If, over the course of my life, I’ve been aware of the fact that being a female sometimes feels unsafe, then no more so than in the aftermath of Sarah Everard’s disappearance and murder.
It’s been two months now since Sarah Everard’s death, the 33-year-old marketing executive who went missing after leaving a friend’s flat in Clapham.
It sparked a debate over women’s safety and an outpouring of women sharing their personal experiences of men harassing and assaulting them in public spaces.
As a resident of south west London myself, the incident felt very close to home. I shared other women’s fury and feelings of horror about how unprotected we truly are.
It is this collective horror that caused three Wandsworth women to set up a community initiative called ‘Wandsworth Angels’ in an attempt to make the borough safer for everyone.
The initiative has various activities planned – including bystander awareness training, a buddy scheme for walking home and self-defence classes.
I went along to meet the Wandsworth Angels at the team’s first Self Defence Class in Battersea Park yesterday (17 May). Despite the hail, thunder and lightning, it didn’t stop an army of women turning up and I was able to learn some self-defence techniques of my own. Here’s what I learnt.
The class was being run by David Gabriele, who goes by “DG”, the Chief Instructor of the Civilian Anti-Terror & Self-Defence Group (CATSDG). DG teaches a technique called Urban Krav Maga. This is tailored around real life day-to-day scenarios and the most common street attacks that affect normal people. DG, a licensed instructor with the British Combat Association, says it is “practical, efficient and can be learnt relatively quickly.”
Resist your first response
I hope myself or the women who attended will not have to put what they learnt into practice, but if we do, I was thankful to learn the kind of thought process which may be useful if I was being attacked.
The first rule? Run away, if you can. “The aim is always to escape but we train the scenarios where you have no other options but to defend yourself and can no longer run away.” said Coach DG.
The second rule? If you can’t run away, resist the urge to try and run away anyway. We learnt a technique which showed us what to do if someone had grabbed your hair. Coach DG demonstrated that if you try to run in this instance, this would actually be counterproductive – only causing further injury to you and keeping the power quite literally in the hands of the attacker.
Instead, Coach DG showed the group how to flip the interaction and target the immediate threat. We were taught to grab the attackers hand on us, twist them around so that their arm is underneath our armpit and then implement the all important wrist lock; grabbing the opponent’s hand and twisting and/or bending it in a non-natural direction. I quickly learnt that this is completely disarming.
Good things come in small packages
My second key takeaway was that it doesn’t matter how big the attacker is compared to you, if implemented correctly, self-defence techniques will work no matter your size. A discovery which surprised us all.
It could be the beefiest, muscle-iest person but, as I learnt, everyone is forced to surrender when the wellbeing of your wrist depends on it.
Stop Saying Sorry
My final takeaway was that women need to stop saying sorry. Those who perceive a threat of harm are, in England and Wales, entitled, by law, to strike first, as long as they believe in good faith that the assailant is able and that harm is imminent. And yet, there was a whole lot of “I’m so sorry, I think I did that wrong” and “sorry was that too hard” – in real life we won’t have time to apologise to our attacker ladies.
But by the end of the session, I felt reminded that our bodies serve a purpose far more than aesthetic – that they are strong, that they are able, that they are combat-ready.
When the session was over, I took the opportunity to talk to the founder of Wandsworth Angels, Noha Moukarzel – a Battersea resident and Chef.
She said: “After the Sarah Everard incident, I put the page on Instagram and called it ‘Wandsworth Angels’, like an ode to Charlie’s Angels, and an army of women started joining and wanting to help, I couldn’t believe it. We wanted women in the area to feel safe.
“Being fearful is really crippling for your life. I was robbed at home and I never got over it – I used to come back late at night I would get really scared and want to get in and double lock my door. I hope Wandsworth Angels will be a place for people to meet and support each other.”
Lisa, 29, from Clapham, who attended the class said: “I’ve had so many occasions when I’ve had to second guess myself when it’s dark. But I wouldn’t have a clue what to do if someone attacked me. So I think self-defence is a really useful skill. If I had these kind of skills I would probably feel so much more confident.”
Whether I’d remember any of this in a real-life situation is another matter entirely. But I can see how, if practiced over a period of time, it would become second nature.
Ultimately, though, the only long-term solution to ending male violence against women is education and a move away from victim blaming.
Me attending one self-defence class isn’t enough to end male violence. But equipping myself with a few skills that will help me to feel a little safer on the streets has to be a step in the right direction.