In the heart of Egypt’s capital, an ancient Indonesian martial arts sport is helping dozens of women stand up to harassment.
With the help of Indonesian students, over 1,200 women and children are learning the sport at a cultural center in Cairo.
“Of course there are problems in the street,” Egyptian teenager Rahma Hatem said during a break from training.
“If someone comes near me, I’m able to defend myself well. I have confidence now and no one can harass me because I can face them.”
“Pencak Silat” gained prominence in Egypt in 2003 but started to increase in popularity in 2011, said trainer Roqaya Samaloosi.
The women, mostly teenagers and young adults, gather in the Indonesian Cultural Centre weekly and train to enhance self-defense skills and fitness.
At one recent session, women wearing red uniforms paired with black head covers sat in a circle around two women exchanging kicks and punches. The women clapped when one of the fighters took down her opponent.
Experts surveyed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2017 ranked Cairo as the world’s most dangerous megacity for women, based on lack of protection from sexual violence, harmful cultural practices, and poor access to healthcare and finance.
Women are frequently cat-called in the streets. Pencak Silat dates back to the sixth century, where it was practiced on Sumatra island and the Malay peninsula.
Two kingdoms, the Sriwijaya in Sumatra and the Majapahit on Java island, used the fighting skills and between the 7th and 16th century ruled much of what is now Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.
Influences of Hindu weapons, Nepalese music, Indian grappling styles, Siamese costumes, Arabian weapons, and Chinese fighting methods are found in Pencak Silat due to trade, migration, and wars.
Pencak is the performance aspect of the discipline, while Silat is the fighting and self-defense version of the sport.
Silat has many different techniques but players usually focus on strikes, joint manipulation, and throws. One point is rewarded for punches, two for kicks and three for takedowns in three two-minute bouts.