First women self-defence studio in Middle East empowers women worldwide

April 27, 2023
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Lina Khalifeh established the women-only self-defence studio SheFighter 12 years ago in Jordan, and has since grown to reach more than 25,000 women globally, including over 700 female trainers who have become certified. A loud advocate for women’s rights, the Jordanian has traveled the world to help empower her peers and teach them how to speak up for themselves.

When listening to Lina Khalifeh speak, people tend to forget that she, too, has suffered from harassment and discrimination. The strength and conviction that emanate from the Jordanian entrepreneur have the mesmerising power to make you think that she has indeed achieved the “all-empowered state”.

However, the story does begin with abuse, back in 2010, when she finds out that one of her friends from university had been repeatedly abused by her male relatives. Lina recalls: “throughout my childhood, I had been harassed and bullied myself, and I had always wondered ‘why do we have to accept this violence, just because we are women?’.”

Starting with only two clients in the basement of her building, Lina Khalifeh begins to teach self-defence classes, using her extensive martial arts skills that she has been honing since she was five years old. Taekwondo, boxing, kung-fu or kickboxing, she has tried them all. She also uses the small entrepreneurial knowledge she acquired in her studies and progressively builds her company. “I was always encouraged by my relatives. I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs who taught me that, if I wanted something, and had the positive energy for it, I could always reach my goal.”

It has been a long way now since Lina’s initial probing into entrepreneurship though. Over the past 12 years, the award-winning martial arts expert has been called “a leader of social change” by former US President Obama who awarded her the “Economic Empowerment Leadership” award, been honoured by Hillary Clinton in 2018, and trained no less than superstar Emma Watson.

But fame is not what Lina Khalifeh is after. “I want to teach women that they can -and should- demand their own rights. That they should not be afraid that men will oppress them. Women need to be the ones reinventing the system because no one will do it for them,” she asserts.

At the root of it all: female empowerment

Asked if she considers herself a feminist, Lina replies “in my opinion, everybody needs to be working towards equity. Everyone needs to be a feminist in the way that, if I am more qualified than another person, it is for me to take the seat. Not for anyone else, especially not just because he is a man.”

She understands that she cannot reverse patriarchal oppression overnight. But she stresses that “Women, especially in the Middle East, are in charge of the entire household. They can lead the change in their own family and create a positive movement from within.”

She continues: “It is their mentality that needs to change first. Women need to believe in themselves, in their worth and their power. And, consequently, in their daughters’ power, their sisters’, their friends’.”

To this end, SheFighter does not limit itself to physical workouts. It rather embraces the holistic approach to empowerment, including a number of psychological exercises and self-introspection into its classes. “We are not just teaching them self-defence, we are truly helping them to dig into their own beliefs and question their fears. We want to help them vocalise the negative experiences they might have had to go through,” insists Lina.

“When a woman joins, we ask her to commit to the full programme, both psychological and physical,” trainer Batoul Jaikat explains, noting that she “has seen a huge confidence boost in the women who attend the workshops”.

Fifteen-year-old Yara says she has gained a lot of confidence since she joined the studio: “This has helped me stand up for myself and speak my mind in particular situations where I wouldn’t have in the past.”

Her friend Tala agrees: “I feel stronger now, more powerful. Before, I used to be scared to ride in taxis or to walk alone in the streets. But now, I know I can protect myself if need be.”

“I can do what I want with my head held up high,” she concludes with a smile.


A drop in the ocean? The power of networking  

A few years back, Lina Khalifeh was invited to take part in the EU-supported WoMED project, an initiative labeled by the Union for the Mediterranean that aims to strengthen the capacities of high-potential young women from the Southern Mediterranean. In this seminar, she spoke about social justice, equity and female solidarity.

“To be honest, if I didn’t believe in the power of networking, I wouldn’t do it!” she laughs, underlining how exhausting the “fight” can be at times. “At some points in my life, I almost gave up. I was burnt out. So many people have tried to take me down, threatening me, trying to get my studios shut down.”

This is when the human side of the black-belt taekwondo master unfolds. Behind all of the successes and public recognition, Lina carries a lot of struggles, and still faces many obstacles. “It still isn’t easy to make people understand that what we promote is not fighting or violence but strength, rights and dignity. In the end, I am only human and being put down repeatedly can stop you from growing.”

But despite the court cases, the intimidation and the pressure to step down, Lina stands tall. She applies the logic of her training of trainers’ courses to her life, and keeps moving forward. Life is about chapters and levels. Once you finish one level you go onto the next level and so on.”

Empathetic and caring, Lina uses her own example to inspire generations of women. During the pandemic, SheFighter has expanded to train women in Mauritius, South Korea and Australia, ignoring physical barriers and believing in the power of female solidarity.

“If in one class, you have just 10 women and only one leaves having made a step forward, then that’s an impact. Then it’s worth continuing.”

“Not because I want to get out of Jordan but because I want to be stronger next time they try to put me down.”


SheFighter on:


The Programme

The Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) is an intergovernmental Euro-Mediterranean organisation which brings together all countries of the European Union and 16 countries of the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean.

It aims to enhance regional cooperation, dialogue and the implementation of projects and initiatives with tangible impact on citizens, with an emphasis on young people and women, in order to address the three strategic objectives of the region: stability, human development and integration.


The project

WoMED – Women of the Mediterranean: Next Generation of Leaders is an innovative high-level training programme on women empowerment and gender equality. It was labelled by the UfM in 2015 and is part of the UfM Secretariat’s global strategy to promote concrete projects for women empowerment and
gender equality in the Euro-Mediterranean region.