The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, April 15, 2001

On the path to strength
By Laxmi Murthy

"WILL she?" "Won’t she?" A tense silence grips the room, all eyes on the diminutive young woman crouched on the floor. Several deep breaths, her fist slices powerfully through the air and Wham! two pieces of wooden board fly into the air. "I did it!" exults an excited Amrita. Clutching the pieces of the precious board, she returns to her place in the circle as the next young woman advances to the centre, palms sweaty, heart thudding.

About 15 women, ranging from 18 years of age to above 50, are attending a workshop on feminist self-defence, or Wenlido. This technique, which translates as ‘Women’s Path of Strength’ was developed in Toronto, Canada in 1973 by the Page family.

"Witnessing the brutal assault and stabbing of a woman, the family was more shocked by the total helplessness of the bystanders, who did not do anything to help the woman,"saysGitta Ridder, a Wenlido instructors from the Women Educating in Self-Defence Training, Vancouver, Canada (WEST).

The Page family was determined to evolve a technique of self-defence which would help women survive physical assaults. "While traditional martial arts like karate and judo take years to master, the principles and techniques of Wenlido can be learnt in just two days," says Diane Taylor, a professional musician trained in Wenlido.


The basic principle of Wenlido is ‘connect with your strength’. But that is easier said than done, given the centuries of conditioning which convince women that they are the ‘weaker sex’.

A common perception of women’s self-defence is training in weapons - guns, knifes and spray guns. But research in Canada shows that in six cases out of ten where a weapon was used against a woman, the weapon was provided by the woman herself. "Unless a woman is trained in combat with weapons, the best possible weapons are on the human body - the fists, the knife-edge of the hand, elbows, and well-aimed kicks," says Ridder.

The strength a woman can harness if she concentrates her energy was more than apparent in the breaking of the wooden board. It takes a minimum of 30 lbs to break the board, and much less than that to break a nose (8 lbs) or knee (15 lbs) or deal a blow to the temple (3 lbs) which can be fatal. An empowering bit of information for women who consider themselves weak and in need of male protection!

The simple techniques, which draw from karate, can be learnt at any age, and whatever the level of physical fitness. The core idea is to use the energy that fear generates. "When faced with an aggressor, a woman experiences a rush of adrenaline. This often paralyses her, but it can also be channelised into positive energy," explains Ridder as she takes the group through the motions of deep breathing.

Breathing through the belly, taking much needed oxygen to the brain in times of stress and vigorous exhalations are the first steps in physical self-defence. Loud grunting and exhalations fill the room as each woman gets in touch with her ‘ki’ - the life force, or core of energy in her being. It is harnessing the ‘ki’ and using it creatively that is the aim of self-preservation.

But Ridder and Taylor caution that physical self-defence should be the last resort. Women can use several other steps before resorting to it.

The group is then taken through an exercise in recognising unhealthy boundaries and learning how to say a firm ‘No’ - a surprisingly difficult exercise. Most women found themselves getting shriller and more desperate as the other person crossed her boundary, and found it difficult to be assertive.

"It is difficult to get out of the victim mode," agrees Ridder, "But it is important to remember that an aggressor needs a victim - both roles feed into each other."

So what happens when a woman refuses to play the victim? What happens when she decides to ‘change the script’? She gets called names, was the immediate response. "Women are supposed to be submissive, quiet and dainty. So if you don’t conform, you are not regarded as a woman anymore," says a young collegiate.

But it works to ward off aggressors, as the group witnesses in a role-play. When a group of men advances on a lone woman, cat calls, whistles and threat of molestation writ large, the woman is cornered and desperate. Engaging in conversation with them, or running away only eggs them on. But when the woman stands firm, looks them in the eye and brushes them aside (of course with techniques newly acquired at the workshop!), the bunch of would-be harassers is stunned.

The repeated emphasis throughout the workshop is to resort to physical self-defence only when all else - assertive verbal skills, obtaining assistance, using negotiation or humour fails. Research conducted by Wenlido centres in Canada shows that in eight cases out of 10 when women made their boundaries strong, it worked to ward off the aggressors.

Participants learn that connecting with one’s strength need not be only a physical act. To develop a self-image of a strong, capable individual who controls her own life is as much a step towards self-defence as is learning how to release oneself if grabbed from behind.

The programme also builds on women’s ability to trust their own instincts. In 97 per cent of the cases when women were assaulted, they knew that something was going to happen.Developing the ability to sense that something is not quite right - whether in a dark alley, an empty house or in the midst of a family gathering, is a skill that equips one with self-defence strategies if assaulted.

With the phenomenal increase in violence against women, such strategies of self-defence can go a long way towards equipping women with ways of coping and emerging as forceful human beings. And travelling collectively along a journey to strength. (WFS)

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