Sunday, 8 September 2013

A woman’s place – is it the dojo? 5.09.13

“The problem with thinking outside of the box is that you can end up forgetting
that the box is where most people live.”  R. Webb

I recently became involved in a conversation about women in the martial arts and in self-defence in particular.  We were trying to work out why women are so underrepresented throughout the field.  In most disciplines, in most dojos, males dominate, if only in number.  Why?  Given that the average woman is, statistically, not as strong as the average man, you’d think they would have a greater need to train purely to level out the playing field.  Yet, it doesn’t seem to happen.  Whilst a minority of women does very well indeed in MA and SD, the vast majority avoids the field altogether.

It quickly became apparent that the conversation was being conducted largely by male martial artists.  This made absolutely no sense to me.  As a. males and b. martial artists they quite simply do not belong to the demographic in question, hence they were making assumptions.  It would make as much sense if they joined a discussion about how it feels to have menstrual cramps.  However, on they went, mourning the lack of female participation in their chosen field.

A few non-martial-artist ladies, when asked why they don’t even read about self-defence, came up with some very interesting answers:
  •       Because it's not something I need.  I avoid that situation.  I am either out with people or I am in places where there are other people.  I know this sounds silly, but I expect someone to be there to rescue me.”
  •          “Cooking - self-defence - cooking... I just wouldn't go to that part of the bookstore.”
  •          “Honest answer - I have never really thought about it. I have quite a good Glasgow kiss and if any kind of self-defence situation arose I would probably be able to deal with it.  Yes I am aware that is totally naïve…”

And my personal favourite:
  •          “I don't buy self-defence books because I don't believe I'll be able to do that manoeuvre anyway when the time comes... if the time comes... I hope that time never comes... Don't you call these things into your life by reading about them?

I wondered, after a while, whether we were not getting a sensible answer because we were asking the wrong question.  If you look at a flock of birds or a school of fish, and you see that the vast majority is going one way and a small minority is going another way, you wonder what’s up with the minority.  You question what is making them act differently, not what is preventing the majority from changing their behaviour.  Maybe we should be asking why there are women in MA and SD at all.  Given the statistics, after all, the abnormality is not with the women who don’t join a dojo.  It is the ones who join who are the oddities.  But why?

If you think about it, martial arts, historically, have been primarily a male concern.  Throughout most of history humans followed certain gender roles.  Looking at a very broad, generic (hence not terribly accurate, but revealing) picture, men went to war and to hunt; women raised children and kept the homes.  Back in the days where humans actively struggled against survival, this arrangement made sense for a variety of practical reasons.  Not only men are stronger, but they are notoriously bad at breast-feeding; keeping young children and women together and safe was a necessity rather than a lifestyle choice.

Moreover, women are necessary to the production of babies.  If you live in small communities, as humans did in the distant past and still do in some areas, women are less expendable then men.  If you lose all but one of the men, a relaxation of the taboos on polygamy (and sometimes inbreeding) will still guarantee you a healthy crop of babies.  Lose the women, and the community may dwindle down to an unsustainable number.

It’s not just about fun stuff though, like slaying beasts and waging wars.  Our comfortable lives make it easy for us to forget that for countless generations men were the gender expected to work at the vast majority of the “death professions”[1] – those jobs where you were expected to die early from a lifetime of back breaking, manual labour.  Men died like flies mining, fishing, logging and building, sacrificing themselves because they were supporting their families through the only means available to them – selling their bodies.

It’s not that the women couldn’t do the work, but that it carried too heavy a cost.  That kind of hard, mangling and body destroying labour often prevents women from having children, both because it is so brutal on their bodies that they may become barren and because it can induce miscarriages.  In the days before modern medicine became readily available to the majority, complications during child birth were a leading cause of death among women.  Nowadays child birth is considered safe, but back in the day, every time a woman got pregnant she was risking death.  It was a known danger.

