2021 Reflections. Part 2: Self Protection.

(The first part of the review/evaluation blog was concerned with the progress of our karate students; please check preceding post for this.)

Here with my superhero translation and logistics colleagues: Uday and Moyee, without whom none of this work would have been achieved. So grateful to them for their time, patience, and 100% commitment

As many of you know, I respect a clear distinction between martial arts and self-protection. They are relatives but conflating them is dangerous and immoral. The outreach in India is a perfect example of how both can create valuable skills in different ways.

The primary self-protection strand of this outreach was to meet our colleagues in the Red Brigade Trust and deliver a two-day instructor training module for their team. I’ve been working with them online since September 2020, focusing on prevention and avoidance skills, so we wanted to consolidate this and go deeper. Additionally, we visited local schools to provide situational awareness training and tactical escape techniques for the students. A local newspaper report can be seen here

Most of us have now had the experience of meeting people through video meetings and then in real life. In most cases, although the interruptions and frustrations of Zoom can be tricky to navigate, yet a foundation can be built to speed up in-person connections. This definitely proved to be the case here; many of the young women in the training group had attended our online classes which gave us a headstart on identifying dangerous people, boundary setting, situational awareness, threat assessment/reading risk and learning emergency self-defence principles.

This course is designed for vulnerable, untrained people. There’s no boxing or grappling. There’s no blocking or magical joint locks. It’s for children, it’s for small women, it’s for anyone who needs to learn how to build a safer life through habits, mindset and body language.

Red Brigade team working a body language analysis drill from the Study of Violence Masterclass I attended in Canada recently

Consider the terrible case of Red Brigade member, Sangeeta, who was sleeping next to her mother when acid was thrown in her face (see 24th December’s blog). Explain to me the karate technique that is effective in this situation. I’ll wait.

Many of the team are rape and acid attack survivors. Their risk of repeated assault is statistically higher because of this  … yet they have undertaken the enormous task of challenging the status of underprivileged women in society and educating their sisters about how to avoid harm.

Recent news reports illustrate the fact that women in rural communities continue to have little (or no) control over their lives. Arranged marriages, forced childbearing, forced abortion, restricted access to jobs and education, limited medical and legal support…these are the norm for millions of women with low socio-economic status. See this Guardian article for analysis of forced abortion of girl babies in this part of India.

We will not accept being powerless against this immense challenge. The training is framed around this context: where coercion, inappropriate touch, control, rape, and silent obedience are expectations. Learning to see early tests of compliance and how to deflect them helps with victim de-selection. We practised refusing. This is socially difficult for many people globally, but especially in India where ‘disregarding no’ is a cultural norm. We practised exiting – for example if someone joins a rickshaw ride and gives you bad vibes. We practised workplace conversations to set boundaries. We talked about communities of support and how to recruit friends to reinforce each other in becoming a ‘hard target’.

We worked on reading situations and body language. We learned what to look for and how to make safe choices earlier in a timeline; avoiding ambush or other potential dangers. We practised strong postures and eye contact. And finally, we looked at simple principles for emergency physical responses: no hacks, no complex techniques.

Fear informs a lot of the frequently-asked-questions. Here we are working the same principles consistently, despite the different scenarios. Principles, not techniques. Always.

Finally, I wanted to visit one of the Red Brigade’s social projects which is a cafe run by survivors of acid attacks. I’ve written about this in the blog of 23rd/24th December and the response from our readers has been heartfelt and inspiring. Due to the complex regulations about sending money into India, I am making a careful strategy as to how we can best help. The cafe is at risk of closure due to the pandemic – there has been no government bailout for small businesses and the customer base has vanished. It is running at an unsustainable loss which threatens the livelihood of its staff … staff who are brave enough to stand behind that till every day despite customers who turn away, sickened by their burned faces. My daughter is the same age as Sangeeta, and she also works in a cafe. The thought of her having to face what Sangeeta goes through each time someone comes up the steps … it’s one of those things the brain finds hard to sit with. Many of you read Sangeeta’s horrific story here and have been generous in your donations: that fund is still open for another week at https://gofund.me/43c1a47d

I’m dreaming of proper business support: barista training; links with Mollie’s Cafe here in Oxfordshire (who already support FairFight with donations from coffee sales); maybe business students who want a marketing project…truly, this is something that as a community we can do.

