London, United Kingdom

Muslim Girls Fence


December 21, 2017

Breaking down stereotypes about Muslim communities and empowering young women through the sport of fencing

“I feel like I can do anything anything I want. It’s me, myself. The [fencing] mask makes me confident.”

The girl in the mask could be any girl. You see a fencing mask. It’s removed to reveal a young girl in a hijab. She is an image of quiet confidence.

The Maslaha project aims to disrupt conventional ideas and misperceptions about young Muslim women. Has it scored a hit? Is this the image that comes to mind when you think of Muslim women?

Breaking stereotypes about girls – and Muslims

A strong confident fencer probably isn’t your first thought when it comes to young Muslim women, says Latifa Akay, project manager for Muslim Girls Fence: “The images we see every day of Muslim women in the press, in the media, are so one-dimensional. How do you shift public imagination about what a Muslim is, what a Muslim woman can be, and change the narratives around Muslim communities? You need to do something quite radical or unusual to do that. And listen to Muslim communities speaking on their own terms. We’re using fencing, that’s something unusual.”

Muslim Girls Fence is a collaboration between Maslaha, British Fencing and Sport England. The initiative breaks down stereotypes of fencing as a male and white-dominated elite sport not accessible to young people of racialized backgrounds. The project challenges misconceptions, builds confidence and empowers young Muslim women to lift their aspirations as they enter an adult world.

Maslaha is a London-based organization that works to change the conditions that create inequalities for Muslim communities. With success tackling wicked problems in such areas as health, education and the criminal justice system, taking on a white, male-dominated sport like fencing and a maligned cultural community was the kind of challenge – and opportunity – they embrace.

Muslim Girls Fence as launched as an 8-week pilot project at Frederick Bremer school in East London between December 2015 and March 2016, and has been expanding ever since.  Akay credits the project’s success to the girls and their role as ambassadors:  “They’re taking back power, speaking on their own terms, reclaiming their narrative

It’s about sports, but it’s not about sports

copyright Rehmat Rayatt

On the face of it, the project is about getting girls into sport. But it is about so much more than that. Fencing workshops are interspersed with sessions on identity and feminism. The girls are encouraged to become their own story tellers, to speak for themselves instead of being spoken about. In 2016, the novice fencers eagerly participated in London’s Women of the World Festival, where they spoke to national and international media about the project in their own words.

For Maslaha, the project makes perfect sense. Founded in East London in 2007, Maslaha works on changing and challenging the conditions that create inequalities for Muslim communities in the UK,  where Muslim women experience complex discrimination based on both faith and gender. Almost two thirds of UK Islamophobic incidences happen to women. So building resilience and creating more confidence among Muslim girls is an important goal for Muslim Girls Fence.

Working with strategic partners

Like many sports organizations in highly diverse cities, British Fencing wants to make its sport more inclusive and accessible to young people of all backgrounds, starting in London. The pitch got a bit easier with the profile and success of American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, a hijab-wearing Muslim woman who represented the United States Olympic fencing team in 2016. Muhammad has described fencing as ‘uniquely accommodating’ for Muslim women. The fact that she could wear the same fencing  kit as everyone else meant that for the first time she ‘truly felt like part of the team.’

The Olympian’s success brought pride to 13-year old fencer Serhildan Gocmen: “I watched the Olympic fencing team and felt really proud of myself for being able to tell my sister their moves. Most people don’t know about fencing.” Serhildan is also keenly aware of the challenges she faces as a Muslim girl: “Girls don’t get this sort of opportunity and people are biased, saying Muslim girls can’t do this – it’s been mostly white British men [fencing] – but now it’s getting heard around the world. Lots of people can pick up fencing.”

A counter-narrative

Project leaders also understand the need to counter the force of pervasively negative images of Muslim women projected in mainstream media. For this reason the project has also involved the production of an exhibition and short film in an effort to breach a public imagination that is being ever constricted by the media and government preoccupation with a certain type of Muslim woman. The exhibition and film were showcased at the Women Of the World (WOW) festival 2016 at the Southbank Centre, attracting international attention and coverage: “Just because I’m Muslim and a girl and I’m not white, doesn’t mean I can’t fence. I can, and here I am showing you I can.”

Building inclusion, one saber at a time

While Maslaha entertains global aspirations, for now, the project is focused on its impact in local communities. For the girls learning to fence, that impact is real and tangible. “I thought it was a high-class, white man’s game – it wasn’t really for girls,” 12 year-old Assiya told The Telegraph. “But I’ve started to realise what fencing actually is. It isn’t just about fighting – there’s something more behind it… confidence.”

Her 12-year old friend Rodha agrees: “When I’m fencing I feel proud because you know what you’re doing it for – you’re raising awareness about stereotypes and Muslim women. I just feel like… it’s a new beginning.”

In an Al Jazeera interview, project manager Akay elaborates on in this emerging theme among the young participants: “A lot of the girls spoke about how fencing made them feel more confident, how it had been uplifting to be part of a journey and immersed in a new activity. While some of the girls got a lot from the fencing and are keen to continue in the sport, others really enjoyed the opportunity to discuss their identities as Muslim girls, to think about tackling stereotypes and articulate this on their own terms to national and international audiences.”


Maslaha translates from Arabic as “for the common good.” Strategic partners, British Fencing and Sport England are both actively working to build Maslaha’s value proposition into their own institutions while sharing their professional skills and expertise with Muslim Girls Fence. Their open and enthusiastic participation is important to the projects young athletes and is helping build a more inclusive culture around fencing and sports across the UK. Ensuring diversity and inclusion are embedded in their institutions and in sports like fencing means all Londoners can feel welcome to participate and included.

The project has been picked up widely by the national and international media including; Buzzfeed, AP, The Telegraph, BBC Asian Network, TRT, London Live, Al Jazeera and NBC.

Recent partners currently include Youtube and the National Theatre of Scotland.

Building on the success of the project, Maslaha is scaling up and developing a national engagement strategy and programmes across the UK. Muslim Girls Fence will expand to six locations in London and Birmingham over the next two years. Sooner, rather than later, it’s likely that more Muslim Girls Fence programs will sprout in cities around the globe.

Making it Work for You:

  • Each project partner brings their own agenda to the table along with their unique strengths and opportunities. Successful partnerships are those that find common ground while making room for everyone
  • Make it fun. For youth to be involved, deep meaning may keep them there, but making it fun and interesting will get them out to begin with.
  • Have you created space and time for participant voice? Marginalized groups, including young people, value the opportunity to have their voices heard.
  • Choose a sport or activity that takes people out of their comfort zone, but ensure it's a safe space for participation.

Themes: Live, Sports