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Pencak Silat: Egyptian Women Using Martial Arts to Combat Sexual Harassment

On the western bank of the River Nile — directly across from Downtown Cairo — lies a district known as Dokki. The long-established neighbourhood is home to more than 50 foreign embassies as well as one of the city’s most renowned schools, the German Deutsche Evangelische Oberschule Kairo (DEO). It is believed that former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein lived in Dokki during his political exile from Iraq between 1959 and 1963, during which time he was best remembered for picking fights with locals at coffeeshops and restaurants. Beyond its historic roots, Dokki is also home to the Indonesian Cultural Centre in Cairo, where more than 1200 Egyptian women regularly train in martial arts to protect themselves from sexual harassment.

The centre resides within a modest four-storey building in the heart of the district, its white walls stained with the effects of Cairo’s air pollution and exhaust fumes. The building is surrounded by a fence of luscious trees that part at a gated entrance, lightly guarded at all times. The inside of the centre resembles a small school, with several classrooms spread out across the facility, providing resources and classes for all age groups. Some offer language courses for newly landed Indonesian emigrants looking to learn Arabic, or for Egyptian natives looking to learn the Indonesian language. There is also an outdoor area where martial arts demonstrations and self-defence training take place. On any given day, hundreds of women gather to learn how to defend against sexual predators.

Pencak silat — an umbrella term for the ancient Indonesian martial arts practiced in the cultural centre — is a fighting style that incorporates full-body strikes, grappling, and weaponry. Pencak was the term used in central and east Java, while silat was used in Sumatra, Malay Peninsula and Borneo. Penack is seem as the outward performance art (performed during wedding ceremonies and public holidays) while silat is the self-defence aspect of the martial art. The sport has since gained notoriety across the region and is now included in the Southeast Asian Games. It also made its Asian Games debut in Indonesia in 2018. However, few could have anticipated that Pencak silat would have such a profound impact on women in the Egyptian capital.


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