Women must fight for more than just their rights

A six-week self-defense course for women is given in the Tilburg University Sports Center. University intern Noëlle Zarges took the test and participated in the course. “I was never taught that you can say no if someone crosses your boundaries.

Brechje Jacobs (left) gives resilience training to Noëlle Zarges (right). Image: Jack Tummers

A self-defense class for women. I’ve always refused to go on one. Maybe because men always advised me to take a self-defense course when I told them I didn’t feel safe on the streets. ‘Then I could protect myself better.”

Sure, that’s not a very bad tip, but am I really the one who should solve this problem? Why can’t you just change? I thought at the time.

After organizing a demonstration against street harassment and sexual violence out of frustration, I felt a bit more relieved, but still not safe. When I saw that Tilburg University was offering a self-defense course, I was interested.

I spoke to sports instructor and psychologist Brechje Jacobs who explained to me that it’s not just about the physical aspect but also the psychology. It’s better to prevent it than to cure it.

She had a good point there.

“Okay, I’m in,” I said. If others won’t change, I’ll do it myself.

Our little secret

So there we are, ten women who are taking this six-week course together. It has to be a safe environment, so everyone present really wants this.

We sit next to each other on mats in a gym with Brechje across from us. The gym is on the first floor and reasonably out of sight of the rest of the gym-goers. As if nobody is supposed to know we’re here. Because we are preparing for something. It is our little secret.

I can’t help but get angry and sad about the group of women in the room, amongst whom I am sitting myself. Listening to how they can best extricate themselves when someone grabs them against their will, I want to scream. I want to shout that we should not be taught this, that this should not be necessary. Or when discussing how to safely pass someone without that person bothering you. “I would look but not for too long!” says one of the course participants.

I always gauge the situation carefully when I have to pass men. If they are busy talking to each other I think I can pass them unnoticed. If they are already staring at me when I am still meters away, then I know they are going to speak to me. I always refuse to avoid the situation by taking a different route, especially if it’s during the day. But I do tense up then. I try to make myself look big and confident walking by, so it looks like I’m not vulnerable.

Fighting with a smile

During the second lesson of the course, I notice that we already trust each other a bit more. Pretty soon we are quite intimate with each other: we share personal things if we want to and get physically close to each other when practicing.

We laugh together as we clutch each other’s heads and try to get out of it by the tips we just learned. But while we’re laughing, I’m also thinking. What if he just grabs me differently? What if I forget? What if he’s still too strong for me?

Noëlle Zarges (left), Brechje Jacobs (center) and course participant (right). Image: Jack Tummers

I’m glad we’re learning this, but it also makes me panic.

On the one hand, it gives me strength to know that with the right technique you can do a lot. And on the other hand, I feel weaker than ever. I just barely managed to break free from a woman with the same build as me, how will I ever manage to break free from a guy who’s 1 meter 80?

I may be able to do this in four weeks’ time, but what if one of us ends up in a situation like this during those four weeks? One woman in ten experiences rape and every ten days a woman dies in the Netherlands as a result of domestic violence. It is not an unrealistic thought.

Low boundaries

It’s not just street harassment that we should be concerned about. Rape and violence usually take place in the home. During lesson three, I am reminded of Gabby Petito. An American woman whose lifeless body was found. Her boyfriend is a suspect. This morning in the news, it said that she was strangled to death. And we’re now learning how to escape that.

I wonder if I will ever be in a situation myself where I will have to use this new technique. It probably won’t happen, I think. But during the psychological part of the course, I already found out that I have been manipulated more often than I thought. And that I have always dismissed aggression and other violence as if it were nothing. Only now do I learn to recognize that.

I feel like women have to go through and endure so much. And instead of being taught to grow stronger from it, it seems like we’re being conditioned to set our boundaries lower and lower. Don’t say ‘no’, don’t get angry, apologize, don’t go out in the dark, be careful.

I was never taught that you can say no when someone crosses your boundaries. Or even scream. That you are even allowed to hit out when that same person keeps crossing your boundaries. That you are allowed get out of the situation. Leave, run, claim your space.


In this course we learn to do that. During lesson four and five, we all dare to share a lot more. When we have questions about events we are experiencing and we don’t know what to do, Brechje reminds us every time: “That person crossed your boundaries.”

Today is the last lesson. That means that an actor/fighter will come by. I notice that everyone is a little tense. Finally trying to defend yourself against someone much stronger and bigger. How does this affect you? Will I panic? Will I forget everything?

Fortunately, the answer is no. I notice that what I’ve learned in the past few weeks has become so ingrained in my system that even in a somewhat stressful situation, I still know what to do. And I think the same goes for the others.

“I feel safe,” I answer when Brechje asks me how I experienced the course. Almost everyone agrees. We have grown together and got to know ourselves better. Now the men.

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