Making the Connect through Muslim Girls Fence with Virginia Bailey, Head of Participation
The “marriage of sport and art”, one of the great visions of Pierre De Coubertin for the Olympic Games and something which for fencing, is possibly more relevant and meaningful than for any other sport.
Over the last five years of delivering our portfolio of Projects and Programmes, no other project has really encompassed the creative element of the sport more than Muslim Girls Fence. Yes, our work with London Youth and our universities very much tap into the creative side of the sport as well but Muslim Girls Fence, in partnership with Maslaha, is as much about creating a space for women to express themselves physically, as it is creatively.
When we started the project, the creative workshops felt as if they stood alone. There was little connect. In the school setting, the girls would spend an hour in creative workshops with the Maslaha team and then move into a space to fence. We didn’t connect the two. We didn’t encourage the coach to sit in on the workshop and listen to the conversations, hear the girls expressing their everyday challenges, concerns and stresses as to what it is like being a young Muslim woman growing up in London or Birmingham. We just thought the two would connect. We began to realise that if we wanted to really get the most out of fencing and the creative side of this wonderful sport we needed to make sure that the physical and creative aspects of the sport were intertwined.
Our focus over the last 18 months has been on ensuring that we can immerse new coaches in the whole experience that Muslim Girls Fence provides for the women and girls involved. Over the years we have worked with and upskilled a range of women involved in the project; from traditional fencing coaches to community leaders and sports coaches who have never heard of fencing before, let alone coached it! The most important factor in all of this isn’t how good a fencer you are but that you are willing and keen to embrace a project that goes beyond the physical aspect of the sport. We have taken the Core Coach course and ensured that during the two days, we thread through the creative elements of the project, so that there is a clear and thorough understanding of the importance of both the physical and creative elements of the project. From ensuring that the team from Maslaha are present and actively engaged over the two days and providing opportunities for the women on the course to share their own experiences, to ensuring the women leave being able to use fencing as a tool to get others active and hooked on the sport. Each and every one of these elements is what makes the experience relevant to the project.
But what does this look like in the sessions? In our school sessions when discussing the connect between fencing and poetry one of the girls said, “I feel like it kind of reflected on fencing because it was meant to be breaking stereotypes, having fun, not caring what others thought and poetry is like the same. You don’t care what people think. You just write down whatever you’re thinking.” In the documentary film “Nobody’s Metaphor” coach and fencer, Lucy Johnson is often seen involved and engaged in the workshops but more importantly taking the key messages that are discussed and threading them into fencing sessions, such as “I want you to start imagining you are like the ladies we looked at weeks ago. All those amazing women…. strong influential, powerful women, who wouldn’t take no for an answer, who wouldn’t let someone wave a sword in their face. They’d take up that hit and push someone down the piste.” Whether it’s poetry, film or photography, the natural connect between fencing and the arts is unmissable.
One of the most powerful creative outputs to come out of the project to date is the photography project that took place in Birmingham, with our partners the Impact Hub. Over a number of months the women worked with a photographer to put together the exhibition “Can You See Me?”. The exhibition aimed to reinstate Muslim women as their own storytellers at a time where they often find themselves spoken for as opposed to spoken to. The project has been warmly received in Birmingham, as well as featuring in Sport England’s launch of its “Sport For All” research earlier this year. However, one of the biggest successes of this project has been how the world of sport and art have come together to support and showcase the women involved, using them as positive role models across Birmingham. Through our work with the Birmingham Local Delivery Pilot, Active Partnerships, we have worked in partnership with the Birmingham Community Leisure Trust to install the exhibition at Ladywood Leisure Centre. They’ve gone beyond just providing a space on a wall. They have worked with us to ensure that the project has a home. The women have a place to go, be active and come together with other women from the local community and importantly for the sport, they have a place to continue to fence.
So, has this worked? Have we managed to “wed sport and art”? Well, we are definitely going in the right direction. There is always so much more to do, more to improve on and more to learn and develop. We are confident that if we continue to tap into the creative side of the sport, we can engage many more women in fencing.
This article first appeared in The Sword, July 2020
You can read more about Muslim Girls Fence and our partnership with Maslaha on the dedicated website here
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