Lina Khalifeh is the Founder and owner of SheFighter which is the First Self-Defense studio for women only in Jordan and the Middle East. SheFighter is designed to empower women physically, mentally and emotionally through Self-Defense training. She is the winner of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Empretec’s Women in Business Award (WBA), 2014.
A vibrant and aspiring entrepreneur in such a unique arena, her feats has been recognised by the ex-US President Barack Obama in one of his speech and she has been awarded by Hillary Clinton.
After seeing a friend suffer from physical abuse by her father and brother, Lina was determined to start the SheFighter Academy to train women for self-defence, so that they learn to stand up for themselves. This academy was started in 2012, and till now has trained 25000 women all over the globe. Since launching her company in Amman, Lina and her all-female staff of 500+ instructors have trained more than 15000 women across the globe. In addition to Jordan, SheFighter studios operate in Palestine, Armenia, Holland, South Korea and Mauritius an island off the southeast coast of Africa. And yet, Lina feels that she still has a long way to go.
Lina feels that she is a creative person who always tries to look out for solutions to every problem. She would always provide remedies to her friends when they come to her with their troubles. Right from her formative years in Jordan, she noticed that the women around her including women in her family did not know how to speak up for themselves, make their own decisions, or become leaders. This led her to think about how she could put an end to domestic violence and make women speak for themselves, to voice out their needs in this patriarchal society. A lot of people rejected the idea of training women to stand up for themselves, to speak out, and defend themselves against violence in any form as they felt insecure and threatened by the male-dominated society. In countries like India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Jordan, some countries in Africa, even in advanced countries women still continue to face violence today which is a grave injustice towards women.
Lina says she started training for taekwondo right from the young age of 5 years. She says she was in love with taekwondo because they carry a lot of values we learn in life like discipline, responsibility or commitment. “When you learn how to fight you do not even need to use it, it is just your energy – the way you walk, the way you talk to, you care for yourselves, become more confident in and out, helps to completely transform yourself and you become a whole new person,” says Lina. She realised that it would take years for creating philosophies for these training because in some martial arts in South Korea or Japan or even in China the martial arts are embedded in the religion, so it is more of a philosophy or a way of practice.” If you stand tall and practise every day how to shout, scream and you learn how to kick hard completely, you learn to use the power inside you to become a stronger person, “shares Lina. She was constantly focused on her taekwondo training throughout her teenage years, she never took interest in parties like any other girls of her age, felt she never fit in the ordinary school system and did not even have many friends. Her only passion was going to taekwondo schools every day which has helped her master this art and lead the way for other women.
SheFighter is an academy that has customised courses suitable for women and it is not only the physical practice but also involves psychological training. They teach women about facing their fears and anxieties, to balance both the body and mind equally from inside and outside, so they know they are strong not only from outside but also from inside being women and girls in society. Martial arts connects our body and mind. Unfortunately, these were earlier designed for men because they were going to work and so they had to defend themselves and their families. To date there have been only two female founders for martial arts, the first one being Edith Margaret Garrud, in the year 1882, who designed the Kung Fu art called Wing Chun which is quite popular globally. But this kind of martial arts was designed for both men and women. And the second founder of martial arts is Lina Khalifeh. There were not many women available for martial arts training. It was not easy to start with, says Lina, as there were a lot of people against her and her system, from the same industry attacking her, competing with her, creating hurdles in her journey. There was this belief that men had better knowledge than women. A lot of schools in Jordan now teach martial arts in their school curriculum.
In spite of coming from an orthodox Muslim community, Lina always had her own thinking as a kid. She felt she had a different perspective, not follow the systems or beliefs forced upon her. To have an open, broad mind to think for oneself what is good and bad should be left to one’s own understanding, not imposed upon. Not many people follow this crux in life. It is so hard to be on a journey of discovering self, but it is easier for people to follow systems rooted in their culture. Lina‘s ideology is that if we neglect our brain, it will neglect us. So if we do not think for 10 years, keeping that muscle in its idle position, it is impossible for the brain to know about our creativity or to think proactively and take risks both personal and financial. If we train it the way we want it will adjust accordingly. An example of why males are progressing in business is because they learn to invest with money while women do not learn how to use money. It is necessary the brain has to be taken care of exactly the same way we take care of our body. When we go to the gym we exercise our body, similarly, we need to exercise our brain by giving challenges like learning languages, learning instruments, breaking fears of oneself which is actually one form of muscle training.
Lina states that there is no specific age bar to enrol for this training program. She has had a student aged as late as 75 years old!!! Age is never a barrier. It is our strong willpower to learn. If our mind is convinced we could do anything and our body too will follow. However, it is advisable to start martial arts training from the age of 5 years. She suggests parents always enrol their children on martial arts. Lina’s academy has women in their 30s, 40s, 50s and even 60s but the majority crowd comprises of kids and teenagers. They have designed a specific curriculum for martial arts. The then education minister had tried to dissuade by asking Lina whether women were being taught violence. She argued with them that why were the preference for boys to learn boxing and martial arts and not the girls? Eventually, after the tenure of that minister, the road was pretty easy for Lina and they managed to include the system in 20 schools for women.
Challenges as an Entrepreneur:
Lina has the firm determination to implement any idea. “I just do it”, says Lina if she decides on any new concept. To become an entrepreneur was never that easy but quite challenging. There were people who were afraid to see a person especially a woman grow, because of their own beliefs and Lina feels it can be depressing for not even taking a step further towards one’s development. With the many challenges, expanding the system was not easy as people had to accept her concept of the teaching model. Lina required more followers, there were other martial arts academies that would try to put her down with the sarcastic thought that her system was for only girls. The age-old tradition that martial arts are taught well by men was more dominant and they were so afraid when they saw a woman designing her philosophy of teaching martial arts. They would go to any extent to pull her down. Some of them even had connections in the government and they tried many ways to obstruct her training, by cheap comments to the girls coming to her centre. Some women also believed that men were better. It took a lot of time for Lina to accept these hurdles and understand the reality, it is like its freedom of choice and that is what she wants women to have the freedom to choose but then she does not want them to be influenced by the thought of men in the patriarchal society.
No much support, lack of opportunities no enough risk-taking, it is mostly a man’s world so no way a woman can empower each other while they have limited access to wealth and opportunity, were some of the barriers experienced by Lina in her entrepreneurial journey. Lina explains this through an example, “I would say it’s like having 5 people in a prison cell and you give one person the key to go in and out whenever they want while other people watch that person have freedom. She will go in and out, will develop networking with her friends or will even stop building relationships with other members of the cells because she has the key to freedom while these people inside the cell don’t have the key to freedom. If you give them one key they are going to fight for freedom, because they cannot empower each other, they cannot share the key. It’s like giving one person the key or freedom for a limited time and then that woman will be afraid to share the key with someone else because she cannot share her own freedom as she would think that the opportunity came only to her”.
Lina believes she is a strong feminist. According to her everyone should be a feminist, everyone has some or other relations with women. They should not be afraid of people attacking the different types of labels women carry after their names. There should be freedom of choice for every woman to call themselves whichever name they prefer. But we belong to a society for whom labelling a woman is very common and traditional like whether she is married, divorced, single and so on. In fact, Lina feels why people do not label a woman as a feminist, a strong human being. We are so used to label everyone. She urges women to free themselves from all labels.
Women are expected to be pleasers on the planet. Lina says she learnt to say no from a young age as six. Even at the cost of losing all her friends, she dared to say no if anything was against her will. She had a liberal set of friends who knew well that she was always eager to go for taekwondo class. One of her classmates describes Lina in her childhood as always different, never fitting in the normal school system. Fighting with teachers, getting kicked out of classroom, getting beaten up many times were common for Lina, as she never felt the need to follow their own beliefs and systems. To pursue taekwondo was her ultimate goal in life as this skill teaches many life skills like how to be responsible, respect each other, respect the place, be more confident, learn to speak up, be bold and so on. The traditional school system teaches you how to get a job after university because women and children are pushed to be number one in classrooms, get the best title for everything and lastly to be the perfect housewife to take care of husband and kids. “It is only when you liberate yourself from all these stereotypes about women from your mind, you become a powerful human being”. There can be rejections from the society, friends may stop connecting but all this will only increase a woman’s true potential and value in her surroundings.
Lina envisages her future as adapting to the situation and opportunities coming her way. In a fight, a person does not know her opponent’s strength unless she adapts her techniques and works accordingly. The economical downfall had an adverse effect on her business. She lost all kinds of work with people so she started to meditate, thinking, and analysing the situation. Then she gathered all her practical knowledge to create, develop and edit websites, added online courses for people to access it and get certified. She also learnt different technical aspects and has succeeded in gaining a lot of subscribers online.
Lina has become an inspiration to many. She says it is important to live and follow our own values. Her own niece and nephew love to follow her training and practices. Lina says it is important to know how to negotiate smart, how to care for yourself among challenges when you are confident, you will find dark spots in your head vanish, when you are confident you can expand your views and opinion to your community and make lives easier.
Significance of UNCTAD training in Lina’s career:
UNCTAD program has helped Lina to a great extent to evolve as a successful entrepreneur. An amazing program that gave Lina important lessons for her entrepreneurship. At a tender young age of 22 or 23 years old, Lina started questioning to start any business. An important lesson learnt from Empretec was that she could make money on her own and not only from a job. A life changer Lina says, after the Empretec training she quit her job and started her venture on a very small scale. Advertising on Facebook, going to people’s houses to teach taekwondo was her initial struggles before she started her official academy in the basement of her apartment. Empretec taught her how to make money work for her and not her working for money. She feels blessed to have taken the lessons from Empretec to deal with money from a young age.
Advice for the women: Women need to be bold and they have to speak for themselves they have to know who they are and become very powerful but being bold is much more important than even being smart. So people should go after what they want and follow their dreams. Learn to make good use of money and take wise decisions in life.
SheFighter is all about building confidence in and out. It is indeed spreading in every corner, in every community, in every city and country all over the world.
We wish you a bright successful future ahead, Ms.Lina Khalifeh. May your inspiring anecdotes affect more and more girls globally. Your life itself is an inspiring university for women as you have developed your own system of living which is in itself a great inspiration for many more women and probably many more generations of young girls.