And that, kind reader, is the final post of project blog 5. We hope to go back with a full team in April and October 2022; funds and pandemic permitting. Please follow FairFight on Facebook and Instagram; please consider us for corporate sponsorship and club fundraising. Check out the work being done in Zimbabwe and Zambia as well as in India. Thanks for your attention and support.

FairFight Varanasi out 🎤⬇️✅

2021 Reflections. Part 1: Karate

Cat time is good for recovery and reflection

December 30th, 2021. I’m home, I have had a few days with my family and my cats. I’ve been trying to allow the impact of the project to settle into some kind of objectivity and provide a summary to readers/supporters and an outline of objectives for next year.

Getting ready for karate training, December 23rd 2021

I will split this ‘reflections’ blog into two sections: karate and self-protection. This is Part 1.

Karate/Disha

The beginning of the Disha karate project back in 2016

It’s a privilege to see young people growing up; even more so when you see them gaining confidence and skills against a backdrop of deprivation and repression. Our Disha girls are from the poorest of homes and life has been tough from the very beginning; adapting to a new school after a long time at home has not been easy for them. The energy they emit though … it’s about self-worth and pragmatism and assertiveness and fun and curiosity and kindness and resilience. They are challenging everything in their path and speaking up for themselves in a way I could only have dreamed about four years ago when I first visited. They know they have people in their corner; and they value themselves and each other.

Impromptu kata by the river Ganges last week

Their karate training continues to be a key part of their empowerment: they’re proud to be strong and they love being active. Competitive points sparring gives them a framework to be speedy and successful.

Fun with 3 point kicks

Kata training allows them to explore and refine precise and disciplined movement. On this visit we enjoyed looking at kata history and applications, both for the girls and in their instructors’ club.

Susmita and Aarti playing with Heian Shodan bunkai concepts

Ultimately, in a society which actively disempowers women, karate offers the experience of being powerful and strong. This regular dose of beneficial hard work – supplemented by love, care, and education – is a wonderful recipe for growth. Devesh and Pankaj are producing some skilled karate students here, with kickass attitude.

Possible Sandan bunkai which they enjoyed

The next steps for this project? We have 16/20 of the girls back under the care of AshaDiya Foundation. Uday continues to maintain supervision and support for the others who have not yet come back after the pandemic. Some may never return; it’s always hard to keep poor young women in education when they can be useful in the home and beyond. We’re optimistic that a couple more will be back for the new school year, and there will also be new girls given places as the Foundation consolidates its new structure.

Grabbing games for kata-based sparring – putting the ‘fun’ into ‘functional’.

I can’t think of a better set of role models for any young girl to join. The focus of AshaDiya is all about wellbeing and happiness; fantastic work is being done.

Drilling Sandan

Meanwhile, at the instructors’ own club, we are sponsoring some students whose parents were unable to cover training expenses due to the pandemic. It was really good to be able to talk and train with Anjali and Ganga. We have met them before as we often train with Sensei Sohan’s club as well as sharing seminars with his students for many years. This was the first time since they were official FairFight students though, so that was special.

I’d like to thank Iain Abernethy for his help with preparing the content for the karate sessions I taught on this project. I was keen to provide some interesting and relevant analysis of familiar katas; Iain helped me choose specific sequences, core principles, essential phrases and terminology for which I was then able to work on appropriate Hindi translation. It was really fun to be able to use my smattering of Hindi in a way that transmitted some useful and entertaining content for the karate clubs. I also hope to build on this in the next visit, which is pencilled in for April 2022.

