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Winner Spotlight: SheFighter Enables Arabic Women to Fight Back Against Abuse

Dena Levitz Headshot

Dena Levitz

Challenge Cup Reporting Fellow, 1776

Empowering women isn’t just a hobby for Lina Khalifeh; it has become her business. With SheFighter, Khalifeh has launched the first female-centered self defense program in the MENA region. Now she wants to use a franchising model to take her startup well beyond Jordan, where she has trained—or trained others to train—thousands of women so far. Khalifeh spends so much time talking publicly about the need for women to protect themselves that SheFighter has become the name that people call her as well.

Last week, SheFighter took first place in the education category of the Challenge Cup’s Amman competition. With the win, Khalifeh will travel to Washington to compete in the Challenge Festival in May. She explained what exactly she’s teaching females through her growing number of studios and how she’s managed to prove the naysayers wrong.

There’s a personal story to how you started SheFighter. What happened that caused you to create the business?

I had a friend who was abused by her family—her father and brother, actually—and she used to come to the university with bruises all over her face. She had never actually done something about it. So I said, in talking to her and people like her, “I should do something about it.” I have a background in martial arts and tae kwon do and kung fu, so I started training women in self defense in the basement of my house.

You mentioned a martial arts background. How did your involvement start and what drew you to it?

I started when I was five years old. My parents enrolled me in a tae kwon do school. I got really passionate about it because it’s about commitment, discipline and it is an art. So I just loved the training, the system, everything.  I stayed in tae kwon do for about 20 years. I had (the equivalent of) a black belt and 20 gold medals, some of them internationally. I guess you could say I was kind of obsessed with martial arts.

SheFighter progressed from a small number of classes in your basement to two full-fledged studios and counting. How did that happen?

It’s because I got so many clients coming to the basement, and I couldn’t accept more clients … I started to take it more seriously and find a small space to rent. When I was going to rent, everyone was discouraging me at that time. They said it’s going to fail, but I believed in the idea. I had a vision in my mind, and no one else saw that vision but me. So I just worked on that.

The approach SheFigher takes is both physical and psychological. What does that mean? What does the training entail?

We do a lot of talking and seminars about harassment. We talk a lot about domestic violence in Jordan and women’s rights, and we actually do a lot of discussion as well to share stories about what to do in different situations. We also talk about prevention—how to walk in the streets, how to deal with strangers, when a family member is trying to harass a girl in the family. We provide more education sessions and awareness than even training.

And we mix it with self-defense training, so it will be more fun. It’s physical training so they feel more empowered.

Did you base this off of other self defense systems out there or start from scratch, more drawing upon your training?

I actually searched in many self-defense schools and martial arts schools and got the best training for women. And I tested many trainings—some techniques don’t work. It’s just a waste of time and energy to make sure that they’re 100 percent effective and right.

What I did is combined some boxing with tae kwon do to also be strength training the girls, not just technique. That way once they punch the target and the punching bag they will feel more empowered and strong. We also have different kinds of training too. We want to keep them from being bored all the time. There’s classes called SheCombo, which is more boxing and tae kwon do, so they sweat and do the whole workout. The self defense technique classes are slower and need more concentration. It doesn’t actually grab people’s attention, but when you combine it with the SheCombo class, it’s more interesting.

With the self defense systems you tried out that don’t work, what’s wrong with them?

I tested some of the techniques on really strong men in Jordan, and most of them worked really successfully. But there are some that don’t actually do the job. (The men told me), “This isn’t going to actually work when you’re fighting off a big guy.” The thing about self defense is it’s not an art; it’s more of a style of attacking and fighting. It makes more sense to attack someone’s weak points and just get out of the situation. Some of the martial arts are more focused on the art itself to make the move more beautiful or smooth. That’s not necessary in a bad situation.

At this point, how many females have you trained?

In total in Jordan, about 10,000. We have about 800 (trainers). We sometimes work with 100, 200 students (at a time), training them at the same time in workshops.

How have you been able to get that much involvement? How have you marketed SheFighter to the Jordanian public?

The thing is you have to go out here and talk to people, so what I did is many presentations at schools and universities. I was on the media many times talking about the importance of self defense. I was active doing that for two and a half years non stop until now. I also use social media a lot.

As active as you’ve been in promoting self defense, during the Challenge Cup you talked about the fact that there’s a cultural barrier that you’ve had to face: Arabic women, in particular, are reluctant to take part in self defense. What have you been up against there?

In Jordan I’ve faced (resistance) not just from women, but from men as well. Women, they don’t actually want to believe in anything a woman is doing for society. They think that women here are ignorant and they’re not really proficient at what they’re doing. But I proved them wrong. (Early on) I got many questions about whether it’s impossible for women to defend themselves, and I was answering their questions in a very professional way, which helped them see I knew what I was doing.

About men, they didn’t like the idea that I was doing something to empower women. Men didn’t like their women to be empowered. But I’m getting more women convinced of the importance of self defense… Everybody wants to protect themselves and their children as well. It’s changing. In 2014 we got even more members than the previous year.

SheFighter is really people-intensive. You need trainers. You need clients to come in person and learn. Does this present a challenge in being able to scale and grow?

Yeah, definitely, It’s one of the big challenges we have, just to find really passionate females to train in the system and spread our teachings… There’s also the cost of the training and the franchising license. It’s kind of complicated but we’re doing well with it.

Where do you plan to expand to next after Jordan?

I’m thinking about Dubai, as it has lots of single people and a lot of foreigners and it’s a big city to expand into. And I’m thinking next to Europe and the States.

 What did you get out of competing in Challenge Cup?

I’ve done many speaking engagements before but to be judged in that way—to speak and get the feedback that I did—was very useful. Also meeting (the 1776 team) and all of the people who came to Challenge Cup was great to be able to expand my network. When I was on stage I felt a little bit nervous but at the same time a bit excited.

Dena Levitz Headshot

Dena Levitz

Challenge Cup Reporting Fellow, 1776

Dena Levitz is traveling to almost all of the Challenge Cup cities to cover the competition and analyze startup ecosystems around the globe. Dena joins 1776 after finishing the first…

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