ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Attacks on mosques in the U.S. are at an all-time high, according to the country's largest Muslim advocacy group. In this atmosphere, women wearing hijabs are often singled out for harassment. NPR's Alexandra Starr reports from New York that some there and taking protection into their own hands.
NICOLE DANIELS: One, good. Two, everybody go. Yeah. Three.
ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: Some two dozen Muslim women, almost all of them wearing hijabs, have crowded into a studio in midtown Manhattan. They're sparring with instructor Nicole Daniels.
DANIELS: Nine, excellent - 10, good.
STARR: One of the women smacking Daniels' glove is Amirah Aulaqi. She and her friend, Mariana Aguilera, who is also Muslim, decided to create the class after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. They're concerned by the antagonism they see directed against Muslims.
AMIRAH AULAQI: We want you guys to leave this class and not feel like victims because you're not victims.
STARR: Aulaqi and Aguilera created the class for observant Muslim women. That population is particularly at risk because their hijabs can make them stand out. There have been incidents of verbal abuse. In some cases, people have yanked at women's headscarves. There were no men allowed in this class and no cameras either.
AULAQI: We want you to be able to go out and say, nobody has the right to take away my dignity or my freedom within this country.
STARR: The class sold out in an hour. It drew women not just from New York City, but New Jersey and Connecticut as well. The only students who are willing to speak with me are longtime New Yorkers with careers.
FATIHA AHMED: I never thought I'd actually see myself in a self-defense course.
STARR: That's Fatiha Ahmed. She was born in Queens, N.Y., to Bangladeshi parents. She's a teacher and attended the class with her three sisters and two sisters-in-law. She signed up because she's been feeling uncomfortable wearing the hijab on the subway. People would look at her before, but it feels different now.
F. AHMED: Usually it's curiosity, but now it's been more a hateful stare. And it's not a good feeling.
F. AHMED: She's particularly concerned about her sisters-in-law, who came over from Bangladesh in the past few years.
F. AHMED: And they are very timid. They've had experiences where people said hateful things towards them, and they ran away. They ran home. They didn't want to go to work for a few days.
STARR: Both of Ahmed's sisters-in-law declined to speak with me. Fatiha's older sister, Sabji Ahmed, is a nurse and a classic New Yorker.
SABJI AHMED: When I walk around, I don't put my head down to be the victim. And if I see a couple of guys, I make sure I give them the look and say, yes, I know you're standing there.
STARR: She says she attended the class to see if there were self-defense techniques and not just attitude that she could teach her three teenage daughters.
S. AHMED: It was more for them, but today they couldn't make it for other reasons.
STARR: Nadia Alemare was born and raised in New York and is a single mom to an 11-year-old boy. She says she hasn't encountered much harassment, but her son has coming home from school.
NADIA ALEMARE: He was like, mom, I had these kids chasing me down, and they kept saying I'm a terrorist; go back to your country. And I was very scared for him.
STARR: What concerns Alemare most is how the incident crystallized for her son, that people can identify his ethnicity and that it makes him vulnerable.
ALEMARE: For him to even feel inferior just because of the way he looks, that in itself kind of bothered me.
STARR: Alemare said she's going to tell her son what she learned in this all-female class. The organizers are planning to make it a regular event. It's not just about preparing the students to deal with physical attacks. It's also a way to make them feel supported at a time when it can be challenging to be an observant Muslim woman. Alexandra Starr, NPR News, New York
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