Learning yodan arm bar application

Meanwhile, just enjoy these pictures of a fabulous group of FairFight students and staff. We love them very much and are so proud of them!

5:9 Sangeeta Devi: one girl’s experience of acid attack in India

It was May 2018 when Sangeeta’s face was stolen from her.

She and her twin sister walked to college together every day. Gradually they became aware that someone was often following them. He would pester them; they would refuse his advances. This continued regularly and they were very unhappy about it as he would not accept ‘no’ for an answer. They began to feel unsafe and frustrated by his persistent harassment.

As explained in yesterday’s blog, Sangeeta’s father died a long time ago and she does not have any brothers. She asked her uncle to intervene and reprimand this young man for his continuous unwanted attention. He did this, and she hoped this would resolve the situation.

Instead, this person decided to take revenge on her in a brutal and disgusting attack as she was sleeping. The temperature is so hot in May that all the family sleep outside the house. She was sleeping close to her mother; this young man sneaked in and poured acid on them both while they slept. He was seen escaping by her grandmother, as she and her mother woke in terror and confusion. They didn’t know what happened – was it an electric shock? – had they been shot? – what had happened to them?

In the chaos, medical attention was slow to arrive. The first ambulance also reacted with the acid and caught on fire. The first hospital they reached said it was too bad and they couldn’t help. It was 12 hours before the burns were treated and, of course, by then the damage was seared deep.

In the aftermath, Sangeeta was not only in agony but also devastated. She told us that her mother removed mirrors from the house so she wouldn’t catch sight of herself. Extended family and other villagers encouraged her to commit suicide as being better than facing life with such a face. ‘Who will marry you?’ was a common phrase she heard. Indeed, she felt it herself and she wanted to die.

Her mother was having none of it, nor her twin sister. ‘As long as I am alive, you have a reason to live’, her mother insisted and the family gave everything it could – running deeply into debt for the medical bills and trying to persuade her to look towards a possible future. She allowed herself to be pulled along, but did not believe there was anything to live for. She felt like a freak in her village, always being pointed at and talked about. People would tell her mother to get a pill and end her suffering.

As she gradually got to know other victims of acid attack, she began to see that it was possible to have a life the other side. She told us ‘I kept feeling that some part of this must be my fault. But when I finally got to a hospital where they were treating other acid victims … there were little children there. Little children. What was their fault?’

She’s had two operations on her face; more were to come but Covid restrictions stopped her accessing the medical care that was due. She says the pain is ever-present. Her skin itches constantly, so much she easily draws blood if she cannot stand it and allows herself to scratch. The sun burns her very quickly too; the hot climate makes this a daily struggle.

The legal case is ongoing and costly. Every appointment costs a month’s wages. After support from the Red Brigade, she was able to pursue a prosecution but after a few months in jail, somehow her attacker was able to send threatening text messages telling her she needed to drop the case; how dare she ruin his life like this (the irony!) and that if she didn’t drop it then it would be worse for her when he got out of jail.

She has now been working at the Orange Café for two years. As mentioned yesterday, this is not easy for her, particularly as many flinch from her face when they see her behind the till. Customers are few since the pandemic, and the café is being propped open at a loss. The Red Brigade is stretched thin trying to support families bereaved by Covid, to provide work for acid attack survivors, to sustain its outreach in access to education for poor families and to offer self-defence training to women across the province. There is too much to do, and not enough money. I hope that when I am back, we might be able to find ways to bring our global community to the support of the Orange Café, and Sangeeta who not only needs our help but so clearly deserves it.

I’m writing this fast whilst also trying to straighten the flight paperwork and testing confirmations for the return journey. I haven’t checked my notes, so any errors and omissions in this account are entirely my fault; I apologise if I have not done her story justice tonight. Thank you to those who read yesterday’s blog and have already reached out asking to help. We cannot reverse what has happened but maybe we can prove that the world is not as evil and unfair as it must seem to Sangeeta, behind her brave face.

