Susie Kahlich is Pretty Deadly: Self-defence for women, by women

by | Everything Else

“Most self-defence courses are taught by men, and most women’s workshops too. But there are some everyday experiences that men will just never get.”

Pretty Deadly is an organisation that doesn’t just teach self-defence to women: it teaches self-defence for women. Susie Kahlich tells indieBerlin how she tailored her courses to a woman’s experience, and explains why the existing courses just weren’t cutting it.

Walking the streets with confidence

“I actually created Pretty Deadly for my mom. She was 65 years old at the time, and living in a dangerous part of Chicago where there had been a few muggings against elderly people. She wanted to keep going out but she wanted to feel safe.

“My mom wasn’t about to compromise the lifestyle she wanted to lead. That’s why Pretty Deadly is all about having the tools we need to empower ourselves, and to claim our right to the space we occupy on the planet.

Pretty Deadly with Susie Kahlich featured on indieBerlin

Male teachers missing the mark

“Back then, I had just reached the rank of Instructor at my original school, and was out on my own. For many years I had been the only woman in the school, and the guys did not go light on me in training. Then when more women joined, I noticed they weren’t getting the same treatment. Afraid of scaring the women away, the instructors were handling them with kid gloves.

“Most self-defence courses are taught by men, and most workshops for women are taught by men too. But no matter how well-meaning the instructor, there are some everyday experiences that men just will never get. Male teachers don’t make much effort to understand micro-aggressions, like strangers hovering, staring or making quick but lewd gestures. And they don’t understand certain vulnerabilities or dangers, like the instinct to automatically protect the chest area, for people with breasts.”

“Moreover I often notice in the dojo were treating their self-defence training as though it was a separate thing from daily life. I was worried they wouldn’t feel comfortable defending themselves outside of the learning setting, as if it was only their uniforms that gave them permission to fight back. That’s when I first started asking my students to wear regular feminine clothes – skirts, dresses, even heels – to bridge that gap between dojo and real life.

“None of this is to say that you can’t receive good self-defence training from men. I mean, it’s been 17 years since I first set foot in that dojo, and I’m still doing it. Obviously those guys were doing something right!

“But for instance, there’s often a point at which a guy instructor will say ‘in that situation, there’s not much you can do.’ How are you supposed to believe that you have a chance, or that the techniques you’re learning are even going to work?  I didn’t in those classes, and I realized most women don’t.

Everyday methods for ordinary women

“So I decided to do something about it. My first Pretty Deadly student was my own mother. She was pretty sprightly, but uncoordinated as hell. She thought she wasn’t strong or sporty enough, so I had to find movements in daily life that mimicked the techniques I wanted to teach her.

“Now in classes I use attack scenarios based on real-life events that people have confided in me, and I highlight the parts where the victim did defend themselves, even if it doesn’t seem like it on the surface.

“I use my own experience as a violent crime survivor to understand why reacted the way I did in the incident; why my body moved the way it moved; what the early warning signals were that, at the time, I didn’t know how to read; all the things that kept me alive.

“And of course I use my ninjutsu training to come up with no-rules no-holds-barred defence strategies.

Pretty Deadly teaching refugee women featured on indieBerlin

Pretty Deadly offers free courses tailored to the experience of refugee women

Learning and laughing

“Lastly, I always aim to keep it fun. I use a little music, and lots and lots of jokes. Some courses I’d been to were so full of horror stories, they were more self-defeating than empowering. You learn just as much when you’re laughing as when you’re scared shitless, so why not laugh? We all know that the world’s a violent place, and how vulnerable we are in it. It’s nice to take the chance once a week to explore our strengths instead of dwelling on our weakness.”

Pretty Deadly offers 5-week courses, covering the foundations of self-defence, common real-life scenarios, intimate scenarios. There are also monthly workshops that focus on actual events that have taken place in the area; finally, they stage volunteer courses for refugees, designed for specific types of clothing and the specific threats that these women face as they begin to integrate.

The next workshop is on 25 March, and the next round of Level I courses start on 20 March. Find out more and sign up for your class on

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