Building a World Where Everyone is Safe and in Their Power

Throughout our series on the intersection of family policing and domestic violence, Rise is exploring community-led, anti-carceral approaches to preventing violence, supporting healing and building safety. Malikah, based in Queens, New York, is a global grassroots network of women leaders who support each other and together remake their communities to be inclusive, safe and just. Here, Rana Abdelhamid, Founder of Malikah, discusses their work, which focuses on self-defense, healing justice, financial literacy and organizing. 

Q. Please tell us about yourself and why you started Malikah.

A. I grew up in a predominantly working-class, North African, Muslim immigrant community in Queens. It is a beautiful place that I feel very connected to and still live in. I started Malikah through my own experiences of wanting to find safety and healing. It was in a post-9/11 context—my community was confronting both police surveillance and hate-based violence—that this organization came to be. I have a black belt in Shotokan karate. I’m also a survivor of a hate-based attack. The vision was to bring together young women from my neighborhood, informally in a mosque basement, to teach self-defense. 

When it first started, I taught karate and then we would kick it and talk about our experiences growing up in this neighborhood. That was how Malikah started—as a grassroots organization that centers communities to do healing, self-defense and safety work, defining safety for ourselves. Today, Malikah focuses on self-defense, healing, financial literacy and organizing training. 

Q. What is Malikah’s vision and mission?

A. Our vision is to build a world where everyone is safe and in their power. It’s kind of weird to run an organization based on the premise of violence. I never want to have to teach a self-defense class. I never want anyone who’s taken one of my self-defense classes to have to use the techniques. The goal is to organize ourselves out of a job, which is why we do not only de-escalation training—we also do organizing training. Our mission is to use self-defense, healing justice and organizing to build power in communities so that we are able to build safety for ourselves and dismantle systems that harm our bodies and communities.

Q. Who is involved in Malikah’s community—and how do your programs connect to your vision?

A. We do train-the-trainer work, where we prepare folks to bring programs back to their communities, neighborhoods and organizations. We have curricula on safety, healing, trauma-informed facilitation, organizing and financial literacy. 

Five years ago, we started the National Muslim Women’s Summit, which brings together 50 young Muslim women from across the country annually to participate in trainings. Often, we don’t have space to mobilize because a lot of Muslim organizations are male led and very male dominated. We wanted to create space for Muslim women to talk about their experiences and build their leadership skills, relationships and community. People hold onto these relationships after the Summit is over and build together, which is powerful and exactly what we want. 

We have an incredible community of folks involved in our collective, including about 30 Gender Justice Fellows who take part in our Gender Justice Institute. These are BIPOC women and gender-expansive people already doing work serving important causes in their own communities across the country—some around the globe—and it is dope that we have that kind of reach. A Fellow could be someone working on reproductive justice in Long Island or someone working to ensure that Black pregnant people in North Carolina have access to proper maternal health care. They utilize the skill sets they develop through training with Malikah in their work. 

We also partner with community-based organizations that reach out and say, “We want a self-defense class.” Or, “We need financial literacy training.” Or, “We want to create a healing justice space for our organizers.” A bulk of our work is responding to what community partners need. These organizations are often on the front lines of intense and violent issues, whether they’re organizing against white supremacist violence or the rollback of reproductive rights, organizing for the safety of the LGBTQ community or organizing tenants around housing issues. We train their organizers from a healing perspective—or if they’re doing anti-gun violence work, we may focus on self-defense and de-escalation. These partnerships are a great opportunity to build an intersectional coalition and learn from each other. 

It’s beautiful, it’s powerful and it’s heavy. Every year I think, “We need this work now more than ever.” When I started, I didn’t think that that would be the case. I thought life would get better. But the unfortunate reality of the world that we live in is that there’s just a huge demand for the programs we offer.

Q. In our series on the intersection of family policing and domestic violence, Rise is focusing on approaches that don’t involve carceral systems. Why does Malikah use community-based approaches? 