5:8 Courage needs care

Today I did a quick dash to a preliminary meeting with Sangeeta, who manages the Orange Cafe here in Varanasi. This is a Red Brigade project aimed at helping acid attack survivors find employment, which can be very difficult.

Sangeeta

Acid attacks are distressingly common and usually occur when a girl declines persistent romantic advances. ‘If you don’t want me, I’ll make sure no one wants you’ seems to be the underlying logic, if such horrific behaviour can be called logical.

I started my interview with Sangeeta by trying to ask some general questions about her and get to know her a little. Naively, I was thinking I could somehow make this not entirely about the fact that some guy destroyed her face and caused her such pain,grief, and devastation. She’s 21 years old, from a very poor family. Her mother is a labourer in the fields. Her father is dead. The family crippled themselves trying to pay her medical expenses. The legal case for treatment and compensation was going nowhere until the Red Brigade stepped into her corner.

She’s a warrior for social justice

The cafe is struggling desperately due to Covid and the lack of footfall. It’s the worst time globally to be in hospitality and the business is in danger of closing. It’s being kept open at a loss in the hope that things will turn around.

Sangeeta truly shines through the pain and humiliation but she has no choice but to put on her brave face every day. She talks about how sometimes people come to the cafe then turn away when they see her behind the till. I can only imagine how much that hurts her and how unfair she feels life must be. I asked her, awkwardly, what were her hopes and dreams? She put her head on the table to hide her emotion. ‘I have none. They have been taken from me.’

I don’t think the differences between my life and someone else’s have ever felt so stark. Tomorrow I’ll be returning to talk with her a little more as we hope that raising awareness of her role and work might bring some stability to the project.

Thence to our Disha girls who were in such happy spirits today. School’s out for Christmas, so we had planned a bumper day of singing, playing games, and 2 hours of karate.

Some of the crew showing off their new FairFight t shirts

The whole afternoon was a delight: we video-called people they love, we recorded their FairFight Christmas message, and we made optimistic plans for next year’s visits.

Didi, selfie!
Susmita and Arti working the partner drill
Heian Sandan
Playing a grab game
Waiting for the competition kumite
Didi, selfie!
Anju/Susmita/Teena
Ritu and Arti trying to beat each other to the 3 point kick

These glowing girls come from equally poor backgrounds; the confidence and calm they show has not been born overnight. We have seen it grow steadily through the care of AshaDiya Foundation and the powerful fun they have in their karate training. There’s no shortage of courage round here; even the bravest sometimes also need care and support.

Anjali (middle) is 11 now! 🥰

Saying goodbye to them is especially hard when it’s such a fleeting visit. However if you consider quality time more than quantity time then the value of this project has been immeasurable.

One more day here, then the trek home will begin.

For tonight, Varanasi out 🙏

5:7 Downtime Downtown

Normal service will resume tomorrow. Meanwhile: local atmosphere shots!

Tonight’s blog will be really short as I have inadvertently had a quiet day due to the nature of arrangements, rearrangements, and school events.

Blessings from the mother Ganges

Had I known earlier, I would have replanned but this wasn’t possible. So. Hey ho. I got some project admin done and recovered a little from the pace so far.

I walked a lot in the neighbourhood. This was mostly in search of an ATM that was 1) working and 2) contained more than 500r- (about £5). This took three separate excursions and an exciting game of Frogger 🙄😂

When crossing the street is for the bold at heart.
The Ghat was buzzing
The river was busy
Toddlers potter round outside homes much as the dogs and cattle do.
The majestic buildings in the fading light

And tomorrow is another day in this very short visit. Hoping we can squeeze the juice out of it all the better for having a quiet day today 🙏🤞 I guess, considering the number of things that might have gone wrong so far, this is a small setback. I’ll leave you with the sights and sounds of the Ganges. Till tomorrow!

