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Growing up in Amman, Jordan, where extracurricular activities for young girls were few and far between, Lina Khalifeh jumped into Taekwondo lessons at age five at her second cousin’s martial arts studio. She was good at the sport, and her coach told her so. Because being “good” at anything wasn’t something she ever head at school, Taekwondo became her school, and helped her develop her physical, mental and emotional awareness.
Years later, after seeing a friend suffer from physical abuse by her father and brother, Lina grew determined to train women how to defend themselves. That’s how SheFighter—the first women’s-only self-defense school in the Middle East—was born.
Since launching her company in Amman in 2012, Lina and her all-female staff of 500+ instructors have trained more than 15,000 women across the globe. In addition to Jordan, SheFighter studios operate in Palestine, Armenia, Holland, South Korea and Mauritius, an island off the southeast coast of Africa.
After being honored by former President Barack Obama at the White House’s Emerging Global Entrepreneurship event in 2015, being given “The Economic Empowerment Leadership” award by Hillary Clinton and Vital Voices in 2018, and training actress Emma Watson, Lina has no shortage of opportunities to continue to expand SheFighter, which she plans to bring to the U.S.
Defying Cultural Norms
While she’s received a number of accolades for her work, getting SheFighter off the ground has been anything but a cake walk for Lina. For one, female founders in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have the lowest rates of Total Entrepreneurial Activity (TEA) in the world with merely 4% of the population. Two, while 96% of girls graduate from university in Jordan, only 17.3% participate in the labor force, according to the Department of Statistics in Jordan.
“When I started SheFighter in 2012, I thought women would accept it,” shares Lina. “But a lot of women didn’t want to get out of their comfort zone and started attacking me. They said, ‘what you’re giving us is not a solution’, because they thought they were free and liberal. But the culture is stronger than the educational system here. As a girl you’re born knowing that someone will take care of you, so you don’t have to take care of yourself. So women may get their masters or PHd, but they know they can go back home and their fathers will take care of them.”
Creating Her Own Style
These days, the demand for SheFighter is growing faster than Lina can keep up with at times.
“Sometimes you grow so fast, but you don’t have enough budget to grow that big,” she says. `’So now I’m doing partnerships with other countries, and doing training of trainers courses. We have a big number of certified trainers to train other women in other countries.”
In the SheFighter studios, trainers teach students how to take care of themselves on multiple levels. With a copyrighted manual and student training system of five different degrees, the SheFighter self-defense technique is a combination of Taekwondo, boxing, Aikido, Kung Fu, and training for the military.
“If someone threatens you with a gun, knife or stick, you’ll know what to do as a trained SheFighter,” says Lina.
Training & Certifying Syrian Refugees
The manual and certified training have played a significant role in helping SheFighter create partnerships with a number of NGOs, including UNHCR, Oxfam and UNDP.
When the organization takes on a project to support women in rural areas, the women trained in those locations by SheFighter instructors are able to take the lead of that project and be compensated for it.
“It’s also a way of promoting economic empowerment for women,” says Lina.
Through a partnership with the UNHCR, SheFighter has certified 12 Syrian refugees to be trainers, who are paid in salary and now training other women in refugee camps.
Developing Emotional Intelligence
At the core of Lina’s purpose-driven business is her will to help people find fulfillment from within. She often speaks at conferences to encourage young people how to develop their emotional intelligence, and deal with the highs and lows of life. An avid reader, she credits the great mystic poet Rumi and Bruce Lee as sources of inspiration and enlightenment on this topic.
“A lot people, women or men, want something to satisfy them outside instead of inside,” Lina opines. “Through martial arts, I was always connected internally to myself. Taekwondo was one of the best things I started because it’s a solo sport. The more you’re connected to your emotional intelligence the more you’re going to rise in life. So Shefighter was mostly an energy coming from within me to everyone else.”
As she continues to build SheFighter and her emotional intelligence, Lina hopes the world stops attaching negative stigmas to people for being emotional.
“We have pressured women so much that they feel to be connected to their emotions is wrong,” she says. Being connected to our emotions is good, we just need to control them like Bruce Lee said. You may get bad news, but you have a choice on how to respond to it.”
Part of maintaining this kind of balance is keeping your ego in check. Lina says that at times when women she trains become more powerful, their egos begin to take charge. In these scenarios, Lina tells her trainees they have to stay humble, and says “at any moment one injury can drop you.”
Additionally, when Lina gives lectures to young audiences, she stresses the importance of being kind and supportive toward yourself.
“We need to start educating kids on how to balance their egos, and how to talk to themselves as if they are their own best friends,” Lina says. “When I was training I never stopped. I never let anyone put me down. I never listened to naysayers or haters.”
Because your best friend will never let you give up on yourself, and if she sees you suffering she’ll feel compelled to lift you up.
January 22, 2019 at 08:22AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs