Rana Abdelhamid is empowering Muslim women to defend themselves against harassment — and start their own businesses
A vicious hate crime was the catalyst for this badass female business.
Rana Abdelhamid, a 24-year-old Queens, New York native, was accosted by a man who tried to rip off her hijab when she was 15. Since then, she’s made it her mission to empower young women to defend themselves against harassment — on the street and in the workplace.
“I’ve faced a lot of discrimination,” Abdelhamid tells Moneyish. “I wanted to help other women overcome violence and strengthen their sense of self.”
She started the international Muslim Women’s Initiative for Self Empowerment, WISE for short, a grassroots movement that trains young Muslim females in the art of self defense and recently expanded the program to include entrepreneurship, business and finance courses promoting strength and self sufficiency. Courses, which range in price from free to between $20 and $200, are open to all women, but about 80% are Muslim.
“When we first started we were 13 young women literally in a basement of a community center,” Abdelhamid recalls, of the group formed in 2010.
FBI data show that in 2015 there were 257 hate crimes against Muslims — the highest level since 2001 after 9/11, and a surge of 67% over the previous year.
Abdelhamid, a black belt in karate, began teaching women ages 16 to 21 moves to defend themselves against pushing, shoving, grabbing and other forms of physical assault with the help of a self-defense instructor. Participants also learn techniques like how to twist out of a hold when someone grabs your wrist, and specific pressure points that are useful to target during an attack. On the website, Abdelhamid also demonstrates in a video how to prevent a “Hijab Grab,” what she experienced herself, by lowering your chin, turning towards the attacker, elbowing them with one arm and hitting them in the face with the palm of your other hand.
“People see us as little girls who do self defense,” says Abdelhamid. “There’s so much more that we do.”
In addition to promoting physical strength, Abdelhamid aims to help women excel in their careers and at home. Participants can take courses on how to write a proper business plan or budget their personal finances. Other workshops discuss important workplace issues like “How to bridge the gender and wage gap;” “How to get funding for a start-up;” “Consolidating student loans;” and “How to maximize the cash value of loyalty programs with credit cards, airlines and hotels.” Young women also have the opportunity to engage in conversation about body image and the hijab, the religious scarf worn by Muslim women in the presence of adult males outside of their immediate family.
“No employer is allowed to change the way you dress,” says Abdelhamid, recalling the time a young Muslim woman was denied a job at an Abercrombie & Fitch ifor wearing a headscarf, which resulted in her winning a Supreme Court employment discrimination lawsuit in 2015.
Abdelhamid works full time at Google as a brand marketer where she is thrilled to say her team is predominantly female. But before landing the West Coast gig, Abdelhamid came across some discrimination professionally.
“I’ve walked into an interview and the first question I was asked is ‘how is your English so good?’ I literally sent in a three page resume. That off the bat makes you feel marginalized,” she says.
And when she landed the coveted tech gig at Google, people still undermined her intelligence because of her ethnicity.
“Being a minority always comes with baggage. When I first got my offer, people assumed I was in HR or doing diversity inclusion work,” she says.
When it comes to giving advice for young Muslim women who are facing harassment at work, Abdelhamid says it’s crucial to build a support system within the office.
“Building allies with people you trust is very important. There will be days where people will say micro-aggressive things and you want people you can go to and confide in,” she says.
Abdelhamid’s efforts are being recognized in a big way. She was recently named an honoree for L’Oreal Paris’ Women of Worth for her work with WISE. The public can vote for her to become the National Honoree and receive an additional $25,000 towards WISE.
This story was originally published on November 1, 2017.
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