So, there is a high chance of your women dying in bearing your children.  On top of that, you want to put them out doing physically destructive manual labour? And THEN send them to war?  In a world where a group’s survival was not guaranteed, this would have been a poor strategy indeed.  The bottom line is that, much as the feminists may want to ignore it, a lot of “restrictions” on women were originally put into place with the purely pragmatic need to protect them from harm.  Not because they were weak – but because they were crucially important.

Of course, from our privileged position we can ignore all this.  In this society, in this time, with the lives we lead and the amount of technology at our disposal it is easy to hop on a soapbox and let rip about the misogynistic male hegemonies of the past.  You could even look at the death statistics for the last century – how many young men died during the wars, versus how many young women – and still try to claim that your great-grandmothers were being oppressed.  Even if we determine that gender roles are a passé example of society’s brainwashing, though, we are still left with a problem.  What about the thousands of years of evolution that lay behind and beyond that?

We like to forget that we’re mammals.  We like to think that we are rational beings, without a trace of the ape in us.  That, however, is quite simply not true.  We may struggle daily to overcome our basest instincts, yet they are still there, still a part of us.  Moreover, those instincts are not necessarily the same for men and for women, because, back when we had tails, we needed our males and our females to behave differently in the face of violence.

Yes, I am well aware of the danger of getting between a mother bear and her cub.  Hell, I have seen a ewe attack a completely clueless and innocent pitbull who just so happened to get between her and her lamb, and she won.  Spectacularly.  However, the bottom line is that females need to not get hurt, or the species won’t do well.  Males, on the other hand, are quite welcome to near-enough cull each other prior to breeding, so that only their best genes will be brought forward.  In most mammal species it is the males who fight or display prior to breeding.  In humans, up to the very recent past, social violence as shown in the “monkey dance” popularised by Rory Miller[2] was almost uniquely a male affair.  Social violence in the female mode used to be far more commonly purely verbal, if just as vicious.

Why don’t more women get involved in the martial arts?  Well, maybe because it just doesn’t necessarily come natural to them.  Maybe because generations of social conditioning and thousands of years of evolution stand against it, by providing them with a set of instincts and unconscious thought patterns which guide them away from unnecessary violence, for their own protection.  Not because they are weak – but because they are crucially important.

Things have changed, though, and in our society, in our time, it’s perfectly ok for women to join into any activity they want.  The shackles of the past have been cast aside!  However, something else has also changed.  We view violence as an aberration, as an alien, traumatic intrusion into our lives.  This has not been the case through most of our history.  Our ancestors would have been staggered to hear people earnestly stating that “violence never solved anything”, because to them it was an accepted way of obtaining and protecting resources.  It may have not been seen as desirable, but it was a fact of life.  In many other societies it still is. 

As martial artists, spending time with other martial artists, to us practicing martial arts is normal.  The fact is that in our society it is not seen as desirable or even acceptable to engage in physical conflict or even to resolve a conflict physically.  If you don’t agree with me, just consider the fact that more and more schools have a “zero tolerance” policy for violence; if a child is attacked and fights back, s/he gets punished.  School policies are hardly cutting-edge.  They are a reflection of how society at large views a subject.

In essence, women have to overcome centuries of social conditioning, millennia of evolution and the current zeitgeist before walking into a dojo.  And when they manage to drag themselves there, what they often encounter is an environment which is far from gender-neutral.  This is not just about the decor, but about the fact that martial artists aren't necessarily your average bunch of people.  For instance, my self-defence classes are right after the MMA training sessions.  Now, I am more than happy to have a cup of coffee and a chat with our MMA fighters, as they are all, without exception, utterly lovely guys.  My mother, however, who is the perfect victim profile, would take a look at them (huge, muscle-bound, tattooed and sometimes sporting the scars of their sport) and run away screaming.  Yes, she would be guilty of “profiling”, but that’s how people operate.  Even if they were in a suit and tie, the mere fact that they are MMA fighters is a clear indication that they probably eat babies and little old ladies, anyway.

