Lina Khalifeh: 'Women look at SheFighter as an escape'

Lina Khalifeh, a taekwondo champion from Jordan, used her martial arts experience to create SheFighter, the first women's-only self-defense school in the Middle East. Courtesy of Lina Khalifeh

Editor's note: Lina Khalifeh will be honored with the Stuart Scott ENSPIRE Award at the 2019 Sports Humanitarian Awards on July 9 in Los Angeles.

I was born a fighter. Either you're born a fighter, or you have to become a fighter at some point. Since I was a kid, I was always against the norms of society in Jordan. I did not accept that women had to dress in a certain way or that men had to dress in a certain way or that we have to follow the culture. I was bullied a lot because I was a tomboy. Boys beat me up, relentlessly. I was maybe 5 or 6 years old when my parents decided to enroll me in our cousin's taekwondo school to keep me from fighting all the time. The first time that I touched the mats of the dojo, I felt at home.

At age 15, I earned my black belt and started competing. I began to look at martial arts professionally. Ultimately, I earned three black belts and won 20 gold medals, three of them international. Then at the age of 22, I injured my knee -- the ACL was torn. I could not continue fighting, so I had to stop for two years. All the doctors told me, "You cannot go back into martial arts."

Around this time, in 2007, I was at university, and I discovered that my friend was being abused by her brother and father when she came to lecture with bruises on her face. I said, "I need to create a self-defense and martial arts program where I can help women and empower them to stand up against violence." I decided to become a teacher instead of a professional fighter since I could not fight anymore. I was seeing firsthand, in my country, high levels of domestic violence. It wasn't just my friends. I saw it in my own family. I saw it with other families, and I've seen it in front of my eyes.

"We cannot do anything. We cannot do anything." I've been hearing that phrase all of my life from girls and women. "We have no power. We cannot be independent. We have no jobs." I was just upset about the situation.

Later on, as I sought training, teaching and growing, I discovered that it isn't an easy fight. I discovered that women are afraid to change because they don't want to fight society. It's not just fighting one match. It's fighting the whole society because it's a male-dominated society. A lot of people will stand in your way. People will even try to shut down your business. It's really hard for one woman to fight against an entire society. For most women, it's easier to follow culture and religion and to say, "We are born this way. This is our life." After I started training, I began to understand why women make these decisions. For example, if they have kids or if they've never had a job or any education. But even then, Jordanian, Saudi Arabian, even local women can be highly educated, have master's degrees from London and still choose not to work. So it's an exhausting fight.

Women look at SheFighter as an escape. When they want to feel empowered, they come in for training, they discuss their issues, but when they go back home, it's still hard for them to make their own decisions. There is change, but it takes time. My father thought fighting was going to be a hobby for me. So when I took it up professionally, he did not like it. I worked for my father for his company for four years, and he fired me four times. I mean, we think alike, so we fight, but I told him, "I'm done with your way. I'm starting my own business." He did not believe in martial arts, but it's different with SheFighter. Now, he supports.

At the moment that I got the idea, I felt that it was going to be big. I just felt it. Everyone around me was telling me I would never make it because I did not study business or have a background in business. I did not tell them my dreams, of course. My father started his company from scratch. I'm mostly like him. So I started my company from scratch, and I had a big vision of empowering not just Middle Eastern women or Islamic women but all women -- Asian, African, American, Latino women. I felt that it was something that needed to reach all over the globe.

We've been working with Syrian refugees for five years. Initially, I talked to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) because we're a big partner with them and convinced them that we needed to have Syrian refugee trainers. We couldn't keep providing Jordanian trainers and training camps. The UNHCR was hesitant in the beginning, but this program has succeeded because these women, who are refugees, now have a purpose in their lives. We provided the equipment and uniforms, and they started employing other Syrian boys and girls in their camps. Now we've finished the second year of the Training Trainers program. I have 20 certified trainers in Jordan, either in the capitol or in rural areas, and any project I sign with the organization, they manage it. They're so dedicated to helping other women, it's just amazing. When they see that someone is very dedicated to changing people's lives, they want to do so as well. So we probably need to think about that.

Aside from the physical benefits, the program of SheFighter is mostly psychological. When I was in taekwondo, no one told me why I was doing what I was doing. It was just a sport. It wasn't for internal empowerment. I mean, you get this at some point, but you don't really understand why you are doing it in the beginning. I think about the philosophy of SheFighter as psychological, where women can sit and talk about different issues, harassment, confidence, even how to get over their own ego or take risks -- these things that women deal with in their daily lives. Discussion is a big part of the program. I talk to them about how to balance mind, body and spirit. I tell them, "It's good that you are strong physically, but you might be fragile inside, so we need to work on that as well." SheFighter gives them tools and practices for how to strengthen their spirit or inner selves, how to destroy the ego and become more human.

I've seen a lot of fighters let their ego destroy them at some point. They've built all this muscle, and they're just torn. They become physically strong, but inside they're fragile. Ego really destroys a human spirit. Sports helps a lot in building confidence, but not everyone stays humble. It's important to stay humble because you need to empower others. It's not just about you anymore. The SheFighter movement is about empowering other women, and so I strive to stick to that concept.

I'm honored to be receiving an award attached to Stuart Scott. The first thing I thought about, when I learned I'd be a recipient, is his last speech at the ESPYS. I got inspired a lot by him. I did not know him before, but I feel like I know him now. I understand that sometimes you need to stop fighting. When I was injured, I felt that if I had kept fighting as a taekwondo fighter, I would be blocked all the time. Sometimes you just need to stop and leave it to God. You cannot keep fighting against the weight, and you need others to empower you.