‘Everyone Should Know How to Defend Themselves’

By Samantha Michaels 27 May 2014

RANGOON — To build their confidence and keep themselves safe, a group of Burmese women in Rangoon have started meeting every Sunday at Kandawgyi Lake for free classes on self-defense.

The classes were organized in early March bytheRangoon-based Akhaya women’s network as a way to promote fitness, self-confidence and safety among women who otherwise would be unable to afford kickboxing or martial arts classes at gyms. Akhaya also recruited trainers to offer a one-hour Zumba fitness class every week, before the self-defense class, while a nutritionist gives a once-monthly talk about healthy eating.

The self-defense classes are taught by Mo Hom, a 37-year-old ethnic Shan entrepreneur who learned how to fight when she was a young girl growing up in Mandalay Division. After her class on Sunday, she met with The Irrawaddy to explain why she wants to help women learn basic defense skills.

Question: You learned a martial art when you were just 9 years old. Who taught you?

Answer: My father taught me a Shan martial art. His business was overseas, but every time he came home he taught me and my brother. We had a sandbag in our garage, and that’s how we started training. My mom wanted me to learn because I was the only girl in the family and because she worried I could be attacked while going to school. My hometown, Pyin Oo Lwin, was a very quiet town when I was growing up, but there were still crime cases here and there, and she worried.

Q: During your classes for women, what skills do you focus on? I saw you showing them how to punch.

A: I cannot just teach them how to do the techniques of self-defense. I also need to have them exercise their muscles, to build their arm and leg muscles, so they can do more. The self-defense techniques I showed them today are very basic—you can easily teach everybody, and everybody should know them. These techniques can save your life.

Q: Do you lead any other self-defense classes in Rangoon?

A: This is my first class. A few people have asked me to teach other classes, so maybe I’ll consider that later, but I don’t have a lot of time now. I have a company, like a social enterprise, that trains people without skills. We are a design company, we do apparel in Yangon [Rangoon].

Q: You lived in New York for seven years before returning to Burma in late 2012. In terms of safety for women, can you compare New York and Rangoon?

A: In New York, there are a lot of cases of women going out and being attacked. Here in Yangon it also happens, but we don’t hear about it in the news, it’s not publicized. New York is more violent—there’s gun violence—so I think it’s more important to know how to defend yourself there. But here, although there is no gun violence, there are some rape cases, physical abuse and domestic violence. There’s violence at the family, neighbor and community level.

Q: Where else can women in Burma learn to defend themselves?

A: They have classes run by the Ministry of Sports, but it’s very difficult for women to find this information and go. This [Akhaya] is the only organization that has self-defense classes, I believe. There are other private kickboxing classes at gyms and fitness centers, but you have to pay for those.

Q: Are there any cultural norms that make it difficult for Burmese women to get out and exercise?

A: Not really. A small number of people are very conservative, but mostly it’s fine. The women who come to my classes want to learn—they didn’t have opportunities to learn before. They see this as a way to protect themselves and to protect others. It’s also good for their bodies, they can improve their circulation by moving around, so they become healthier. Not just women, but everyone should know how to defend themselves, in case they are in a dangerous situation and so they can help others.

Q: You’ve held two classes so far. How long will you continue to offer training?

A: I’ve only given two classes because I was traveling a lot overseas for my business. I’ll be in town the entire month of June, so I’ll be teaching every Sunday, and in the long term I would like this class to continue for at least six months.

For more information about joining the Sunday self-defense and Zumba classes, contact Akhaya.