When you think about it, the weird thing is not that most women never manage to get themselves to a dojo; we should be amazed that any manage to do it.  Whilst self-protection is interlinked with martial arts in its delivery and marketing, it seems inevitable to me that those women who have not had some inducement, either in the form of positive encouragement or a negative event, will steer clear of the whole subject, regardless of how much they may need it.

The only martial art I am aware of where women are well-represented is Tai Chi (if you class that as a martial art in the form that is currently taught in the West).  Women are learning moves which were once designed as a form of fighting, largely without knowing that that is what they are doing – perhaps precisely because they don’t know that they are doing it, given how Tai Chi is marketed.  The classes often take place outside dojos.  The presence of other women makes it easier for more women to join.

Maybe if we want to involve more women in self-defence we don’t need to change their minds, which is often what martial artists are trying to do now by trying to sell them the benefits of martial arts or scare them into realising their necessity.  Maybe what we need to do is change our dojos and the way we present our arts to something more appealing to them, more - dare I say it? - feminine.  Because the gender bias is there, whether we like it or not, and ignoring it won’t make it go away.


Drew said...

Nice post! Totally agree - I've trained with some great female MAists, and often they actually pick things up and improve quicker than men do (usually because they can't use brute strength as easily to cover up mistakes in their technique).
I know I'm risking being one of the guys in your post (I'll let you know if/when I develop an opinion on menstrual cramps) but I think that women have some very unique challenges when training, even the ones that manage to make it past the social barriers you mention - just the implications of throwing an un-compromised, honest attack at a female tori are terribly awkward and difficult as a male uke...your entire social and genetic makeup are SCREAMING at you that you're doing the wrong thing, but how is that female MAist ever going to improve if all she ever gets are half-assed attacks from well-meaning guys who go easy because they don't want to risk hurting her? The desire to "protect the female" extends even this far, into the dojo itself! It's like Inception or something.

You can eventually get past it, but I wonder how many men make that effort, and how many women train with guys who aren't being honest...for women to learn SD/MA this way is horribly dangerous. Process predators don't "go easy" on anyone.

Some of the higher-ranking women in my art have openly bemoaned the fact that they can't get a decent punch thrown at them, so I do my best to be an honest uke, even though it's sometimes horribly, horribly against my programming as a guy. I figure that's my best way of promoting true equality and helping those women to train.

Anonymous said...

My classes are 50/50 and always have been. (well/ one time it grew to about 70% women, but more men have joined since then)

The first thing that attracts them is that we don't do tournament sparring, we learn for self defense. You'd be surprised at how many women are turned off by the idea of playing a "game" instead of being serious.

When inthe class, I teach them one thing that makes them buckle down- "An attack on you is an attack on your entire family". I then explain the emotional costs to the other members of the family when a woman is successfully assaulted, the divorce statistics for marriages, and how it affects the relationship with their kids.

For younger women I talk about how it affects the relationship with their father, siblings, and any future relationship they may have.

Without exception EVERY woman I teach has come to me at a later time and thanked me for changing the way they look at defending themselves. Some have said, when they looked at it as simply defending themselves, they wondered if they could hurt someone. However, now that they look at it as an attack on their entire family, they actually see it as something they would do willingly if the need arose.

Lise Steenerson said...

Love this!!! You have some great posts. I have been enjoying them for a while.
This is of course a subject dear to my heart. Here is the take I had on it

Keep on blogging!!!

Humble Tiger Meowings said...

Well written..:)

I have 4 older sisters and only one of them decided to train in martial arts. The other 3 were like you wrote, counted on others to protect them.

Like Drew wrote, I have had the honor of training and training with, many great female martial artists. I truly wish there were more in the dojo/kwoon.

Personally, I have learned more about life from women than from men. My mom has taught me more about life than any other person. If she would have ever joined a dojo she would have humbled quite a few instructors...:)

Sharaze Colley said...

Thanks for writing this! Your post has inspired a lot of great conversations in and out of the dojo. I linked to you over at my blog: