Elbow-jabbing the patriarchy

Women might not ever need to fight for their lives on the streets of Berlin, but one American expat wants them to be prepared anyway. Meet Susie Kahlich.

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Susie Kahlich (left) uses props to instruct a pair of students at her Moabit studios. Photo by Alyona Baranova

Women might not ever need to fight for their lives on the streets of Berlin, but one American expat wants them to be prepared anyway. Meet Susie Kahlich.

What’s the difference between giving someone a cup of coffee and defending yourself from a violent attack? Very little, says Susie Kahlich, founder of the female self-defence and self-empowerment programme Pretty Deadly.

As first mimed by attendees of her level one “Wonder Woman” course, the coffee action seems harmless enough. But later, when faced with a pad-holding partner, the gesture becomes a devastating punch with the power to send an attacker staggering back. That’s part of Kahlich’s concept: hard-hitting Japanese moves repackaged as familiar everyday actions. Gestures such as “hair behind your ear” and “picking an apple from a tree” help her Berlin students to master different elbow jabs. But, as Kahlich emphasises, the aim of the sessions is not to fight back, but to create space and get away.

The two-hour classes, held in a spacious studio in Moabit, were designed by Kahlich specifically to address female experiences. After eight years spent studying ninjitsu in a male-dominated Los Angeles school, the Chicagoan realised that her teachers sometimes lacked understanding when it came to the kind of subtle threats women regularly encounter – and instead favoured scare tactics.

“Often they tell us these horrible stories so you understand what kind of danger you’re in,” Kahlich says. “But women don’t need it. We’re pretty well aware of the danger that we are in 24 hours a day.” With statements like that, you understand that the 49-year-old has some bad experience of her own. In 2000, Kahlich was living in LA as an aspiring screenwriter. She returned from work one evening to find her home seemingly burgled – but what no one noticed was that the invader had set the property up so that he could return. When she got up to go to the bathroom that night, she found the man standing there. What followed was a brutal attack that left Kahlich badly beaten, with her hair pulled out in places. “His intention was to kill me. I knew immediately that this was for my life,” Kahlich says. “It was like one of those nightmares where you’re trying to make sound but nothing comes out. I had no clue that I was even screaming at all.” Luckily for her, she was – and her screams were so loud that she woke up three apartment buildings in her neighbourhood, causing her attacker to bolt for the door.

Within weeks, Kahlich signed up to her first martial arts class. The sessions were meant to be a temporary aid to her recovery, but in 2008 she graduated as a qualified ninjitsu instructor, starting a martial arts journey that would lead her to Paris before landing in Berlin almost two years ago. After beginning Pretty Deadly as a part-time sideline to her writing and filmmaking projects, she now runs a team of four and a full roster of classes, including three levels of regular self-defence training alongside special courses for teens and seniors, and one-off workshops tailored to travel and the workplace.

Kahlich has no shortage of would-be Wonder Women, but here in the relative safety of the German capital, is there such a need to learn self-defence? While the World Health Organisation currently states that 35 percent of women worldwide experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, an attack is almost three times more likely to happen in the US than in Berlin, where violent crime is more or less stagnating (the most recent statistics from 2016 show 91 murders, 3600 cases of physical assault on the street and 586 cases of rape/sexual assault).

“The first year that I was teaching here in Germany it tended to be women who’d experienced violence or aggression at an earlier point in their life, either in Berlin or elsewhere. They’d been through therapy and tried to work through it, but it was coming up again,” Kahlich says. “But lately I’ve had women who have experienced something recently, either at home or an attack on the streets of Berlin.”

The Wonder Woman course participants are mostly English-speaking professionals ranging from early twenties to mid-forties, with a variety of stories that led them to the class. One French expat simply fancied trying martial arts, while a young Moabit native says she has felt unsafe at night in the city since she was 17. An Australian girl describes being followed home from a bar one evening last year – she had gone into a corner shop to ask for help. Is learning self-defence really a solution to these incidents? For some of the older members, the answer appears to be yes. A British expat starts the class by telling Kahlich that she finally took action against a creepy colleague who had been harassing her for months. There was no dramatic sucker-punch to the floor – but she felt self-assured enough to verbally de-escalate the situation.

It’s about knowing you’re going to do everything you can to stay alive.

“It’s orienting yourself to yourself,” Kahlich says of the impact self-defence classes can have. “It’s about knowing you’re going to do everything you can to stay alive. When you have that knowledge, it gives you a certain confidence to move through the world knowing that you will take care of yourself. You have your own back.”

Find Susie Kahlich’s self-defence courses at www.prettydeadly.org.