A. Because that’s what works—we know that is what makes people feel safe and secure. Especially in the communities we work with, which are immigrants, including a lot of undocumented folks, going to the police often isn’t an option. For us, having healing spaces and strong, connected relationships allows people to feel safer to navigate and to maybe exit, when they’re able to, a domestic violence situation. It’s what we’ve seen be effective over the past decade.

Q. Why is it important to focus on economic justice?

A. Because of the ways capitalism operates and sexism often manifests, a lot of people we work with experience economic dependency. We have found that many survivors of domestic violence who are cohabitating with an abuser don’t have the financial means to leave the situation, especially when we’re working with immigrants, sometimes undocumented women, who are financially dependent on their partners. 

Financial literacy allows us to reframe our understanding of who has access and why the capitalist system doesn’t work for all of us. Many mainstream financial literacy programs have an approach that says, “Just pull yourself up by the bootstraps. If you don’t buy lattes, you should be able to buy a house in twelve years.” The reality is different when we talk about savings with a woman of color who may be upwardly mobile but has to support her family in another country or pay for her grandmother’s medication. Mainstream financial literacy programs don’t talk about these types of financial dependencies. At Malikah, we talk about the harms of capitalism as part of the harm that creates gender-based violence and exploits women’s bodies. We talk about financial literacy, capitalism and economic justice because economic safety and liberation are essential aspects of creating safety for our communities.

Q. How does economic justice connect to racial and gender justice?

A. Within the context of the United States, we know the history of exploitation, enslavement and indentured servitude and the ways in which women, people of color and queer folks are overexploited but undercompensated in our labor. This history of lack of equity and compensation is important to understand because we can say, “We’re not on an equal playing field. There’s a reason I’m struggling. It’s not that I’m doing something wrong.” 

We can develop skills to think about what economic liberation looks like for us—including ending capitalism as it now exists. Anti-racism and gender justice require creating an economic system that recognizes the history of racism and sexism and affords equity to our communities. We want to do that political and economic education work and we want people to feel they can have control over their livelihoods. Many powerful models of community change and organizing in the U.S. came with an economic model—we have learned from them and want to mirror that approach.

Q. Why is it important to uplift the intersections of our identities?

A. Our community is vast and diverse, and in our work, we want to center those who are most marginalized. People most impacted by systems of harm should lead the work. Intersectional identities are very important—people have various identities and there’s a lot of learning and unlearning we have to do as part of healing justice work and for communities to achieve full equity and liberation. By centering those who are impacted at the intersections, we can begin to address all harms. We want to build in solidarity, in coalition and to build deep relationships across diversity. 

At the same time, it is important to have spaces just for Muslim women to get together with other Muslim women. It’s important for Black women to host healing spaces that are only for Black women and for trans folks to have spaces just for trans folks. We want to create safety and healing in a world that doesn’t offer that—where you constantly have to explain and do the work of unlearning, and you may experience harm in that process. We understand that people want to be safe while doing intersectional work—and that we all cause harm. We often quote Mia Mingus, a queer disability justice and transformative justice activist out of Oakland, California, who talks about how we all do harm. Intersectional work allows us to learn to do better on an individual level and to build a better world for all of us.

Q. How do you support the healing processes of women and gender-expansive people who have been through trauma and violence?

A. There are three trauma-related pieces that we cover in our trainings: trauma-informed facilitation, anti-oppression and healing justice. Anti-oppression training is about understanding power and privilege and systems and structures. Healing justice training teaches how to facilitate specific activities through a trauma-informed lens. To me, healing justice involves using an anti-oppression framework to understand that people’s experiences with violence are ongoing, so the work to unpack those experiences and create safety has to be ongoing, as well. Malikah’s healing justice spaces and self-defense classes are the front lines of that work. Our free, virtual healing spaces are open every Sunday—that’s an option for anyone who wants to be part of our community. Facilitators trained by Malikah also offer recurring programming in their own communities. 

One of our main goals is to build deep, trusting relationships and to support people in building confidence and strength. This empowers people to be able to get out of a harmful situation and to find a community to support them long term. It creates space for people to talk through and unpack their experiences when they feel comfortable doing so, and to listen to other people’s experiences. 

