“You fight like a girl.” “You’re good, for a woman.” “The teacher is actually doing it like this.” “Oh, that was actually really good.”
Shut up and train.
When we pair up in the dojo I’m often the last to be picked. I regularly get paired with other women or end up in groups of three. Sometimes I feel invisible and other times I stick out like a sore thumb. I am both expected to be mediocre and have to prove that I am better than the guys to be taken seriously.
The first time I train with a man they’re likely to punch nowhere near my head. Especially if they haven’t been training long, or they’re not used to a woman in the dojo, in both cases they’re afraid of hurting me. If you’re going to train with me, train. Punch at me. If you don’t you’re doing us both a disservice. I can’t train with proper distance and timing and I’m actually more likely to get hurt. It’s also likely that the man no matter how long he’s been training will try to explain how to do the technique the teacher is showing. After training they’ll often tell me how to be ‘safe and alert’ out in the real world, don’t wear earbuds while walking etc. I know these things not because I train but because I live in a world where those precautions are the norm for all women, not just martial artists.
These sentiments are nothing new to women in martial arts and yet we continuously have to deal with it no matter how long we’ve been training.
Women have been taught martial arts much longer than most people realize. In some cultures, they were trained alongside the men. As may have been the case for Viking women.i In others, women were the last line of defense of hearth and home. Women would be left at home while the men went to war and someone had to be able to protect the home if the war came to their doorstep. Women participated in the Meiji Restoration in Japan. They formed a unit called the joshigun and fought on the front lines along with men.ii There is this image of women in the Victorian era being frail and fragile. The Ideal woman was portrayed as innocent, moral, obedient and wouldn’t hurt a fly. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Suffragettes were protesting, going on hunger strikes, and going to jail for the right to vote. Women were even protecting themselves with hatpins a foot or more in length until they were regulated to nine inches and fashions changed in the 20s.iii The perception that women don’t fight is both modern and cultural. While there are some cultures that historically women did not fight, overall it is more of a recent phenomenon than Americans seem to think.
We belong on the mats.
We need the mats. Who, if not women, have more need to protect themselves? Especially when elected officials and members of the supreme court have been accused of sexual assault. We need to be able to fight back when men are getting the message that there are little to no repercussions for sexually assaulting a woman from the highest offices in the land. If we can’t rely on the legal system we’ll have to rely on ourselves.
Yet this extends beyond protection and self-defense. The environment of martial arts represents a micro-cosm of patriarchal control over the female body. This control, as popularly exemplified by the fight for abortion rights is echoed in the dojo. In these situations, women are not trusted to even learn their body. A man is expected to see or feel a technique and be able to replicate it. A woman, on the other hand, is not, the expectation, especially of training partners, is that they won’t get it, so they will need to be shown again, and have it broken down for them in smaller steps. This would be great for a beginner, but as a woman who’s been training for ten years, I still get treated like this.
When an instructor does focus on his female students, there can be a question hanging over it, that nobody asks but everyone wonders, does he have an ulterior motive? The power dynamic of an instructor could be used to his advantage over a female student with little to no repercussion to him, but it can be devastating for her. A woman puts a lot of trust in her teacher and fellow students when she gets on the mats with them. Training is often very physical and invasive of personal space. Teachers need to cultivate the atmosphere of the dojo to be a safe space to learn and to fail and try again. Somewhere they don’t have to worry about being taken advantage of.
Further complicating a woman’s experience in the dojo, it is all too easy to get a reputation for sleeping around if a woman chooses to date in a small tight-knit martial art community. This attitude can also be reflected in rank in terms of favoritism or in exchange for sexual favors. I have avoided some of this and several other potential problems by already being married when I joined the Bujinkan, and gained a different set of issues. People often assume that I am in martial arts because of my husband. While this is the reason I study Bujinkan it is not the reason I train. I started fencing without him. I took Judo classes without him. While I may not be in the Bujinkan without him, I can’t imagine my life without martial arts. Both sets of instances center on the women’s relationship to the men in the dojo which is not fair to them and marginalizes their presence.
Learning to fight can be a challenge for a woman for many reasons, not least of which is that more often than not the dojo is full of men who may act as gatekeepers whether they mean to or not. The instructor is also used to teaching men and may not know how to handle women in the dojo. Confidence can be a huge issue for women in the dojo. They need to be confident that they can take a hit and hold their own, and it may take some time to get there. Many women don’t get the chance to practice teaching or to get comfortable showing in front of a crowd until they have to take a test or even much later in their training if it’s not a sport martial art. Women need to be uke just as much as male students. They need the practice to build up confidence in their abilities and so they will be able to teach their own students down the road.
Male instructors need to make their dojos welcoming to women. They need to understand the issues that women face in the dojo, physically, mentally and socially. Just training and saying they’re welcome is not enough. They need to actively facilitate training for women if for no other reason it potentially increases the size of the dojo by reaching out to a relatively untapped market.
Women already in the dojo need to set an example for newer students, both male and female. The women need role models to look up to and the men need to see how to treat women in the dojo.
iHedenstierna‐Jonson, Charlotte, Anna Kjellström, Torun Zachrisson, Maja Krzewińska, Veronica Sobrado, Neil Price, Torsten Günther, Mattias Jakobsson, Anders Götherström, and Jan Storå. “A Female Viking Warrior Confirmed by Genomics.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 164, no. 4 (2017): 853-860.
iiWright, D. E. “Female Combatants and Japan’s Meiji Restoration: The Case of Aizu.” War In History 8.4 (2001): 396- 417. ProQuest. Web. 9 Oct. 2018.
iiiAbbott, Karen. ““The Hatpin Peril” Terrorized Men Who Couldn’t Handle the 20th-Century Woman.” Smithsonian.com (24, April 2014.) https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/hatpin-peril-terrorized-men-who-couldnt-handle- 20th-century-woman-180951219/ Web. 8 Nov. 2018.