I was recently approached by a friend who is writing a piece on the topic to consider ‘what is it like to be a woman in martial arts’. I think some personal context is necessary to highlight my point of view in responding to this question. I’ve been training in martial arts for 10 years. Initially, as a means to get back into shape after university, but quickly thereafter as a path of personal-development. Much of the first half of my decade in martial arts was spent in Shorinji Kempo (SK), in which I attained the rank of shodan. SK is a form of Zen Buddhism, and was, until recently, a recognised religion in Japan. The physical and spiritual aspects of the art were emphasised as one and gradings included both demonstration of technique and written examination on SK philosophy. I am also a former professional feminist historian and have a PhD in history and economic and social history from the University of Glasgow; I specialised in 19th century gender and women’s history. I dissolved my academic career due to lack of opportunity and retrained as a software developer, and after having worked in the City for two years am now working for myself and building my own Internet start-up.
With my background in mind, I would argue that the whole of question of ‘women in martial arts’, itself, reveals women’s marginal status inside and outside the dojo. I believe our culture puts a great deal of emphasis on individuals’ particularity, be it in terms of race, ethnicity, creed, social class or gender, when it is only accidents of birth and hormones that create these differences. In turn, a preoccupation with these issues tends to mask the true complexities of shared/divergent values, aspirations and etc among peoples. So, with the understanding that: a) I believe that the question of ‘women in martial arts’ highlights a persistent and insidious sexism of liberal democratic societies, in which liberal understandings of the free individual, implicitly male, contrast with notions of the ‘natural’ qualities of the sexes which assert women’s essential role as subordinate wife and mother; and b) I am not self-conscious of myself as a ‘female martial artist’ but rather consider myself a ‘martial artist’, I’ll try to address some issues that I face as a woman and a martial artist. To organise my response, I’ll address three questions: why am I a martial artist; how do I find being a woman influences my experience in martial arts; and what role does competition play in my practice.
Why am I a martial artist?
I started martial arts in the new year of 1998. I was back in my home town, Rochester, NY, after university and before starting my post-grad. A friend had a friend who was an instructor at a local dojo and was running a ‘women’s empowerment self-defence class’; we decided to go along. I had been trying to get fit after university, being of the opinion that I could either explode or go into my late-twenties and thirties with some grace. This seemed like a good opportunity. I had always had an interest in martial arts, having had a long-term relationship with a keen martial artist in my late-teens and early-twenties. I also had a background in dance and gymnastics and the learning environments and strategies for these disciplines are very similar. The pal who introduced me to the dojo was Seneca, a Native American tribe indigenous to Upstate New York, and near the end of the self-defence course I accompanied her to an ‘Iroquois Social’ where I entered a raffle to win a month’s martial arts instruction. I won, and from there my fate was sealed and I trained in IOMASDA Ryu for the next few months. I moved to Glasgow in the autumn of ’98 and after checking out the university’s Judo and Shotokan Karate clubs I settled on Shorinji Kempo. SK appealed to my belief in the unity of mind and body and was technically more diverse than the other clubs, including a mixture of hard (striking) and soft (throws, releases and pins) techniques. By this time, martial arts was insinuating itself as core component of my life and while still somewhat about fitness – I have always pursued extra-curricular body-conditioning to increase my stamina for martial arts – it was steadily becoming more and more a Zen path of learning how to live in the moment and to to relinquish ego. This path for me has been further consolidated as I’ve increasingly immersed myself in BJJ practice over the last four years.
BJJ, and in particular the Gracie Jiu Jitsu that I practice, is deeply liberating to me. On a day-to-day level I like the physicality of the art, which provides superb fitness, but the physicality of BJJ does not overrule its complexity and technical difficulty (I’ve found some martial artists assume that athletic or more physically challenging disciplines are less technical). I also like that my ability to apply technical knowledge is constantly challenged by the integration of sparring into training, not to mention that it is possible to spar this art in every session without knocking my brain about or putting my nose out of joint. Further, as a relatively small and light martial artist (59-60 kilos so I weigh in at about 62 kilos), I’m able to deal effectively with much larger and stronger opponents; I know from experience the truth of the notion that the wider the skill gap the less important is a strength/weight advantage (while the converse is also the case). My BJJ also represents for me a beautiful and amazing journey of self-discovery and improvement. The more I am able to relinquish my ego and to exist in ‘the now’ the more I learn and the better I perform. For instance, when rolling (sparring or fighting in competition) the more I am able to be ‘in the moment’ and to avoid attachment to a particular position, seeking to do ‘what I can, when I can’, rather than ‘what I want, when I want’ the better I perform. Similarly, the more I am able to roll without ego and to treat all training partners, regardless of size or skill level, as someone that I can learn from, the more I am able to roll without fear; there is no fear of failure if the experience rather than ‘winning’ is the goal. So, the stronger and more centred I am as a person the better player I am, and, reciprocally, the more open-minded my approach to training the stronger and more centred I become. I suppose I am a martial artist for many of the reasons people of faith have religion. I have a great deal of fellowship with my team mates and training partners, I am able to push myself to grow as a better person and I am able to develop greater tenacity for dealing with adversity in my life; everyday I’m less likely to ‘tap’.
