With Trump in the White House and white supremacy on the rise, queer Muslim powerlifter Lena Afridi knew her friends and family were in danger. And none of them knew how to fight.
The smell of rubber permeates everything. The sound of metal crashing to the ground leaves a constant ringing in your ears. Aside from that, the room is quiet and dark, the sound muffled by rubber mats and wooden lifting platforms. As my body tightens under the weight of over two hundred pounds, I can quiet my mind and the terror that grips it. I have a raw craving for this stillness now, it feels as necessary as eating after a long fast or gasping air after holding my breath under water. The days where I skip lifting I feel almost malnourished.
There are moments when I walk into a weight room at an unfamiliar gym and overhear snippets of jocular conversation between men. “Hey faggot” is thrown around as lightly as a crumpled up piece of paper between gym bros. The phrase makes its way back into my ears. “Hey faggot,” and then there’s a smack to the back of my head. I see a sneer and my face withdraws into a snarl and then collapses. I’ve just finished a long day at my job and I’m trying to swerve through crowds of tourists, grad students, and commuters fighting to make their way down the steps of the 34th Street-Herald Square subway station. I keep walking as the wind snaps against the spot where the hand landed and wetness starts clinging to my eyes. I clench my fists so tight that my fingernails dig into my palms and they start bleeding. This memory flits its way through my mind and passes. I add another plate and position myself under the bar, shoulders tight, feet firmly planted to the ground.
The weight is crushing but it feels good. My knees buckle. My heart seems to stops beating for a second. I’m aware of my muscle fibers and ligaments tearing, my skin stretching taut over my knees and thighs and ankles. For a second I wonder if I’m going to die, pressed between the dirty floor and hundreds of pounds of metal. I push my heels into the ground because it’s the only thing I can do; I push because if I don't fight I will most certainly collapse and if I collapse I might be killed. I brace my stomach and close my eyes and clench my teeth until it feels like they might shatter. I push and push and suddenly, to my surprise, I rise.
In the summer of 2016, I started lifting weights secretly in response to violations like the one on 34th street. I snuck into weight rooms at chain gyms after work. Usually no one was around by then so I wouldn’t have to worry about men smirking at me and my struggle to lift the 45 pound barbell or pretend to listen to unsolicited advice (which often ends up being ridiculous and dangerous). To begin, I googled a simple lifting program called Strong Lifts, that taught me to repeat the same movements five times for five sets. I learned that what I was doing was called powerlifting. It became my lifeline.
Powerlifting is incredibly technical but fundamentally primal; it consists of perfecting just three basic movements: the bench press, the deadlift, and the squat. The point of powerlifting is to simply lift as much weight as you possibly can. It seems simple, but these lifts are compound movements that exert every part of the body and are incredibly taxing. In order for the lift to be effective, each muscle needs to stay tight and ready to work.
Since I began training, I have gotten much, much stronger. Each time I lift, it’s like I exist again. My mind is completely silent and still. All I can feel is weight, the bar in my hands, a conversation with my body after years of silence between us.
After the election in November of 2016, the days had just gotten shorter and it seemed to me like the darkness was smothering. I spent nights awake, a knot in my stomach tightening with each passing thought. I wasn’t alone in my all-consuming fear. I overheard snippets of my own internal dialogue in whispered conversations between friends, family, coworkers. Everyone I knew felt like they and their loved ones were in physical danger. And none of them knew how to fight back. The safety of my brother, who’s halal shop in Manhattan had already received written threats, was always on my mind. What would happen to my trans and gender non-conforming friends, many black and brown? What would happen to my hijabi friends and cousins, who were already visible targets? What if someone tried to rip the hijabs off their heads, what if someone cornered them in an empty subway car?
I wrote a post asking if anyone would be interested in learning basic self-defense skills. Within hours, I received dozens of responses. “Yes. This is exactly what I’ve been asking people about.” Through queer networks, I met Erin Aliperti. She’s led self-defense workshops for years all over the five boroughs. A friend volunteered access to her office on a Saturday, where we met for our first session.
