Being a "Girl" in the Dojo: Sexism in Karate

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I remember the first woman I saw in the dojo. She was a green belt, I think -- and I was still in sweats and a T-shirt (hadn't even gotten my karate uniform yet). Back then, I was so busy trying to figure out these hand, foot and body movements that I didn't realize I was one of only two adult females in a class of 30 people.

me in the dojo

I also remember the first female black belt I ever saw. She was fierce in the dojo but really nice and humble out of it -- and I still train with her to this day. Shortly after that, I met another female black belt -- a sixth-dan who no longer really trained (although stories about how she had to sneak into the YMCA in a baseball cap to train with the men back in the '70s and how she once knocked out a guy she was sparring with a ball-of-the-foot roundhouse kick to his temple were legendary). So yeah, three women in the span of about four years.

I also remember every time I was made to feel "less than" in the dojo because of my sex, including:

  • How everyone thought it was cute that the female first black belt I ever met knocked some hardened Marine on his butt his first night on the mat (when she was a teen) after he volunteered to be her partner for a self-defense technique. He was apparently so embarrassed that got up, walked out the door and never came back. 
  • Crawling on the floor after class looking for that same black belt's contact lens after some thug of an instructor sent it flying during sparring because she'd taken him to the ground during another training session a few days earlier. His payback was because he was also embarrassed about being "shown up" by a woman whom he outranked.
  • Being shown techniques by an instructor that would, as he put it, keep women from damaging their "freshly manicured" fingernails. 
  • Training as a brown belt and having every guy in the room wanting to turn up the dial when it was time to spar, because no one wanted to get beaten by a "girl." 
  • Hearing a not-so-energetically-done technique being described not as weak or inefficient, but as "girly" to the very young woman who had just done it.
  • Witnessing a student with amazing potential be told that she was going to be a greatfemale martial artist someday. 

Frankly, I'm tired of letting it go, ignoring it or assuming the person who said it didn't really mean it "that way." What other way is any of that supposed to be taken, I wonder? - because whether meant as an insult, said as a joke or uttered without ill intent doesn't matter; the result is still the same.

When I meet other female karate students at tournaments or seminars, I feel like we are kindred souls somehow -- and they seem to feel the same. We almost always start out by asking and answering the same questions to/from each other: What do you study? How long have you been studying it? How old were you when you started? Is it easy to fit training into your busy life? To me, they are students of their respective arts. It still shocks me to realize that in some places, we are thought of as FEMALE students, as if the distinction is a very necessary one. I don't quite get that, truthfully.

We've managed to show that phrases like "Stop acting like a retard!" or "That is so gay!" are ridiculously insensitive. We've also managed to weed them out of our everyday vernacular - and rightfully so. Here's hoping we can do the same for anything that ends with "...like a girl!" as well.

Proud to fight like a girl :-)

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