A 360 of the river bank below Assi Ghat today

5:6 Impossible to unlikely; unlikely to reality

Yesterday I didn’t write much; by the time I got back I was too exhausted to put two words together! Today we had an equally busy day but we really hit our stride with the content and delivery.

The assembled students at Jagran school

Firstly we visited Jagran School to deliver self protection education to their older girls. The focus here was on situational awareness, threat assessment and emergency physical skills

The students listened brilliantly
The assembled students and the members of the Red Brigade team who arranged the training.

Then it was a journey to the other side of the city and beyond for the second day of training the Red Brigade Instructor team. Thanks to the excellent language skills of the assembled gathering, especially Moyee who brought the translation to life with energy and precision, we were able to go very deep on prevention, body language, red flags, awareness, and ultimately some physical skills. I can tell you that even with the Redman head and throat protector, I took an absolute battering from these dedicated young women. I hope there’s evidence somewhere – I was taking damage rather than taking pictures. If you are one of the folk who donated money because Tommy Joe Moore promised I’d teach young women to deliver lethal throat punches then today your investment was rewarded 😆

Red Brigade team members at Kaithi today

Next stop was Sensei Sohan’s dojo in Sarnath to continue our work on heian bunkai. The students engaged superbly well with the material and quickly applied their existing kata skill to the partner drills

Vishnu needed a better view
Anjali and Ganga – FairFight sponsored students in this dojo

It has been a privilege to train with Anjali and Ganga who are FairFight-sponsored students in this dojo. As with Sensei Sohan’s other students, their technical excellent and positive attitude makes them an absolute pleasure to work with.

Tuesday night’s dojo group

Tomorrow and Thursday it’s back to our Disha girls: excited because although they leave on Friday, school has been cancelled Thursday so we can hang out 🥰🥰🥰🥰 Tomorrow is karate training for them so look out for that in the next blog. Thanks for reading! 🙏

Stop the press! Action shots just in:

Smriti on the chin jab stick scrape
Priti smashed me so hard in the throat I was rethinking all the positive reviews of the protective gear 😳😆
The trainers had a lot of questions but by the end they were finding the answers without me. This one is standard Dimitri 🙏#shred

5:5 A day of three halves

Today I’m afraid the blog is all action, no reflection – and that will also be true tomorrow. It’s a chilly night here so I’m planning to sleep and be ready for another busy day!

5:4 Young women of India

A great place to practise kata

Mostly pictures tonight. I find it very hard to put today into words.

I have found our girls to have grown in so many ways, their attitudes and maturity most of all. There’s no doubt that the instability and change of the last 2 years has been very hard for them yet their confidence and engagement was very heartening to see.

Uday kindly drove us across the city to St Thomas International School which is their new home.

They have been returned to the care of Anjali, their previous ‘house mother’ at Disha who is a devoted advocate for them all.

The catch up chat! Each girl took a turn to tell us how she was doing
Then they helped me with my daily Hindi app and laughed at my pronunciation
We always take pictures of the girls on each visit to update their profiles. Here is a screenshot of my camera roll – poses their own 🥰
After a generous lunch at school we were allowed to borrow a bus to have some fun offsite
Showing off their new school jackets. Moyee and I were also gifted some by the school – very smart!
Heian Nidan on Raj Ghat
Moyee took this one by the river as the sun vanished

I will see them all again on Wednesday for karate training. Tomorrow and Tuesday I will divide my time teaching with the Red Brigade and at Sensei Sohan’s dojo.

Thank to all the donors who made it possible for me to get here and fulfil the primary mission goal – reconnecting with these precious strong young women whom we love very much.

5:3 Lining up the ducks

My friend and teacher Jamie Clubb – lining up his Oscar-winning ducks (The Favourite)

Welcome to episode three of the project blog. I’m waiting for the results of the PCR test which should release me into the wild. I cannot pretend I’m waiting patiently; much as I’d like to be serene, I’m scrolling anxiously through various scenarios and refreshing the wobbly wifi every couple of minutes. So let me update you on the plan for the week while I am waiting for the ducks to align.

