the violence not to happen, the systems and the cultures that allow for this violence to take place to begin with needs to stop. And for that to happen, we need all hands on deck.
So I've given you my secret recipe, and now it's up to you. To start with what you know, to start with who you know and to start with joy. But just start.
Thank you so much.