I’ve struggled with how to approach writing this because of the way it may be received. But that is part of why it absolutely needs to be said.
There are times to acknowledge and embrace gender differences in training, but sometimes it becomes all too obvious that karate is still very much a male-dominated culture. Much of this will be broad generalizations regarding gender, and of course there are exceptions to everything here and each student needs to be treated as an individual, but this is meant only to represent my view and to offer one perspective.
There are things as simple as needing to wear a uniform that was clearly meant for men, particularly for judging, that brings to the forefront of your mind that this isn’t a woman’s place. Look at the separation of men and women for exams and tournaments, when considerations aren’t made for size or strength – only gender and age. In class, take notice of how rare it is for a male instructor to choose a female opponent to demonstrate against, even when it is only a demonstration of skill, not strength. Whether it is intended or not, the underlying messages that can come across are that the woman is not a formidable opponent, that we can never compete with men, that we’re allowed to be here but not really wanted.
When having students partner up for sparring drills, do you notice when the groups are separated by gender? Unless there is a clear, necessary reason to do so (and not many come to mind), the subtle sexism of lowered expectations can be incredibly degrading. As an instructor, I am very conscious about how I pair up students and separate them out, because I’m aware of how it is received on the other side. If you really want to partner people by size (which can be reasonable based on the drill), then do that. If you want to partner people by rank (again, this can be appropriate), then do that. Anytime you separate groups or intentionally make pairings, there is a reason for it – and the astute student will pick up on that.
Much of the etiquette of a karate class is based around the male psyche. Men are more likely to face “monkey dance” types of social violence, and in these cases, just being humble, shutting your mouth, and losing your ego can be the best thing to avoid violence. Traditional dojo etiquette goes a long way to addressing this type of violence. But women are not nearly at the same risk for this type of violence, and are instead more at risk for predatory violence or social-gone-toxic situations (think situations like rape where most victims know their attacker). In these cases, it is vitally important for someone to break out of social scripts, stand up for themself, and not just do as they are told. But this mindset is contrary to what we see in traditional martial arts culture. This is also very obvious in most “self-defense” training in the dojo, where the focus is on social violence and male dominance games. Strategies that work for social violence can backfire in asocial violence, so it is vital to make that distinction and address both in our training. And it’s important to teach to individual students – different people are at risk for different types of violence. If part of our training is learning self-defense, then it’s important to acknowledge the different types of violence, the responses to them, and the different likelihoods of different individuals encountering these problems.
This is why it is so essential for women to be taken seriously in the dojo. It is important for all of our training partners to push us hard, and for us to be encouraged to push back hard. It is important for us to regularly partner with bigger, stronger opponents. The concept of fairness in partner training, whether it be in the dojo, in testing, or in tournaments, is a concept from sport that has crept into our regular training. We should also be training to deal with being at a disadvantage, because for all of us, if we ever need to use what we’ve learned, that’s the situation we’re likely to be in.
There are other things as well: physical differences between men and women, differences in adrenaline response, differences in risk-taking behavior, differences in competitive behavior, different cultural norms in types of play as we grow up, and that’s just to name a few. Perhaps most importantly from a self-defense perspective, the importance of overcoming social norms, as well as likely vast disadvantages in size and strength, and coupling that with a more asocial violence profile, makes the problem that much more real for a woman. I don’t have all the answers for how these things could or should be addressed. But I believe that acknowledging and embracing those differences and recognizing that women can excel is an important first step to open up dialogue so that we can find solutions together. All students can become determined, ferocious, effective fighters, if they are pushed and encouraged in ways that help them overcome their specific challenges. It is amazing what people are capable of doing when you don’t tell them that they can’t, but instead tell them that they can.
As an instructor, I try to take a hard look at what I’m doing and the messages sent by it, both subtle and overt. As a training partner, I do the same – everyone should. Are you treating people differently based on gender? Do you catch yourself thinking that’s good – for a girl? I see others in the dojo going with men of a similar rank or size as me and going much harder with them, and I am brutally aware of the situation and find it condescending. I see the look on some partners’ faces when they line up across from me – that subtle shift in expression that says “this round is wasted on a girl.” I hear off-hand remarks of shock and surprise when I can make hard impact or when I’m going strong and hard.
I’m all for equality, but not when it means that women just get to be a part of a male activity and “deal with it.” We need to move beyond just tolerating women participating in this man’s world, and embrace the diversity that we get in thinking and training that comes along with partners of various ages, genders, shapes, and sizes training together. It’s important for us to consciously reflect on what we do and why we do it, and start giving true equal treatment – where the issues, concerns, and differences of both genders (really, for all students) are addressed, embraced, and given equal attention in the dojo.
Submitted by: Kimberly Baran, Sandan