It was an afternoon like any other afternoon and a heavily pregnant Cindy Lee was on her way to pick up her son at his pre-school in Subang Jaya. Little did she realise that between winding through traffic and glancing at her phone to check the time, she was about to have one of the most terrifying experiences of her life.
There was a car trailing her. A scruffy stranger stepped out the moment she pulled up at the kindergarten. Claiming he was a plainsclothes policeman, he wanted Lee to roll down her window. Suspicious, she refused.
Enraged, the man used a huge rock to smash Lee’s car. “I screamed and honked repeatedly for help because there were other people in the vicinity,” the 38-year-old recounted.
No-one helped, but spooked by her reaction, the man jumped back into his car and sped off.
Fearing for her life, Lee drove straight home with her son.
After a week, Lee was still feeling scared and traumatised. Life went on for the mother-of-two, but she felt increasingly paranoid each time she went out.
It was only several years later, when Lee was groped by a drunk man on an evening out with her friends, that she realised that having some knowledge in self-defence would help.
“I shrieked and literally froze up,” she says. “And as usual, no-one – not even the guard standing a few metres away – came to help.”
Lee decided to take matters into her own hands. She took up an integrative form of silat that combines several genres of martial arts.
Pioneered and taught by Sebastien Loriot, a French expat with the mysterious, menacing air of a KGB hitman, Seni Rahsia Alam teaches not only the physical means of warding off an attack, but also female empowerment which is to be alert to danger and carrying oneself with confidence while out and about.
A former bodyguard in France, Loriot himself is an expert in several forms of martial arts, including Muay Thai and French boxing, or savate.
He learnt jujitsu from his father – also a trained martial artist and soldier – when he was a child. At 17, Loriot attended a silat school in the forests of Suriname, later moving to Indonesia to learn from Javanese silat masters.
His love for the martial arts eventually led him to Kuala Lumpur in 2009 where he became a first-hand witness to the burgeoning crime. “People became a lot more insecure,” he says.
Violence against women remains one of the most common human rights abuses in the world. A recent report entitled Why Self-Defense Needs To Be Part Of The Violence Against Women Conversation by Time magazine showed that women aged 15 to 44 worldwide are more likely to die or be injured by male violence than from cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined.
The statistics are equally grim back home.
Crimes targeting females, especially, are on the rise. Bag-snatching is among the most reported crimes in a recent report by the Royal Malaysian Police, while the number of rape cases has doubled from the year 2000 to 2012, averaging around 3,000 a year since then, according to the All Women’s Action Society (AWAM).
According to Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism Of Women’s Self-Defense by Martha McCaughey, the common belief that men are “protectors” while women are “the protected” justifies heterosexism and perpetuates men’s violence against women.
The world, it seems, is still a dangerous place for women, despite being awash in feminist slogans.
For many women, however, personal safety just isn’t a priority like fitness or annual health checkups until a personal experience changes their minds.
Ann Osman, the first top-tier Muslim female Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter, for instance, heeded her mother’s advice to train in combative arts after being tailgated from work one night.
The same applies to Lee and her good friend Ferlynda Faisal, who was with Lee on the night she was sexually assaulted.
Gyms, martial-arts organisations and female NGOs offer classes in self-defence from time to time but finding the right class, as Lee found out, can be a challenge.
Certain martial art techniques like karate and taekwando, for example, are highly choreographed and take years to master. Most combative sports also do not take into account the physical and psychological differences of women because they were developed by men for men.
There are, however, several styles of martial arts that could be useful for women in times of trouble. Devised for the Israeli forces, krav maga is a lethal self-defense system that merges realistic fight training with techniques borrowed from boxing, judo, wrestling and aikido. Muay thai, with its focus on using the hardest parts of the body (elbows, knees and top of head) for striking, also offers women an arsenal of practical self-defence manoeuvres.
In Malaysia, there’s silat, a sport that’s usually associated with wizened and moustachioed Malay men in the kampung. Once limited to a small community of practitioners, it’s now more accessible.
“What truly sets silat apart from other martial arts like judo is that judo is a sport. Silat, on the other hand, is used for combat in villages,” says Loriot, who holds bi-weekly classes at the Lycee Francais, a French School in Kuala Lumpur.
Perfect for women
Legend has it that silat, with its special emphasis on dynamic movements, was created by a woman who based her combat system on the movements of fighting animals. Agility, rather than strength, is of utmost importance.
Loriot has tailored his classes to address women’s special concerns.
For Lee and Ferlynda – one of the few women who train under Loriot – this means using their palms, elbows and legs to strike, punch and kick themselves free from the grip of an attacker. And unlike other martial arts, where anything above the shoulders or below the waist are off limits, in Loriot’s version of silat, anything goes. And yes, this also means a flurry of eye-gouging, groin-kicking and foot-stomping – in short, the whole works.
“I like how there are no fancy moves involved. It’s quick and straight to the point. Very efficient,” says Ferlynda.
Females make formidable opponents, reveals Loriot. “A lot of the women who train pick skills up quicker than their male counterparts. That’s because women tend to be more observant. They also use their brains, whereas men use their strength.”
However, there are several factors that prevent women from being truly great fighters, explains Loriot. “They tend to be less aggressive and confrontational. This, when coupled with fear of getting hurt and feelings of self-consciousness, take time to overcome.”
Numerous studies show that martial arts training levels out the unequal power relations between men and women by teaching women how to defend themselves and showing men that not all women are weak or vulnerable.
A University of Oregon survey, for instance, showed that women who took self-defence classes reported much lower incidents of unwanted sexual contact than those who didn’t.
Another study by No Means No Worldwide, a violence prevention organisation, demonstrates how teaching self-defence to impoverished adolescent girls helped reduce the incidence of sexual harassment in Kenya by 65%.
“Having martial arts training doesn’t mean you can take risks and be reckless,” advises Loriot.
Another word of caution: “Never look like a victim. I’ve worked in the security industry long enough to know that aggressors tend to set their sights on women who look helpless, lost or intimidated.”
Although they’ve yet to put their newfound skills to good use, both Lee and Ferlynda reported feeling a lot more confident when they’re out alone.
“Next time, I won’t just stand there and scream,” says Lee. “And I’d probably punch the drunk man if I saw him again.”