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Threat of violence prompts classes to help Muslim women protect themselves

About 20 students took part in CAIR-Missouri's first self-defense class in May.
CAIR-Missouri via Facebook

With members of the area Muslim community feeling like they are under a continuing threat of violence, the Missouri chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations is coordinating efforts for members to protect themselves.

One of the initiatives is a self-defense course for women run by a former Jackson, Missouri, police officer who converted to Islam a couple of years ago.

Allison Miller said her initial experience with Islamophobia occurred only three months later.

"A physical assault. Somebody that did not like the way that I was dressed, wearing the headscarf," she told St. Louis Public Radio. "I was thankful that I had skills learned by law enforcement to properly protect myself."

Shortly after the attack, Miller contacted CAIR-Missouri and was asked to design the self-defense program. The first classes took place in May in West St. Louis County and the next sessions are set for July 23 and 30 in Hazelwood. People of all faiths are welcome, but the classes are tailored to Muslim women who usually can't go to regular instruction that could involve being touched by men.

"They have to touch them. To show them how to directly strike or block. Most women in the community are not going to go to a regular martial arts class because they have an abaya, they wear a head-scarf. It's a little bit harder for them to form moves when we are fully covered," she said.

An abaya is a type of robe worn by many Muslim women. It covers everything but a woman's head, feet and hands.

Along with the classes, Miller has also developed a self-defense booklet.

Nationally, the Bureau of Justice Statistics' National Crime Victimization Surveyshows the percentage of crimes victims believe to be religion based is down to roughly 17 percent in 2015 from nearly 21 percent in 2013. Ethnicity related hate crimes accounted for around 35 percent in 2015, which is the last year survey statistics are available. Race was cited in 48 percent of the cases.  

Miller said she has continually experienced Islamophobia throughout Missouri since she was physically attacked in September 2015.

"I could be in St. Louis. I could be down south near Jackson, Missouri when things happen when I visit my family. I was 5 months pregnant when I was almost attacked again in a Walmart parking lot," Miller said.

The security of the region's Muslim community members does not end with women-focused self-defense. Other steps are being taken, including active shooter training at an area school.

In an email to St. Louis Public Radio, CAIR-Missouri Executive Director Faizan Syed also pointed to continuing dialogue with local and federal law enforcement, along with officers being stationed during busy times at mosques, including congregations on Fridays, the Muslim Holy day. Many centers are also using security cards for access.

The organization is focused on self-defense programs for women, but Syed added efforts are underway to develop programs for other groups in the St. Louis region's Muslim community.

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Follow Wayne on Twitter: @wayneradio

Wayne is the morning newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.