How do I find being a woman influences my experience in martial arts?
As a woman in martial arts, as in any realm of my life, I find that male peers tend to respond to me in one of three ways:
– As a legitimate training partner.
– As a training partner after a period of suspicion.
– As a ‘woman’, a label which here denotes incapacity for proper martial artistry
Most of my training partners have been, and continue to be, men. I have been lucky enough to have trained with some outstanding individuals who supported my development and accepted me as a legitimate and fun training partner from the get-go. I have also had regular experience of being avoided as a training partner and only accepted as a legitimate training partner after a period of dedication, some times over the course of years. To turn someone around to seeing me as an equal and as a ‘martial artist’ in something approaching gender-neutral terms is incredibly satisfying, and is a way in which I can ‘be the change’ I want to see. Then, of course, there are those that may be open to having women in the dojo but can never quite get past gender stereotypes. Here is where feminist-inspired assertiveness comes into play, which teaches that validation from others is not necessary for a sense of self-worth. It can certainly be disheartening to be treated as an inferior, but I believe that those who project negativity, hate and jealousy do so out of fear and insecurity. It is unfortunate that a sexist understanding of gender differences has to pervade all aspects of life, especially something I find so glorious, but all I can do is to continue on my path and wish luck to ‘the haters’ in finding inner-peace. This is all very vague and impressionistic, but perhaps an anecdote will illustrate my thoughts more clearly.
I train in BJJ under Dave Birkett (Dartford BJJ) who is instructed by Marc Walder, a Gracie Barra black belt under Mauricio Gomez. Marc Walder held an inter-club competition for his branches on 25 October. This was the weekend before a larger regional competition, the Kent BJJ Open, that I was competing in and I was looking forward to having a warm-up bout in a less pressurised environment than an open competition. I am in the lightweight weight category (under 64 and over 59 kilos), and there are very few men approaching my size. A week before the competition it came to light that there was no one for me to compete against. I believe this was due to a combination of two factors: first that there weren’t folk of my weight; and second that folk close to my weight weren’t keen to fight a woman. This upset me a great deal. I love BJJ, and I felt betrayed by my BJJ-brothers. My disappointment turned to disgust with the idea that folk would consider: a) victory over a woman as negligible; b) loss to a woman as humiliating. In both cases women’s innate inferiority is implicit, and I felt judged without trial, treated as a ‘woman in martial arts’ rather than as a ‘martial artist’. Dave Birkett and Marc Walder, two men very supportive of female martial artists, arranged for ‘demonstration bouts’ for myself and another female competitor from my club. My instructors wanted to highlight the legitimacy of ‘women in martial arts’, but to me this felt token as the whole point seemed to be that being a woman prevented me from being fully accepted as a martial artist, and I toyed with the idea of not doing the bout and boycotting the whole affair. However, in the spirit of giving up ego and in light of my great respect for both Dave and Marc, who I trust to have a better notion of what is good for me in a martial arts context, I decided to go for it and get out of the experience what I could.
The exhibition bouts were held during an intermission in the competition. I sparred with Dave ‘Speedy’ Elliot. Dave Elliot is a four stripe brown belt and head of the Newcastle branch. His nickname refers to him having ended eight MMA bouts in submission, each in under a minute, and having submitted seven opponents at a BJJ competition in a combined time of less than two minutes. He is and absolute monster and greatly respected inside and outside the Marc Walder jiu jitsu family, and I think the idea was to show that even certified badasses can get something out of rolling with a female player. I took a huge amount of confidence and positivity away from the experience. Dave ‘Speedy’ allowed me to ‘show my stuff’ by putting me into all sorts of positions and everywhere I went I had technique to execute. He went very lightly, and I was able to pull off some fancy moves: semi cartwheel guard pass; double leg sprawl defence; and a lovely sweep from butterfly guard. My performance got a huge reaction from the crowd, and there was great shouting when I did my techniques, particularly the sweep, and even ‘Meg, Meg, Meg’ chanting at one point. As Dave Birkett later remarked, it took ‘balls’ (gendered slang for ‘courage’ I suppose) to do, and it showed the folk there that I wasn’t ‘a slouch’. Because I was able to give up my ego and to approach the experience with an open mind, I was able to build up a store of positive feeling that I tapped in the run-up to the following week’s Kent Open; whenever I felt nervous or insecure I thought back to my feeling of composure and technical know-how in my roll with Speedy, and I could knock those demons out. I went on to a fine performance at the Kent Open, gaining the silver after demonstrating some advanced technique in my matches.
My memory of these events exemplifies what it is like for me both as ‘a person in martial arts’ and as a ‘woman in martial arts’. Firstly, it is important to build relationships with training partners and mentors who are open minded and endeavour to lead by example. Dave and Marc believe in everyone’s right and ability to participate in BJJ. They seek to set a tone in their clubs where students treat each other with respect. This is the sort of loving and nurturing environment where women, children and other less conventional martial artists can find a niche and excel. Secondly, while there is resistance to women’s inclusion, equally there are proactive responses that seek to assert the fallacy of women’s inferiority and give female players a forum to demonstrate their competencies.
What role does competition play in my practice?
I compete in BJJ in order to take advantage of the rare opportunity to fight against individuals of similar skill, weight and proportional strength and to enjoy the experience of a very pure state of being.
In regular training, even the lightest men I work with are ten kilos heavier not to mention even lighter men tend to have greater strength than women of equivalent weight. While this is a great challenge and helps me to develop an tight defence, it can be difficult for me to evaluate what I am capable of in terms of applying my technical knowledge. In competition, where size, strength and skill level are within a restricted range (by belt and weight division, and while men’s divisions are large enough to split by age this is not the case for women’s divisions), I’m able to gauge what techniques I ‘own’ and where I need to work. Moreover, I am able to work a more offensive game, as I’m not yet able to open up my defence against heavier, trained opponents, though I can often submit/win on points against much larger and less experienced players.
Fighting in competition requires a great deal of composure, determination as well as technical know-how. When I hit the mats I seek to bring all my training partners, all my practice, all my personal discipline, fights and struggles with me. I have only competed in two tournaments, and while the experiences were different, they shared a need for mental toughness and composure. In my first tournament, the Gracie Invitational at SENI ’08, I took the gold even though I was less technically advanced than my second opponent. I was, however, more physically fit which allowed me to push myself mentally and keep going as the fight got old. I refused to give up, even after 3-plus minutes of getting trounced. I bounced back and ended the fight with a rear choke with 10 seconds left and 13 points down. I remember rallying myself when I felt like I might give up, thinking that ‘this isn’t sparring’, ‘you’ve got to keep going’, ‘get up, Meg, GET UP!’, which is just what I did. I also remember being ‘in the zone’ and thinking and doing simultaneously. It was the most ‘in the moment’ I have ever felt and I was keen to repeat the experience.
I was much more relaxed at my second tournament, the Kent BJJ Open ’08. I was nearing promotion to blue belt and knew I had strong technical ability for my level, reinforced by my experience at the Marc Walder inter-club. While I felt very composed and was able to ‘turn it on’ when I hit the mats, it was an emotionally charged tournament for me. I knew it was likely I’d have to face a woman I’ve trained with at Bob Breen Academy and who now trained with a rival team; she’d recently taken gold at the Scandinavian Open for our division and she’d given me a very hard time in sparring at the Academy some months previously. I clearly dominated in my first bout, where I got a huge ippon seonagi to knee ride to mount and finished with an Ezekiel choke. My second bout was with the former Academy student, and I refused to show I was ‘shook’, doing high jumps with knee to chest as we came onto the mats. I had a good technical win on points: single leg takedown; nearly got a sweep from guard and arm bar from guard that I’d been practising; passed guard cleanly; used a low tight guard to prevent point loss. During this bout I felt very fluid and enjoyed the experience of ‘seeing myself’ executing technique instinctively. For instance, I looked down and saw myself blocking the hip as a natural matter of course as I passed guard. I narrowly lost the third bout on points. It was a shoving match where my opponent sought to get a takedown and ride out the match to win on points. I jumped to guard to prevent further point loss and to work submissions from there, having watched her fight I knew she would not be able to pass my guard. I became too attached to a choke I’ve been working to see a very good triangle opening when it was available and went for that too late. I believe I demonstrated great fighting ability for my level, even without taking gold, and I took a lot from the experience. I went there with personal goals, specifically to work my takedowns and to stay cool and work my game and not be goaded into a crude battle of strength, and I left there feeling I met those goals well. I learned more from my third match than the others, in particular that I must work my sprawls and be yet more fluid and ‘in the moment’ in order to capitalise effectively on positions as they come and go. This, in essence, is what competition is about for me, learning about my BJJ and so learning about myself. I believe that medals are a symptom of going in there, facing my fears and ‘doing my job’, but a medal is not the goal itself rather a consequence of a strong mind and body.
A final note on my experience at the Kent Open. When I executed a rather textbook ippon seonagi to knee ride the crowd went wild and, according to my team mates, there was a huge buzz in the stands and certainly several male competitors unknown to me congratulated me on my performance. Considering that BJJ, like martial arts more widely, is very much a ‘man’s world’, it is very satisfying to win the respect of folk through a demonstration of competency and, again, makes me feel that I am ‘being the change’ I want to see.