Fighting Fascism at the UK's Feminist Antifa Martial Arts Gym
Solstar in North London describes itself as a "red gym" run on left-wing principles. Founders Ella Gilbert and Paula Lamont explain how boxing can be a form of political resistance.
Paula Lamont and Ella Gilbert founded Solstar in 2016. All photos by Jake Lewis
Taking an opportunity to enjoy the summer sunshine before an evening boxing session, Solstar founders Ella Gilbert and Paula Lamont indulge in a light sparring match in a North London park. Even as a friendly bout, the padded hits make me wince. I side-eye the four jeering men a few yards away, but the fighters are focused only on each other. Gilbert sends a gloved right hook that swiftly connects with Lamont’s nose. Lamont, nonplussed, flicks her ponytail back and they laugh in unison.
As a women-led boxing and martial arts gym run along anti-fascist community principles, Solstar is among the first of its kind in the UK. When it opened in February 2016, both Gilbert and Lamont were determined to build a space where women could learn practical fighting skills without the machismo. Lamont has competed in MMA, trained in boxing and jujitsu, and was the first woman in 15 years to gain a Taekwondo black belt classification at her gym. Gilbert, who started her boxing career at university in 2012, now fights for Islington Boxing Club and won in her weight category in the prestigious London Development Championships last year.
Gilbert is blasé as she recalls her first experience at an amateur boxing club: “I was the first woman in 100 years and they haven't had another one since. But I was stubborn, I stuck it out and refused to go away and eventually they had to notice me.” She adds, “It’s the general culture. Even in my current competitive gym, which has arguably the largest female squad in the country, men still outnumber us six or seven to one.”
Solstar, while a relatively small club, still boasts an average 50:50 gender ratio. The classes themselves are held at a local community centre, with two classes per week—boxing on Tuesdays and Muay Thai on Thursdays. Gilbert takes the reins for Tuesday’s lesson while former World Muay Thai Council champion Anna Zucchelli leads on Thursdays. Sometimes 30 students turned up, though the average class size now clocks in at a more manageable 10 to 15.
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Lamont remembers a male instructor’s unfriendly reception that only reinforced her quest for a more women-inclusive gym. “I phoned up one club instructor when I first moved into MMA,” she says. “He was very off with me. I told him I had experience, I’d done it before and he just wasn’t enthusiastic. For me, if a woman steps into a gym, regardless of the level, they should be met with twice as much enthusiasm.”
Solstar distinguishes itself from other gyms in its intersecting principles of feminism and anti-fascism. “We would describe ourselves as a ‘red’ gym or a left-wing gym,” explains Lamont. “It is a space for people to train who are trade unionists, campaigners, or consider themselves politically progressive.”
It’s about solidarity, adds Gilbert: “There’s a sense of team spirit when you can walk into a room and know you have shared principles with the people that you’re training with.”
While there are left-wing gyms in the UK, the two found that these spaces weren’t always inclusive. None were fronted by women. “How are you going to advance things for people if you don’t represent those people?” asks Gilbert.
Lamont nods in agreement: “I think that all progressive movements should be women-led. There should be at least equality. I don't see how you can call yourself progressive if women aren’t at the forefront of anything you do that’s left-wing.”
Solstar is connected to left-wing gyms both in the UK and globally—the two founders recently returned from an anti-fascist boxing conference in Ghent, Belgium. Boxing and martial arts gyms are traditionally anti-fascist, explains Lamont, “because it’s about training people to be aware of themselves on the street. It’s about equipping people with the ability to defend themselves.”
Self-defence is something that Solstar are integrating into their classes, specifically for the benefit of female participants. “We’re teaching people how to survive,” explains Gilbert.
Lamont says that the greatest thing she learnt doing martial arts was not necessarily how to hit someone, but how “to be hit and not go to pieces.”
“I've heard so many recollections of women who have been sexually or physically assaulted where they’ll say ‘I was so petrified I froze,’” she says. “If we can stop that and train people to click out of that [mindset], then I think we’ve achieved something.”
Are they afraid that the far right will infiltrate the space that they have worked hard to build? “They know about us,” Gilbert says. “They say the left is getting organized!”
The two co-founders have an extensive history of activism. Lamont has been involved in protest movements since the 90s and is currently a trade unionist. As a hunt saboteur, she also disrupts fox hunts in the UK. Gilbert’s day job is in climate science—she studies the melting of the Antarctic ice shelves as part of her PhD. In 2016, she narrowly avoided jail for protesting the now-greenlit third runway at Heathrow Airport.
Still, Lamont and Gilbert shy away from the idea of Solstar being a form of protest. “It’s a form of resistance as opposed to a form of protest,” Lamont says firmly. “To me, protest is a reaction to something particular, whereas resistance is about building strength and building something in the community that can then be relied upon. It's about bringing people together and it’s about making the left stronger, both physically and mentally.”
The club also has unusual allies in the local Turkish and Kurdish community. Solstar currently operates out of a community centre run by Gik-Der, the Refugee and Workers Cultural Association (RWCA), an organization founded in 1991 “by migrants fleeing political and racial persecution in their home countries of Turkey and Kurdistan.” Like Lamont and Gilbert, Gik-Der support the ongoing Kurdish democratic revolution in Rojava.
Lamont is grateful for the support of the local community: “That’s the really important part of this—we work from a migrant refugee centre. They said come and use the space for free, we would be so pleased for you to use it. So we had this space that was left-wing, anti-fascist, progressive, feminist, and so we wanted to do something that would reflect their politics as well as our own.”
Solstar members help out with community festivals and with English and math lessons for local kids, and the club is also working on offering martial arts classes to local women. “We’re going to fundraise to provide a creche with a childminder, as local Turkish and Kurdish women said they were unable to attend [classes],” says Lamont. “It's really about working out what the obstacles are stopping women from training and removing those obstacles.”
Accessibility is everything—classes are only £5 for that reason, and students can negotiate if they are unable to afford the fee. “We made a decision early on,” Lamont says. “Do we want to be this underground martial arts club where nobody knows who we are and we don’t put our names and photographs online? And then we decided that defeated the whole purpose—we’re just going to be really open.”
“I think it’s important for us to be visible because we are at the forefront of a progressive movement,” states Gilbert. “We are the first women-led, left-wing gym, and that's important to advertise. Because apart from anything else, it shows that it’s possible—women can lead a martial arts gym.”