Moon over the Ghat tonight

Much may change because here in India once must be flexible about arrangements. But provisionally, here’s a rough outline:

Sunday: reunion with the Disha girls

Two years wait to see these girls: tomorrow is the day!

Monday: 1) school visit on personal safety 2) Red Brigade instructor training 3) training with Sensei Sohan and our karate colleagues in Sarnath.

Tuesday: as Monday but visiting a different school.

Wednesday: 1) visiting Orange Cafe run by acid attack survivors 2) training with the Disha girls

Thursday: 1) school visit on personal safety 2) training with our colleagues at Sensei Sohan’s dojo

Friday: 1) returning again to Orange Cafe 2) visiting Disha girls to say goodbye 3) training with Sensei Sohan and his students.

Saturday morning – airport!

Cat updates from England have been frequent and positive – big thanks to Lee and to Sonia

And this just in from Moyee:

PCR and Antigen tests both negative 🥳

The wait is over. FairFight outreach Varanasi 2021 begins!

5:2 Pacing and planning

Welcome to the second instalment of December 2021. It’s day 4 of quarantine. You know how you always think you’d get everything done … if only you were incarcerated with food and wifi? Apparently that doesn’t work. Between trying to recover from the journey and getting enough exercise, I’ve entirely failed to do the major writing projects which were pegged for this isolation and am very preoccupied with planning for next week which will be epic. That is, assuming the PCR to exit quarantine goes flawlessly 😖🤞🤞

My gis impatiently waiting for action

Today’s meeting with Ajay and Moyee was an exciting venture into socially-distanced conversation after a relationship built over a fragile Zoom connection. We now have a full set of plans for next week. In addition to several days karate work (more details later in the blog) we will be training the instructor team on Monday and Tuesday as well as visiting schools and perhaps my biggest challenge yet: a radio interview supposedly conducted in Hindi. I’m hoping my broken Hinglish will help me scrape through 🙄😱

Extremely useful planning meeting with Moyee and Red Brigade Trust leader, Ajay Patel

I’m so glad we decided on Ashish as the location for quarantine, even though it’s not very close to where I’ll be working once we get going. Just being so near the Ganges is always quite moving. Being on the ghat is also a huge privilege. A few people have asked about the architecture and history so I thought I’d include the wiki link for those who’d like to understand these structures better. Millions of visitors come to see them; it’s easy to see why. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghats_in_Varanasi

I have always loved this view of the Ganges looking down on Assi Ghat. Hot, cold, busy, deserted – always changing.

The one mixed blessing is the lively nature of the space. Music of all sorts continues until after midnight; dogs fight through the night; yoga chanting starts before sunrise. Previously it was the laughing yoga sequence which completed the 2 hour morning set but this seems to have been replaced by some kind of angry yoga featuring growling and snarling exercises. Or maybe I’m just mixing it with the dog fights in my sleep-fuddled brain 😆 There were grand fireworks from the opposite bank when PM Modi visited on Monday.

The roof is a big space overlooking the river – an excellent dojo.

Lucky to have access to the roof for exercise
Although it’s advisable to double check the fixing of your travel-weaponry in case of unexpected mid-air disassembly
Visit from Bharti

I was happy to see Bharti this evening. She coached the Disha girls for AshaDiya Foundation for many years until the closure of the original safe house. We enjoyed catching up. Then, during our talk, Pankaj video-called with the girls which was absolutely brilliant. Somehow so much better when I can say ‘see you on Sunday’ 🥰🥰🥰🥰

Talking to the Disha girls who are now only an hour away instead of 5000 miles

I’m impatient to get going. And intimidated by the scale of what we plan to do. Three more days of quarantine to go. Stay tuned! 🙏 Varanasi out.