Twelve friends and strangers from as far away as Jersey City and the Rockaways made the long commutes for our first session. In the minimalist office space of a literary magazine in Chinatown, Erin led us through breathing exercises, reminding us how important it is to remember to take breaths when engaged in conflict. She taught us how to speak with our bodies to reject harassment, how to raise our hands to defend ourselves. Each movement could have been done from a wheelchair or from a subway seat. We were reminded to use our voices, to say: “No. Get away from me.” First, I could only hear shy whispers around me. Slowly, we grew louder and more empowered, until screams filled the space completely. We learned to use our jackets and backpacks as defensive tools by whipping them in figure eights. We learned how to gouge out eyes and drive the cartilage of noses into skulls. We learned how to twist our forearms and break vice grips.
After the first session, word rippled through through GSAs and Muslim Students Associations, and queer networks that, “hey, you should really learn how to defend yourself.” Eventually I found a semi-permanent space for the trainings through Decolonize this Place, an artist collective that had taken over an empty commercial space in SoHo to create a de facto, autonomous, pop-up community movement center. But these workshops could have happened in living rooms, in church basements, in parks. And they did – some of these trainings continue to this day. After the first few trainings, people brought self defense workshops to their schools, their offices, their homes.
After the second training, a young person approached me. “This is so good,” she said. “But I’m so weak. I want to learn to be strong. I don’t think I’m strong enough to survive.”
I wanted the power we felt together in our self-defense trainings to coalesce with the power I felt in myself when I trained. I wanted my communities to be as physically prepared as those that might harm them.
I organized the first strength training workshop by posting a flier on Facebook: “Get fit for the struggle! Learn some basics about barbell training and how to get strong.” I convinced my coach, Sean Collins, to open up the barbell club after hours. Sean’s main passion in life is getting people strong, especially people convinced that it’s impossible. Sean is why I can deadlift 300 pounds. He lead us through each movement, through cues needed to perform it correctly, while Davi Cohen, an accomplished queer powerlifter, assisted. We were like a brigade, training for battle.
There were twenty of us at the first training, trans women and cis women, gender non-conforming people, people of all races and religions and ages. We each lifted our chests high, apprehensively easing our hands around the knurling of a 45-pound competition barbell. For many, this was the first time they’d ever touched a barbell, the first time they’d contorted their bodies into the movements required to complete an effective deadlift, which consists, simply, of picking up weight and putting it back down. Many of us had been told throughout our lives that we shouldn’t do what boys do and avoided these kinds of spaces. But were there together and that felt like its own kind of safety.
We ran these strength training workshops a few more times. Word of mouth quickly spread. Sean put together a guide for strength training at home. In the coming months, panic about what might happen died down and was replaced with determination to fight back against the forces of the dark times we live in. The realities of friends and family being deported, of Charlottesville, of travel bans, the murder of Nabra Hassanen, meant people were still feeling that same initial need to stay together and get stronger. Each time a session ended, I directed attendees to Strong Lifts and to Starting Strength, the two free resources I used in the very beginning of my history with powerlifting. People went home and started to practice on their own, or they set up lifting sessions with groups of friends. The weight room became much less intimidating with a crew.
These days, people still text me and we meet up and train together. Every time we train we emphasize deadlifts, the least technical yet, in my mind, most humbling movement. Invariably, each person approaches the bar apprehensively. Each person takes a big breath, bar over shoelaces, wraps their hands around iron, and pulls. And each person is genuinely surprised by what they are capable of. Every time the bar rises from the ground, everyone cheers.
Each new lifter ends their first session with the same realization: “I’m so much stronger than I thought I was.”
I started this alone but now it’s one of my favorite things to do with friends. What is true for each of our individual bodies is true for the communities we are part of and love: we expect ourselves to crumple under enormous weight, but we are much stronger than we think we are if we show up for ourselves and each other. Demonstrating the need to be stronger is a display of rawness and vulnerability, an admission of fear, and the resolve to fight back. Sharing knowledge about strength training and self-defense was one of way of making not just myself stronger, but strengthening my communities and the bonds between us. It is crucial that these bonds are exercised. Our survival is dependent on it.
Originally published in the “Organized” issue on November 21, 2017