Actress Jameela Jamil Shines a Light on Women’s Safety With a Self-Defense Course and Community Walk

Photo: Nate Woldu
Pepper spray. A taser. A fistful of keys. When 4.8 million women in the United States alone fall victim to physical assault and rape each year, you’d be hard pressed to find a single woman today who feels comfortable walking alone outside, even with one of these self-defense tools on hand. The threat of violence, coupled with the prospect of verbal harassment and catcalling, is enough to keep many women from enjoying the benefits of outdoor exercise.

And that’s precisely why actress, model, and social rights activist Jameela Jamil and her community allyship platform I Weigh, gathered women for a rare opportunity to do just that: Enjoy outdoor movement without the fear of being attacked. On May 20, the star of The Good Place held an open-invitation event in partnership with Well+Good in order to inspire women to take back their power—and reap all of the mental health benefits of exercise.

Jamil's I Weigh event kicked off with an exclusive fireside chat and self-defense demonstration featuring journalist, author, and former secret service agent Evy Poumpouras. After teaching the audience practical ways to defend themselves against a potential attacker, Jamil and Poumpouras led attendees on a three-mile evening walk through Manhattan.

"It's not our job to fix it, of course. But it's time for us to take it into our own hands." —actress and activist Jameela Jamil on women's safety

In line with Mental Health Awareness Month, the May 20 event was the second installment of Move For Your Mind, a fitness event series and online movement launched by Jamil that seeks to foster community through exercise and disrupt the toxic idea that fitness should be used as a form of punishment, rather than a way to improve one’s mental and physical wellbeing.

“We're trying to extract the punitive culture of exercise,” says Jamil, who is currently planning future events in other cities. “Women, especially, are encouraged to punish themselves for having eaten the night before—I'm sick of that being the way that we advertise moving our bodies. It is so pivotal to our hormonal, physical, and mental wellbeing and longevity.” Expanding on I Weigh’s mission to connect, empower, and amplify diverse voices through movement, the May 20 installment was specifically focused on how the constant threat of violence keeps many women from experiencing the wellness perks of walking outdoors.

The event yielded an impressive turnout: People of all ages, genders, sizes, and races gathered together at the Racket NYC event space in support of women’s right to safety. “The reaction that we have had to this conversation has been so extraordinary and very moving—in good and bad ways,” said Jamil on stage, addressing the crowd. “It is not normal to live the way that we live. It is not normal to feel this fear for your life all of the time. This is just unacceptable.”

After sharing some harrowing statistics about women’s safety and the greater purpose of the Move For Your Mind event, Jamil touched on how toxic diet culture and patriarchal standards add fuel to the fire of violence against women. Too often, said Jamil, women are taught that having muscles, being "big," and being "loud" are undesirable traits, while thinness and politeness are upheld as redeemable qualities for women.

Jameela Jamil walks alongside attendees of the Move For Your Mind event through Chelsea, NYC.
Photo: Nate Woldu

Following her introduction, Jamil welcomed Poumpouras on stage for a moderated fireside chat. Poumpouras, who was born in Harlem and began her career as an NYPD officer before pursuing a career in secret service, exchanged stories with Jamil about dangerous encounters they’ve both had with men, using their personal accounts to paint a bigger picture about the current state of women’s safety. “It's not our job to fix it, of course,” Jamil clarified on stage. “We shouldn't have to be here together talking about this. We shouldn't have to have an expert come on [stage] to teach us how to defend our lives. But it's time for us to take it into our own hands.”

Later, Poumpouras and Jamil began the self-defense demonstration portion of the event, wherein Jamil played the role of perpetrator and Poumpouras, the defender. Poumpouras taught the audience how to physically disengage an attacker in a number of ways, like using pepper spray, jamming one’s foot down on the foot of the perpetrator and jabbing the attacker’s throat. In each of her demonstrations, Poumpouras pressed that the goal of self-defense is to give you an opportunity to run away from the scene, rather than fight the attacker. “You don't want to engage people unless you truly know what you're doing,” she said.

"Sometimes we get so used to the habit of thinking that we need to be good, that we need to be well-behaved. Embrace your crazy b*tch." —author and former secret service agent Evy Poumpouras on self-defense

At one point, Poumpouras showed the crowd how to use one’s thumbs to blind the attacker, (understandably) eliciting some laughter and "eww’s" from the crowd. Poumpouras laughed back and leaned into the crowd’s response, reinforcing that in a time of crisis, sometimes you’ve gotta do what you gotta do in order to keep yourself safe. “That's the part of you [that] you need to embrace,” said Poumpouras. “Become vicious. Become an animal. Sometimes we get so used to the habit of thinking that we need to be good, that we need to be well-behaved. Embrace your crazy b*tch. I've embraced her many times!”

Poumpouras and Jamil also shared the aspects of self-defense that are typically afterthoughts, like the need to turn away from the pepper spray as you use it, how common it is to accidentally harm yourself with a taser, and how important it is to keep accessible self-defense tools in multiple areas, like your home, and your car.

Following the demonstration, guests filed out of the building and spilled out onto the Manhattan sidewalk, exchanging thoughts with Jamil and Poumpouras before setting off on a three-mile walk through Chelsea at sunset, chaperoned by NYPD officers. Some women opted to walk alone, donning headphones as they went, while other women chatted as they walked, exchanging stories about their days, their jobs, and their experiences of living in the city.

The dusk walk through Manhattan was peaceful. Maybe it was the security presence, the sheer number of people walking in unison, or the self-defense training that brought such comfort and levity to the group walk. Regardless of the source, it was clear that Jamil’s vision of giving women space to move and be free had come to fruition, and her theory—that community and education can foster empowerment—was proven right.

“I'm sick of walking through the world feeling like prey, I’m sick of that feeling,” Jamil previously said on stage at the beginning of the event. “I'm done. I'm tired of it. And if you are tired of it as well, then… Join me.”

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