ANTIOCH, Tennessee — “Strike!” yells the instructor.
Thirty women on a gym mat punch palm-first, striking invisible targets at shoulder level.
“Again,” the instructor calls out.
Nearly all the women are wearing a hijab, one of the reasons they’re in this self-defense class in Antioch, Tennessee, a community nestled next to Nashville. For three hours, these Muslim women learn Krav Maga and Brazilian jiu-jitsu defense moves, including kicks, punches and elbow strikes that will help them escape an attacker.
“When I’m dressed like this, they know,” says Lufta Islam, touching her hijab and long dress. ” ‘OK, she’s a Muslim girl.’ ”
Islam, a mother of four, is one of the tiniest women on the mat, standing at barely 5 feet tall and weighing less than 100 pounds. She has never been physically assaulted but describes feeling more insecure than ever since the Paris and San Bernardino, California, attacks in which female terrorists were prominently involved.
A photo of the San Bernardino attackers entering the United States was particularly damaging, women in the class say. In the July 2014 image taken at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, Tashfeen Malik looks expressionlessly into the camera. She’s wearing a black hijab.
“That impacted everyone,” Annette Martin recalls. Martin says she went to work the day after Malik’s photo was published, having to defend her religion and her hijab. “That’s them. I’m still the same individual. I have not changed.”
Since then, Islam says she’s walked across the grocery store parking lot and had groups of men come up close, snickering or muttering, “Look, there’s one.”
At least three times a week, Islam says, “I feel like I’m not really in safe place.” She tries to travel with her husband, but that’s not always possible for a busy mother. And when her 16-year-old daughter asked to stop wearing her hijab, Islam relented, understanding her child did not want to face relentless bullying.
The other women in the class share similar stories. Selwa Kanakrieh had a college classmate call her a member of ISIS. Ericka Bonds-Hasan had a security guard physically rip off her hijab. “All Muslims should die,” a man told Martin.
These women have seen the news reports since the Paris and San Bernardino attacks. A Tampa woman fears she was shot at and nearly run off the road leaving her mosque. Three boys in the Bronx allegedly punched a Muslim sixth-grader during recess, trying to rip off her hijab. A New York postal worker was arrested after a Muslim woman accused him of spitting in her face, yelling anti-Muslim slurs, all while she pushed her baby in a stroller.
Such reports may support the women’s fears, but the data regarding Muslim women is far more opaque.
National hate crime data is self-reported to the FBI and lags a year behind. In 2014, the data showed Muslim hate crimes were second only to anti-Jewish crimes. But the FBI doesn’t track whether the victims in those religious hate crimes are male or female.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations says it is better able to track attacks on mosques as an empirical measure of anti-Muslim sentiment. Its latest study found that after the November 13 Paris and December 2 San Bernardino attacks, incidents targeting mosques spiked, including cases of damage, destruction, vandalism, harassment and intimidation. In both November and December there were 17 such incidents, the highest number since the organization began tracking attacks in 2009. The group says the number of mosque attacks from 2014 to 2015 quadrupled.
Frustrated by the lagging data on individual hate crimes, criminologist Brian Levin, a professor at California State University, San Bernardino, launched a hate crime study through his research group, the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.
Levin confirmed and analyzed hate crimes reported in the media and by civil rights groups, using FBI hate crime reporting standards. The center found in the month following the Paris attacks, from November 13 to December 13, the rate of anti-Islamic hate crimes tripled, compared with the monthly average from the previous five years. In the week following the San Bernardino attack, there were 11 suspected hate crimes alone.
Levin then broke his data down further, looking at who the victims were in those reported crimes in November and December. Forty percent were women, he found. What Levin doesn’t know, due to limited data, is if the percentage of Muslim female victims has grown.
“They’re easily identifiable and an easy target,” Levin says. “What I worry about is we may have indeed turned a corner where women are targeted for attack in anti-Muslim hate crimes.”
There have been strides in breaking down stereotypes about Muslim women. In hospitals, schools and corporate offices across the nation, women in hijab are doctors, teachers and therapists. At the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad will be the first competing U.S. athlete to wear a hijab at the Olympics. Noor Tagouri, a Washington journalist working in radio and Canadian television, wants to be the first mainstream news anchor wearing a hijab.
But those advances can quickly be overshadowed and forgotten. After a passing driver yelled at Aisha Lbhalla to “not blow up a building” and another man made obscene gestures and tailgated her on the way home, Lbhalla organized the self-defense class in Tennessee. She had heard about similar classes in New York and Los Angeles.
“When people see a woman covered, or she is in modest attire, that represents Islam to them,” Lbhalla says. “So as a result, we are receiving the brunt of the hostility. They take out their fears or their hate for Islam and Muslims out on us.”
Lbhalla, who heads the Muslim Women’s Council in Nashville, says she’s also concerned about the rhetoric in the presidential campaign, namely what she’s heard from Donald Trump.
“That rhetoric brings out the worst in people,” she says. “That plays to their bias and their bigotry and their fear. It’s very, very dangerous.”
After the three-hour class, Lufta Islam says learning a few self-defense moves has helped build her confidence. But the class won’t change the reality of her daily life.
Islam says she wants so badly to contribute more to her community.
“But they look at you a different way. And you feel sad,” she says, her eyes welling up with tears. “You know, even (if) you go to the market, you go to the workplace, no matter where you go, you know, you’re Muslim. Automatically they’re assuming something.”