I heard about a Kendo class in my area and was really excited to check it out.
Kendo is one of the oldest Japanese martial arts and is generally known as “the way of the sword.” As I love all things Japanese, I was intrigued by the thought that someone would willingly allow a Muslim to hit them over the head with a sword!
When I got to the class, to my surprise, I was greeted by two hijabi women in full body armour who blew me away with their skill and technique.
Yasmeen is originally from Palestine and has lived in the U.K. since 2002. She is currently studying Accounting at university and joined her university’s Kendo Society two years ago.
It struck me that the ‘armour,’ or uniform, was incredibly Muslim-friendly — as you are pretty much covered from head to toe in voluminous trousers, body armour, gloves, and a helmet with a metal grill front called a ‘men.’
Tayba is originally from Iraq and after living in Holland and then London, where she studied Architecture, she got married and moved to Cardiff. Tayba became interested in Kendo after seeing a demonstration at an anime event.
Both girls are very passionate about the sport — with Yasmeen having achieved her second Dan (black belt grading) and Tayba planning to complete her first Dan later this year.
It struck me that the “armour,” or uniform, was incredibly Muslim-friendly — as you are pretty much covered from head to toe in voluminous trousers, body armour, gloves, and a helmet with a metal grill front called a “men.”
Ibtihaj Muhammad said that the outfit for fencing was one of the reasons she took up the sport — and both Yasmeen and Tayba echoed this sentiment. They felt comfortable in the forgiving outfits and enjoyed becoming anonymous once putting on the “men” helmet. Tayba said she had been looking for a martial art to keep herself active, but felt put off, as a lot were contact sports.
Yasmeen explained how she liked the anonymity the sport allows, as you can hardly tell if it is a man or woman you are fighting — let alone a hijabi Muslim woman. “I was never confident in myself before. Kendo has built up my confidence in spirit and physical ability. I feel able to fight even when my opponent is a tall, stocky man because Kendo is all about technique — not your size or strength,” she said.
The girls’ comments on how confidence-building the sport was made a lot of sense after attending the taster session.
Part of the technique of Kendo is to do a “kiai” (spirit cry) as you attack. This means that you are shouting aggressively while trying to hit your opponent on the head with a bamboo sword. While I did find it amusing that I was being asked to scream the word “men” while attempting to bash someone over the head, a.k.a. a feminist’s dream, it certainly took guts.
I found this the most discomforting part of the session: partly because I was recovering from a chest infection and still sounded like I smoked 20 packs a day, but also just because, well, I don’t scream too often. I noticed that a lot of the male newbies were attempting the “kiai” with gusto, but the other new ladies were just as hesitant as me.
Yasmeen and Tayba, on the other hand, fully committed to their spirit cries and it made me appreciate how empowering this incredible sport was.
Both were very keen to impress upon me the fact that Kendo is a lot more than hitting people. Yasmeen said that it embodies the spirit of the samurai swordsman and you must have utmost respect for your opponent. Tayba explained that, in a competition, if you show pleasure at scoring a point mid-fight, you may lose the point for showing disrespect to your opponent.
Both were very keen to impress upon me the fact that Kendo is a lot more than hitting people. Yasmeen said that it embodies the spirit of the samurai swordsman and you must have utmost respect for your opponent.
The girls felt this was very much the spirit of Kendo and the people they had met through practising the sport. Both said that they had not once felt any kind of awkwardness or rejection from being hijab-wearing Muslim women and emphasised the family atmosphere of their dojo. Yasmeen said that it had been the encouragement and support of her dojo members that had led to her dedicating so much time to the sport. “It has created a passion in me. I want to do this for the rest of my life. I have ambitions to join the Team GB of Kendo. What can I say? It has engulfed me,” she said.
Tayba explained how supportive those around her have been about her practising kendo. “When I first told my dad about Kendo, he said ‘go for it! We need more Muslim women doing sport like this!’ My whole family, as well as my husband love what I do and support me doing something that makes me so happy,” she said.
Yasmeen felt that her experience had been slightly different. Although they have not prevented her from practising Kendo, her family are a little unsure and see it as a hobby. She said,”They aren’t particularly keen on the spirit cry. My mother commented on this, saying ‘you are lady.'”
While studying at university, Yasmeen became engaged. She said that Kendo was the first thing she talked about when meeting her fiancé, despite her parents advising the opposite. For Yasmeen, however, his acceptance of this important part of her life was a deal-breaker. Fortunately, he was interested in the sport and supports her pursuit of her passion. And both of these badass ladies are full of passion.
They fight on through bruises, swollen knuckles, and muscle tears in order to reach their own set goals. They explained that seeing yourself progress makes the hardship worthwhile. Tayba said,”You have to remember that if I was fighting with a real samurai, I would not be able to pause for a breath — otherwise I would be dead!”
Yasmeen said she loves being able to challenge herself and being encouraged by her teachers to keep going. “Kendo has taught me to go outside of my comfort zone and pushed me to keep moving forward towards my goals,” she said.
Tayba mentioned that, as far as they know, they are the only two hijabi Muslim girls practising Kendo in the U.K. They are keen to encourage other Muslim women to join their sport, or take up something else just as new and challenging. “Don’t be scared to try something new. Don’t let negative thoughts stop you. Just go for it,” Tayba said.
I came away very inspired by two fierce and determined young women. It reminded me that very rarely do girls fit into a box of “femininity.” Sometimes girls like to paint their nails and do crafts. Sometimes girls just want to wear armour and hit people over the head!