‘Defense ninja’: One Muslim woman’s journey to empowerment


Originally published in the Christian Science Monitor. Read it here.

Jovelle Tamayo for Round Earth Media/IWMF

‘Defense ninja’: One Muslim woman’s journey to empowerment

When she faced harassment, Fauzia Lala couldn’t find training that would allow her to protect herself with both actions and words, so she founded her own self-defense school. Now, she helps dozens of other women.

Fauzia Lala was sparring with a teenage member of her tae kwan do class a few years ago when she felt him touch her breast. A provisional black belt, she was well versed in the intricacies of sparring, so when it happened several more times, she knew it was intentional.

Ms. Lala finished the match but didn’t feel as though she could speak up about what had happened. A Muslim who grew up in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, she says she experienced harassment on the job several times when she worked for Microsoft, and had felt too frightened to speak up about it. 

“Here I am a black belt that ended up crying and leaving; that’s just crazy,” says Ms. Lala. 

Over the next few years, she became increasingly aware of attacks against people – especially women – in the Muslim community, including a man who screamed anti-Muslim insults at two teenagers on a train in Portland, Oregon, then stabbed and killed two men who intervened to help.

Unable to find training that would allow her to protect herself and speak up when needed, Ms. Lala developed her own. Today, she is head instructor of Defense Ninjas, a women’s self-defense school based in Washington. Training consists of 12 levels organized around technical moves and defense objectives, such as escapes, attack, and ground defense. The classes help to fill an important need for Muslim women who may feel especially vulnerable in the current political and social climate. 

In just over two years, Ms. Lala’s reach has grown. She started by teaching a handful of students out of a mosque. Now she has 35 to 40 regular students, teaches workshops, and has expanded far beyond the Muslim community. Her classes have become a haven for women from diverse backgrounds to learn self-defense and, in the process, discover that what unites them as women is more important than anything that may divide them. 

“Everybody everywhere needs to know self-defense, and currently it’s only being taught in forms of workshops or kickboxing, and that’s not effective,” says Ms. Lala. 

“We need the whole curriculum. We need the emotional side. We need the therapeutic side, the meditation, the yoga – everything that women need.”

“An empowering experience”

On a recent Tuesday evening, five women gathered at Redmond Community Center, one of several locations where Ms. Lala offers classes. With Flo Rida’s “My House” playing quietly in the background, Ms. Lala, dressed in jeans and a dark headscarf, stood in front of the group and asked a simple question: “Women don’t really want to punch. Why?”

The Defense Ninja curriculum includes lessons in self-protection, seen here during a class at the Redmond Community Center on Nov. 12, 2019, in Redmond, Washington. Head instructor Fauzia Lala’s own experience with harassment led her to start a self-defense school. (Jovelle Tamayo for Round Earth Media/IWMF)

Ms. Lala agreed that a woman’s punch may not be strong enough to help her escape a bad situation. But she went on to explain that since she is likely to be shorter than her attacker, she can more easily target the nose and jaw. Putting a palm under the jaw and pushing up and out, she said, could cause the attacker to pass out. 

“Because we don’t have as much hand strength,” answered student Jamie Brown.  

But self-defense is about much more than the physical side of things – like being able to speak up when necessary. Ms. Lala tries to get students together outside her classes once a month to give them more time to interact. 

On one Saturday afternoon, she and a handful of women sat in a circle on the floor of a studio on Mercer Island to discuss fear. They spent three minutes jotting down things that scared them, and then shared patterns they noticed, including struggles with self-doubt, aging, and their appearance.

When Ms. Lala brought up a fight this past summer at Disneyland that drew widespread attention due to the seeming inaction of security, some questioned whether they could rely on anyone to watch out for them. 

“It always makes me think, ‘What would I do?’” says one of Ms. Lala’s students, Tracy Bumgarner. “If I were in this situation, would I jump in?”

Amelia Neighbors, a Muslim IT project manager, was one of Ms. Lala’s first students. She says the classes quickly started feeling like a club, and that students bonded with each other regardless of their background. Students understand that their peers in class also want to be able to protect themselves, and that they might have had experiences that made them feel vulnerable.

Ms. Neighbors recalled a student who told her class about being physically attacked. “We immediately felt this compassion,” Ms. Neighbors says. “I think all of us have felt in our lives somehow disregarded or treated poorly.”

Learning how to protect oneself and others is “just kind of an empowering experience, and it builds that sense of camaraderie,” she says.

Ms. Lala learned from experience how difficult it can be to speak up. She moved to Seattle when she was 20 to study computer science at Seattle University. When she finished her junior year, she was offered a job at Microsoft. 

On the job, Ms. Lala says co-workers touched her inappropriately and threw things at her when they were angry. She says people told her that since she was in a modern country, she didn’t need to wear a headscarf. One person pulled at it.  

“Looking back, I was just too scared to speak up or say anything,” she says. “That’s how it escalates.”

That’s also part of what drew her to self-defense training.

Confronting harassment head-on

In her classes, she cites studies indicating that it’s very hard to know what you would do in a real situation. While many women say they would kick and scream if attacked, she told one recent class about a Swedish study that showed nearly half of women who were attacked reported experiencing extreme paralysis. 

Which is why she wants her students to know they have innate strength, like leveraging their hips and core, to push away attackers. It’s just about knowing how to use it. 

“It’s also the vocal side of things and the emotional side of things, so when people are saying certain things or doing certain things, I can stand up and say, ‘Don’t be disrespectful,’” she explains. 

Ms. Lala is working to convert Defense Ninjas into a nonprofit, which she hopes will allow her to hire more instructors and establish her own dedicated space for her classes. She also wants to expand throughout Washington state, and perhaps beyond.

Ms. Lala says when women initially start taking her classes, some feel intimidated. But she’s noticed that they quickly start to bond with the other students and develop strong friendships.

“They’re all going through the same thing,” she says, explaining that they want to know how to confront the harassment and abuse so many women face, or simply gain more confidence and control. “They all want something more in life besides whatever they have right now.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the individuals who were harassed in Portland were teenagers.

Proudly sponsored by


Once the envy of the world, U.S. news organizations have closed almost all their foreign bureaus over the last few decades. The result is that Americans know less about the world than previous generations – at just the moment when the world is most connected. Using its unique partnership model, REM is turning the lights back on, bringing vision and depth to lost international coverage.