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InFocus: Dr Anna Stefaniak

Dr Anna Stefaniak, a lecturer in the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of St Andrews, leads the University’s recently introduced self-defence workshop, catering exclusively to female-identifying students and staff. Accredited by the International Krav Maga Federation, Dr Stefaniak and her partner Asaf Karpel endeavor to teach practical techniques for personal safety.

Initial sessions began in September, with upcoming installments scheduled for November 13 and 27. The program, hosted at Krentz Dance Studio within Saint Sports, is supported by the Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion Project Fund, which promotes equality and inclusivity within the university community.

“We're not teaching women to fight. We're not teaching them to have a sparring match with somebody. If somebody touches them inappropriately, we just want them to be able, if they assess the situation, to hit that person in a way that hurts so that they can run to safety. That's all we want”, Dr Stefaniak said, clarifying the principles of the course.

She said, “I guess this is nothing new, but there's tons of research that show that women are disproportionately targeted by sexual harassment and sexual assault. I think the World Health Organization estimates that one in three women are targeted by sexual assault by an intimate partner or another person. Then the UN Women UK say that women aged 18-24, among them, 97% declare that they have experienced some sexual harassment. This is widespread and it's by an order of magnitude more common for women than it is for men. This is like an actual social problem”.

Dr Stefaniak earned her Ph.D. from the University of Warsaw and now centres her research on the dynamics of intergroup relationships. Her studies have investigated the role of nostalgia in the context of national identities and, more recently, gender relations.

Currently, Dr Stefaniak is also involved in examining the psychological benefits of self-defence training – a subject that, she notes, is gradually gaining traction within the field of social sciences. She points to research suggesting that self-defence training may increase feelings of empowerment among individuals, thereby diminishing their sense of vulnerability and perceived susceptibility to harm.

“One of the hypotheses is that, through empowerment, women who have participated in self-defence programs may seem like more difficult targets. We know that perpetrators often try to find targets that look like they would not resist. There is something to be said about knowing that you can defend yourself, and that can contribute to you being more cautious in deciding where you go”, Dr Stefaniak said.

As part of the practical application of her research, Dr Stefaniak plans to conduct a study evaluating the effects on participants involved in the workshop. In addition, she is mentoring a senior psychology student researching the impact of a self-defense program at the Krav Maga Ottawa school —an initiative of particular significance to Dr. Stefaniak, as it is where she first learned and started teaching the martial art.

Dr Stefaniak notes the benefit of conducting exercises with Karpel, a male instructor, whose involvement reflects a variety of potential real-world scenarios. She is mindful of the emotional reactions participants may experience during this intense training and ensures the workshop schedule includes ample breaks for participants to rest and hydrate.

“We say if, for any reason, you need a break – it can be you're just tired, you need to rest a moment, or something is making you feel uncomfortable. Participants know that this may happen, and they know that it's totally okay in that space to take a little bit of time and space for themselves if they need to”, she explained.

Additionally, Dr Stefaniak highlights that Krav Maga is a practice designed to be inclusive, with specific adjustments available to accommodate disabled individuals, underscoring the program's dedication to inclusivity.

In the process of creating this course, Dr Stefaniak and Karpel — who are both foreign to the United Kingdom — have faced obstacles in establishing a consistent schedule due to logistical and visa issues. With the limited number of sessions they can offer, the duo emphasizes a curriculum that encompasses physical self-defence techniques as well as the development of confidence and assertiveness.

“Most attackers want to be stealthy. They want everything to happen quietly and they don't want resistance. One of the first things that women can do to resist and to bring attention to the situation, is to yell as loud as they can. We practice that. In the class, we do a lot of yelling and swearing because I feel curse words also help to raise your own aggression, even if that's the only thing they do”, Dr Stefaniak explained.

Knowledge of physical self-defence is made all the more critical by the limited number of alternative options for resisting an attempted attack.

Dr Stefaniak said, “In the UK, but it's the same, for instance, in Canada, where I initially trained, you are not allowed by law to use any weapons for self-defence. For instance, pepper spray is not legal in the UK. So again, this is taken away from women as a way to protect themselves. What is left is just to become your own weapon in the sense that just to know how to hit the potential attacker, if it comes to that, to buy yourself a few seconds because that's all we want”.

Looking to the future, Dr Stefaniak remains dedicated to expanding the reach of the self-defence discourse. She emphasizes that the assertion of these capabilities is not just about personal security; it's also about sending a clear message that there are consequences for crossing boundaries and that individuals are prepared to protect themselves if necessary.

“Given that women do have this extra burden on them just because of how dangerous it is, essentially, to walk the world as a woman, I hope this course really contributes to a sense of empowerment among women in the university. And, hopefully also at some point if we can open it to everybody in town, I would be super happy to do that. But also I hope that it creates this social norm of we're not accepting that behavior. It's not just we don't want it - there are consequences. If you decide, as a perpetrator, to cross the line, there are consequences and we can defend ourselves”, Dr Stefaniak said.

Image: Dr Anna Stefaniak

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