Fighting spirit

In a country where abuse from men goes unpunished, she teaches women to fight back

When she was a kid, Lina Khalifeh was beat up by the boys in her neighborhood. Rather than be defeated, she developed the skills to defend herself. Now she’s paying them forward.

Lina Khalifeh, Founder of SheFighter Self-Defense School, demonstrates how to fight at the Women In The World Summit on April 11, 2019.

Lina Khalifeh wants women to fight back.

She means that literally. At the 10th annual Women in the World summit, the Jordanian taekwondo powerhouse, who founded the first self-defense studio for women in the Middle East, had the audience out of their seats, kicking and throwing jabs.

But the charismatic Khalifeh’s early memories weren’t so buoyant. Viewed as “different” by kids in her neighborhood — “because I didn’t want to go inside and play with dolls,” she explained — she was targeted by boys who beat her up and dismissed by girls who ostracized her. Making matters worse, Khalifeh’s father dubbed her a “troublemaker” because she stood up to the guys who tried to pummel her.

“Women are called troublemakers and men are persistent,” Khalifeh told the audience.

She started training at a cousin’s martial arts studio at the age of five, but it wasn’t until college that she felt compelled to do something about violence against women in Jordan. When a friend turned up at her home “bloodied and bruised” after being physically assaulted by her father and brother, Khalifeh was shocked to hear her friend accept it, saying, “Women are weak, we cannot do anything. Let’s just face it.”

Khalifeh refused to yield. “I was like, ‘We can do something. We can stand strong and not accept injustice.’” She looked to her own life — martial arts had taught her to be confident. So, in 2012, she founded SheFighter Self-Defense School. Her mission: To teach women in Jordan how to protect themselves against domestic violence and sexual assault.

In just seven years, Khalifeh said, she’s trained 15,000 women — including British actress Emma Watson — and opened a studio in Hong Kong. She’s looking into options for a school in the United Arab Emirates. Ultimately, her goal is to open thousands of studios worldwide. She announced at the summit that she will bring SheFighter to the United States in November as part of a global tour.

Lina Khalifeh and Alyse Nelson, President and CEO of Vital Voices Global Partnership at the 2019 Women In The World Summit.

Khalifeh has fans in high places. She was honored by President Barack Obama in 2015 during the White House’s Emerging Global Entrepreneurship event, and Hillary Clinton presented her with a Vital Voices Economic Empowerment Leadership award in 2018.

Khalifeh, who is openly gay, said she still gets threats — and occasionally faces legal action — from men. “It’s annoying having threats from men all the time,” she said with a laugh. But she has also seen change. Men stop her in the street and ask if their daughters can join SheFighter.

“They tell me, ‘You are my role model, I want to be like you.’ They’ll say, ‘If you’re running for president, I’ll vote for you.’ I’m like, ‘Well, we have a kingdom [in Jordan] I mean, but okay,” she said.

Going forward, Khalifeh wants to continue to think outside the box.

“Actually,” she said, “I just punch the box.”

Additional reporting by Arielle Swedback.

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