How I Made It

Ryhana Dawood, Martial Arts Instructor (and Physician)

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Ryhana Dawood; Toronto; @MartialSmartsTO

Let’s say we’ve just met at a party. How would you describe, in a nutshell, what you do?

I’m a resident physician training in family medicine during the week and a martial arts instructor on the weekends. I’m the founder of Martial Smarts, a non-profit which focuses on improving overall health and mental wellness in women, children and the elderly through self-defence.

Where did you go to school and what did you study?

I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto in Scarborough. I did my master of science in global health at McMaster University. Then I completed a Doctor of Medicine at Western University. I’m currently completing my residency in Toronto with the Department of Family and Community Medicine.

What was your first paying gig out of school? (In your field, or not.)

I first started working when I was 16 at the Toronto Public Library. I worked there for almost 10 years, and it helped me pay for my degrees, allowing me to graduate debt-free.

What inspired you to start Martial Smarts?

I started teaching in 2007 and met women who were in abusive relationships. I saw how taking even one class changed their whole demeanour: they came in timid and reserved and left brimming with confidence. I knew I had to keep doing this work. So I started by working with survivors of gender-based violence in women’s shelters around the Greater Toronto Area. We then expanded to operating campus safety workshops at universities and self-defence workshops at community centres. Over the last few years, requests have increased from the Muslim community given the rise in verbal and physical assaults on Muslim women.

Describe the moment in which you first realized, I think this is actually going to work out?

When The Good Fight , a documentary about my work by Toronto filmmaker Chrisann Hessing, screened at film festivals I began receiving requests from women around the world asking me to come and lead workshops in their communities. Most recently, we travelled to Chennai, India where we worked with over 1,000 women and children, teaching them basic self-defence, situational awareness and how to build healthy relationships.

What would you say has been your biggest failure or shortcoming, career-wise, to date? How did you bounce back?

Not getting into med school on the first try. I took a year off and used this time to travel and teach workshops around the world. I shadowed some doctors in Sri Lanka and decided that improving health outcomes was something I loved, so I came back to Canada and did my Master of Science.

What’s been the most rewarding experience in your career thus far?

Living with nuns in Bangalore, India while teaching street girls self-defence. In a world that seems so intolerant, I—a Muslim woman—was able to work with Christian nuns to coordinate a program for young Hindu girls. Some of these children had been abandoned on the street because of their gender, others had witnessed their mothers being abused and killed, others were left stranded when their parents died or developed a mental illness. Working with these girls was made all the more powerful as we were all able to put our differences aside and achieve a common goal.

Name one piece of career advice you always give.

Never give up on what you want, and find a mentor early.

What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever gotten?

“Why are you doing your MSc in global health and not becoming a doctor? Are you just going to become an activist?” I guess they didn’t realize that those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.

Did you deal with barriers in your field because you are a woman? If so, what were they?

When I first started training at a gym I experienced sexual harassment and ended up being kicked out after refusing the advances of this individual. I also sometimes experience inappropriate comments about what I wear, especially the hijab and long tops.

Are you making a fair income for your work? Why or why not? Do you have a side hustle for extra cash? If so, what is it?

Thankfully I make a fair wage.

What’s the worst stereotype you’ve heard about millennials at work?

That we’re lazy, entitled and not willing to work hard for what we want.

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