With hate crimes against Muslims on the rise since 9/11, a Palo Alto woman has been doing something to help prevent them from being harmed.
Rana Abdelhamid, then just 16 years old, created the nonprofit International Muslim Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment (WISE) to train young Muslim women in self-defense. The group also offers lessons in social activism and leadership.
Now 24 and a board member of Amnesty International, Abdelhamid has seen her organization expand to five U.S. cities and other countries, including Spain, Ireland, Jordan and Tunisia. WISE has trained close to 2,500 people globally, Abdelhamid said.
“Our main goal is to give young women the skills they need to be able to confront anti-Muslim violence and gender-based violence or any form of hate-based violence,” Abdelhamid said.
For her efforts, Abdelhamid has been honored as a L’Oreal Paris Women of Worth award winner. As one of 10 honorees, the native New Yorker will receive $10,000.
Abdelhamid hopes to use her winnings to spread WISE to her new hometown on the West Coast.
“We’re across the country, but also globally, which has really exposed me to a lot of incredible people,” said Abdelhamid, who recently was hired by Google in Mountain View. “I’ve been able to see the direct impact of our work and how it has been transformative in creating healing spaces for women who are victims and survivors of various forms of violence, but also really equipping them with skills to be able to feel and move beyond those experiences on some levels. That’s been a beautiful thing to be a part of.”
Abdelhamid was inspired to do something about anti-Islam hatred when a stranger approached her on a Queens, New York, street and pulled off her head covering. It left the then-16-year-old emotionally hurt.
“After that experience, I felt very vulnerable, alone,” Abdelhamid said. “There was a sense of not belonging within the context of my own city, which was a horrible feeling. That made me want to create a space where I could feel safe, and feel some sort of belonging, and that’s kind of the point of a lot of these spaces we create.
“We can recreate existing spaces to make them so women, regardless of past experiences, can feel safe and secure in their own skin, when there are so many spaces where we don’t, so many different types of violence that a woman could face. And so that continues to be the motivation for our work, given what’s happening in our media, everything politically, it’s even more important.”
Owning a black belt in Shotokan karate came in handy when Abdelhamid began teaching self-defense.
“We’re teaching self-defense, which is different than your standard martial arts class because it’s highly conceptualized and very focused on the escalation technique and situational experiences,” Abdelhamid said. “We allow participants to think about a context and we’ll model out these contexts for how they would react, whereas martial arts is a broad discipline, it’s a competitive sport, so it’s different. But it definitely formed my ability to do this training.”
WISE also teaches young women how to organize to promote social change within their communities.
“It’s basic things like public narrative, which is how to tell your story to mobilize people and inspire people, to how to host a one-on-one meeting to inspire someone to join your cause, to how do you even develop and start to strategize more effective ways to create change on a certain issue,” Abdelhamid said.
The nonprofit also does what it calls social entrepreneurship training, which focuses on financial literacy.
“Things like how to collect miles, what’s the most effective way to navigate your 401k,” said Abdelhamid, who recently earned a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard and double-majored in economics and political science at Middlebury College in Vermont.
Not everyone learning through WISE is Muslim, and not all are young.
“Over the past couple of years there has been high demand from various communities,” said Abdelhamid, noting that members of the LGBTQ community have been very interested in the work they do. She estimates 70 percent of WISE participants are young Muslim women.
Getting WISE started wasn’t easy.
“It was very challenging because of the narrative around us,” Abdelhamid said. “There was pushback from folks who didn’t realize why this was important, and at the time I didn’t have the language to articulate why this was important.”
Part of the challenge was finding the mental capacity to carry on.
“It’s so emotionally challenging,” Abdelhamid said. “It can get very challenging in that sense, just finding the motivation.”
The Women of Worth program, in its 12th year, recognizes women who volunteer and serve their communities. Each year, 10 winners are picked from thousands of nominations.
“It’s a huge honor to be part of such an incredible group, a lot of the women who have also been selected as finalists are remarkable and doing incredible things,” Abdelhamid said. “It’s inspiring to feel you are among that group.”
Beginning Nov. 1, the public can vote at WomenOfWorth.com for the grand prize winner. Abdelhamid would win an additional $25,000 if she is chosen as the overall winner.
“One of the main reasons I was really excited to come out to the West Coast is because we don’t have a major presence here, and so part of that funding will go to something like that,” Abdelhamid said. “I think there’s a huge potential to do work out here. I’m excited about that.”