In the wake of the Meagher tragedy, Victorian women have been talking. They’ve been swapping stories, sharing tips and learning a few deadly moves as they do so. Now, I don’t mean that we’re seeing a rise in hits for Beyoncé’s Run The World on YouTube (also true), but rather that Melbourne has been witnessing a great rise in lessons for female self-defence. The classes have sprouted up all over our city and there’s never been a better time to go along, they’re mostly free!

Chances are you’ve been to one of these classes before or maybe you remember that scene in Miss Congeniality, in which she teaches us that noses are better broken with palms rather than fists.  If you haven’t, you’re in for one of the most fun, informative and reassuring lessons out. There’s no judgement within the walls of such classes; it’s as if every girl leaves her better-than-thou boots or even their self-doubt hat at the door in order to get the most out of each lesson.

It’s really no surprise that Meagher’s legacy would serve as a wake-up call for the rest of us. This sudden focus on women’s safety has brought life to new and dazzlingly popular programs such as (f)EMPOWER, a community-based group that run free self-defence events in the hopes of better preparing women for the worst case scenario. The classes vary in techniques used and the ancient arts they draw upon but all share the common thread of knowing when to fight and when flight is the smarter option.

In order to find out more, Couturing spoke to Leah Akritidis-Smith, co-founder of (f)EMPOWER about her response to the tragedy and why she saw martial arts as the answer.

Leah Aktridis Smith (left) and Sharna Wilkins (right).


C: What was it about the case of Gillian Meagher that triggered you to create (f)EMPOWER?

L: From the moment Jill Meagher’s case hit the papers until the moment she was found, women (and men), all around us sat tight on the edge of their seat. We were desperate to know answers and with every clue released, the public was forced into a sense of passive yet highly emotional involvement. There was little we could do but voice our concern. Our fear. And we felt helpless.
When Jill’s body was found, with exhaustion and relief came a wave of anger. People took to the street in solidarity of grief. First and foremost for Jill Meagher but secondly, for the sudden loss of freedom we felt. We deserve to feel safe. But we didn’t.

It was important to both Sharna and I, that women could “reclaim the night” with a renewed kind of empowerment. One which affords us the right to live safe and free with the ability to defend ourselves if need be.
In empowering others, we empowered ourselves.


C: Why did you choose self-defence classes?

L: It seemed appropriate. We all deserve to feel safe. We deserve to live free of fear. And we certainly don’t deserve to feel vulnerable or helpless.

Learning the basics of how to quickly disable an attacker so that you can escape is empowering. Knowing how to take advantage of time and space to make a quick getaway is empowering. Learning how to become acutely aware of your surroundings to assess possible danger, is empowering. Understanding basic attacker M.O. (modus operandi) and knowing that you have the ability to defend yourself, is empowering. Feeling empowered is feeling confident and NOT vulnerable to an attack.


C: Is the concept behind (f)EMPOWER more about teaching physical skills or promoting an empowered frame of mind?

L: Both. Knowledge is power. Training the body to fight strategically is mentally empowering.
In one of the classes I attended, one of the instructors explained ‘where ignorance is mutual, confidence is key’. Meaning, fear of the unknown is powerful and if you aren’t mentally prepared for it, if you don’t know or haven’t been trained in how to feign confidence, then you’ve lost the advantage. It becomes paramount that we understand the basic psychology that a) your attacker will in most cases be larger than you and b) his own fear and apprehension will be largely influenced by your apparent vulnerability (or lack of). In other words, the more vulnerable the victim seems, the more likely he’ll feel the confidence to attack. You can shift the odds in your favour simply by ‘feigning confidence’.
(f)EMPOWER aims to help women learn physical and psychological techniques to present as less vulnerable and less likely to be attacked.


C: How has the public responded to the group?

L: Given how quickly we had to act and no huge launch campaign, public awareness of the program was initially small. Just as in Jill’s case, social media played a key role and over a few weeks numbers grew and classes began to fill.
The facebook page continues to attract ‘likers’ both before AND after class participation and we continue to receive letters of thanks. It’s a nice feeling.


C: Has the media coverage of (f)EMPOWER affected this response?

L: Most definitely. When the Age article came out our inbox was flooded with inquiries and ‘likes’ just kept growing. With Christmas around the corner and with most gyms taking a break however, classes won’t resume until the new year so unfortunately our new likers will have to wait a little bit for the next class.


C: Is there a wide range of women attending the classes?

L: Generally speaking, the program has attracted 25-35 year olds of no specific cultural background but who all seem to reside in the inner city and close surrounds. It’s been particularly nice however, when we’ve seen mums who’ve brought their teenage daughters along. That to me, is brilliant parenting.


C: Do you have any advice for women who may not be able to attend but wish to know more about female self-defence?

L: Take a look at our (f)EMPOWER. Fight Free page on facebook. We’ve posted self defence tips via A.I.M. Academy in Footscray and a video link to one of our recent classes through Wing Chun Bing Fa Kung Fu. If you can’t get to a class, watching the video is probably the next best thing.


C: Are there future plans for f(EMPOWER)?

L: We’re considering some options for the future but can’t reveal anything as yet.


C: And finally, how do we decide when to fight and when it’s better to run away?

L: It’s important to remember your objective is always to escape. You’re not there to engage your attacker in a physical confrontation that could have you ultimately overpowered.

First things first, stay highly attune to your surrounds. See danger before it sees you and get out of there fast. Secondly, if you’re forced into a physical confrontation, don’t think ‘I need to pulverise this person’ because chances are you won’t be able to. You just need to free yourself and bolt.



So don’t just sit there and think about it, slip on a killer kick-ass kit and as (f)EMPOWER’s tagline reads, ‘fight free’.
Class Dates and Locations for Free Courses:


What: (f)EMPOWER’s ’13 Weeks of Free Self-Defence’
When: November 2012 – February 2013 (or check here)
Where: Across dojos Melbourne-wide

What: Female Only Sunday Sessions
When: 3pm-5pm each and every Sunday
Where: Perkins Jiu Jitsu,  Perkins Jiu Jitsu 23 Palmerston Road East, Ringwood.

Bookings are essential!

About The Author

Assistant editor to the Lifestyle section, Meredith Eriksson marries her love for short, sharp sentences with fresh content. When she’s not tapping away at her laptop, you can find her working on her zines or out on the streets secretly snapping the latest in fashion trends. Follow her instagram under: merieriksson and marvel at how many photos of one dog somebody can take.

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