We see self-defense education as trauma-informed work and somatic healing. It reframes people’s relationships to their body, especially as survivors where our relationships with our bodies may be marred by histories of violence. For me, as a survivor, doing self-defense is impactful and joyful because you understand that you have power. Physically, I could be 5’1” and 110 pounds, and I could really do some damage if necessary. That’s healing to know and essential to the work we want to do. Throwing a punch, using your voice to say “stop,” learning how to lift someone much heavier than you off of you—this allows folks to understand and reclaim the power of their body and step into their physical power. 

We also have a resident social worker who we’ve been working with now for five years, which is amazing. We work with a lot of social workers and psychologists who help build our curriculum and train facilitators. They are on hand if someone is dealing with a difficult situation in a healing space. 

Q. How do you support parents and families who have been affected by domestic violence and other forms of violence?

A. Many single mothers and families who don’t have a dual-income household struggle economically to provide basic needs for the family. For us, creating safety includes providing financial and food resources, offering training and building community. We create flexibility so that parents can be part of our organizing community—and we work from an intergenerational perspective. It feels beautiful when you have a mother who comes to a class with her daughter to practice self-defense techniques together, and then the mother sends an email afterwards saying, “This is life changing for me and for my daughter.” 

It may be the first time a mother and daughter get to talk about what safety looks like for each of them, and there is learning on both sides. The mother can express to her daughter how worried she is and a daughter can talk about her experiences and insecurity. We’ve done that in refugee camps in the Middle East, where safety is safety from war. We’ve also done it in Queens, where safety is safety from hate-based violence, racial violence and police violence—being able to unpack that in a familial, community-based setting. We feel lucky to be part of the process of creating opportunities for these impactful conversations to happen in an intentional and healing way, rather than a fear-based way.

Q. How is domestic violence and violence that affects our communities rooted in structural violence and societal oppression?

A. During the pandemic, domestic violence was called a “shadow pandemic.” People experiencing intimate partner violence had to isolate with their abusers, but the reality of domestic violence didn’t make the mainstream conversation in the way it should have—it really was a “shadow.” There was a macro level of what everybody was dealing with throughout the pandemic—all of the harm from an economic, public health, housing, unemployment and migration standpoint. There was also the underlying reality of what many people experience every single day in their homes and communities, but that wasn’t given breathing room even to be a discussion. 

When I think of structural violence, I think of the violence—that isn’t making headlines—that people deal with every day. In broader conversations around issues that impact all of us, it is essential to insert voices and perspectives of those who are disproportionately impacted. It goes back to intersectionality, because it means talking about the intersections of racial oppression and gender violence, especially within the context of a public health crisis and everything happening sociopolitically across this country right now. We need to ask: Who is most impacted? Who’s not at the table? What conversations are not being had? 

Q. How do storytelling, deep listening and community and relationship building support safety and healing? 

A. You’re speaking my language—we use a public narrative framework and a relational organizing model. We believe that relationships and friendships are freedom. The type of safety we talk about requires strong social capital. This could mean that if you’re walking down the street and you feel unsafe, you know the local bodega owner, so you walk to that store and someone’s got your back. 

When survivors have strong community relationships and friendships, they feel more supported to exit a violent situation and to identify and talk about that violence. It’s so critical for us to build deep friendships and relationships in our coalition groups and with communities we want to serve, because this work is so sensitive, so personal and so interpersonal. It’s literally about people’s lives. We have to build trust and operate on trust. That’s slow work that takes years.

Q. How does this approach fit with and build towards your global vision?

A. As a young Muslim woman growing up, the model for women’s “liberation” presented in the mass media was the U.S. government invading Iraq and Afghanistan to “liberate” Muslim women. From my own historic context and what I’ve learned about European colonization to “liberate” North African and African women, my commitment is always that we are not liberating anyone. We’re training people who have existing relationships with their own communities to do this work in their own communities. I have no business going into the Bronx to do self-defense training and healing justice work long term when there’s already leadership and committed relationships—people who know all the aunties and uncles and everybody on the block. We build on existing relationships, trust existing leadership and understand that true healing and safety will come when we’re working alongside existing leadership—not when we’re taking up space. 

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