GRENOBLE - Since she joined as staff at the Dojo Grenoblois -- the judo and ju-jitsu club located in the heart of the housing projects of Villeneuve, south of Grenoble -- Laëtitia Cardaci has gotten used to locking the door of the room where she gives her class in Japanese taïso exercise.

For this bubbly, 23-year-old sports instructor, in charge of developing the club's activities, must make sure that no men will interrupt the Wednesday night, women-only class that includes many Muslim participants.

For this report, Cardaci's students all agreed to make an exception to their women-only rule for a few minutes. "For the mothers in this neighborhood, a male presence tends to complicate everything. If this women-only class didn't exist, we would not be able to practice sports, since there are no other women-only facilities in the neighborhood," explains Katia, 40.

Every week, around 30 women “abandon” their husbands and children to take part in the taïso class. Thanks to word of mouth in the neighborhood, this Japanese discipline, used by judoka to build muscle and core strength, has grown popular among local housewives.

A majority of the women taking part in the taïso class live in Villeneuve. The youngest one is 15 while the eldest one is 75. Some had never practised any kind of physical activity before and are overweight. One describes why she comes to the dojo: "to find a space where they can breathe and get rid of their daily pressure."

"We are women of all sizes, ages and cultures. But on the tatami, we are all equal. Everyone can go at their own pace, without worrying about being judged by others," explains Céline, who comes to the dojo frequently after joining two years ago.

The Dojo Grenoblois was established in 2009 at the instigation of a collective of local residents who did not want to see judo taken off the list of sports available in a neighborhood considered the black sheep of the city. Villeneuve is a former housing development project built in the 1970s. There are now many positive initiatives; however, there is just as much mischief. The unemployment rate is above 35%.

Social ties

In July 2010, the neighborhood was the backdrop to three consecutive nights of urban riots. "During these events, not a single judoka was out rioting and I'm proud of that," says Youssef Habib, the technical manager of the Dojo Grenoblois. "Every time our neighborhood is in the news, it is a blow for the club, whose members are already very much stigmatized."

Habib, who grew up in the neighborhood, has always wanted to be a sports instructor. He says he knows everything about his students. "To be an instructor in Villeneuve sometimes means also being a social worker, or even a psychologist. The social aspect of the job is crucial!" he says.

The Dojo Grenoblois advocates access to sports for all, regardless of age and sporting abilities. "Our target audience are those who are left out of sports and our aim is to help create social ties between local residents," explains Habib.

Since this Fall, the club has also been offering activities at the local retirement home. When the club has family events, Youssef Habib brings in a nutritionist to talk to parents about junk food. The dojo has also built strong ties with the local primary school, working with teachers to identify the troublesome kids who would benefit from an introduction to martial arts. "On the tatami, behaviors change," says Youssef.

Not long ago, something quite amazing happened in Villeneuve. Some of the mothers enrolled in the taïso class started also meeting every week to jog out in the open in a local park. Their husbands were stunned.