Rockville women learn to fight back

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Tori Garten, front, tries to free herself in a role-play during a women’s self-defense class.
Photo by Dan Schere

Seven out of every 10 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network — and that’s why Sophia Marjanovic tells women: “We can’t have false assumptions about our safety.”

She knows this from personal experience, having been a victim of child sexual abuse and domestic violence as an adult, she told a group of 12 women as she led a self-defense class on Sept. 13 at Magen David Sephardic Congregation in Rockville.


Marjanovic, a member of the synagogue and a martial arts instructor, gave the women tips on how to identify signals in potential attackers, such paranoia, vengefulness and entitlement. The participants then formed pairs to role-play scenarios in which self-defense would be necessary.

Marjanovic’s main message was that women are conditioned to be nice, but if they trust their intuition and look for warning signs that a man may be a sexual predator, they will be much safer.

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Here are four takeaways from her lecture.

Adrenaline is one of a predator’s main weapons


Predators, Marjanovic said, are not always larger than their victims and often are not carrying a weapon. But their determination to isolate the victim gives them a burst of adrenaline that is difficult to counter — something she experienced personally.

“I realized that no matter how empowered I was and how much I knew about how to be aggressive and fight off my attacker, it made him angrier and more determined,” she said. “He was smaller than me, and he was able to overpower me.”

Attackers always try to avoid witnesses. This, she said, is one reason more women do not report being raped to police. The criminal justice system requires evidence to prove a rape occurred. So victims are afraid they will not be believed if there’s no witness.

“If it ever comes down to cases where it goes to court, it’s your word against theirs,” she said. “The system isn’t really there to help you out in these types of situations.”

Fighting is about imposing your mental will

In one exercise, one woman in each pair pretended to be a man and grab the other woman by the hair from behind. Marjanovic instructed the participant playing the woman to put her hands around the attacker’s wrists and then rotate her body away from the attacker to free herself.

In another scenario, in which the man attempts to grab the woman from behind, Marjanovic suggested the woman wrap her foot around the man’s leg to prevent him from being able to walk. Moves such as these, she said, are simple self-defense strategies that do not cause injury, but match the man’s adrenaline-fueled strength.

“What people don’t often realize is that fighting is about imposing your mental will.” she said.

At one point, a participant asked how someone being attacked could compartmentalize her shock and have the presence of mind to fight back. Tori Garten, also a martial arts instructor, answered that self-defense is similar to solving a puzzle, and with enough practice it is possible to remain calm in a crisis.

Know the signs of a threat

Marjanovic said women should notice behaviors in people that signal they might be predators, such as men who give too many details about themselves when meeting a woman for the first time in stream-of-consciousness fashion. When people meet for the first time they usually reveal only a limited amount of information about themselves, she explained, and providing too much can signal a man’s intentions to create intimacy at a faster rate than normal.

She said another sign that a man might have bad intentions is if he makes unsolicited promises, such as, “I’m just gonna give you a ride. That’s all I’m gonna do.”

“That would be a boundary-pushing behavior,” she said.

Marjanovic said that because potential attackers want to avoid getting caught, it is possible to identify them by watching how their sternum, or breastbone, moves and whether they intend to attack. She added that men who look from side to side or appear paranoid are also exhibiting signs of predatory behavior. She encouraged the participants to trust their instincts.

“We’re often taught that the gut is emotional and female intuition is a myth, but evolutionarily we are conditioned to detect threats,” she said.

Be aware of personal space

The women also practiced standing at what Marjanovic called a comfortable distance from each other — about an arm’s length. Garten showed a simple way to deter a man who tries to get too close: She extended her arm fully and put her hand up to signal that her boundary has been violated.

Marjanovic said women should be aware of their surroundings on public transportation. She recalled sitting in an empty Metro car where a man boarded and sat down next to her, despite the many empty seats available to him.

“At that point, I said, ‘I have to go,’” she said, and she opened the door between cars to get away from the man.

Marjanovic advised the women to take a photo of the man if they are assaulted or observe suspicious behavior on public transit, but to do so discreetly.

The evening was informative for Magen David Sisterhood member Veronique Sriqui, who said she was surprised to hear that Marjanovic was assaulted. She said she hopes the congregation will also host a self-defense class for teenagers.

Most of us are middle-aged,” she said. “It should be addressed to women starting around 12 years old.”

Galia Steinbach of North Bethesda said she has taken a self-defense class before, but is now considering taking a series of classes.

“Hopefully you never have to use it, but I think it’s empowering to feel like you can defend yourself,” she said.

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