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A Hit to the Chest: Gender Equality and Discrimination in the Martial Arts
Karate has been a huge part of my life since I began studying at thirteen years old. Even though it wasn’t until then that I began studying karate, I feel that I grew up in the dojo. I studied for five years at that karate school until I moved in January 2013. This dojo, an issinryu karate school in Morris County, New Jersey, included many families and a diverse variety of age groups. It was a very supportive environment and became a community.
This dojo had a supportive group of women who displayed impressive determination and physical discipline. Men and women in this dojo were, to the fullest extent, treated equally. For the five years that I studied at this dojo, being female was never an issue for me.
Since moving to Warren County, I tried studying at two different isshinryu dojos, one before the other, that did not work for me. The first one had a student body that comprised of mostly men. I was usually the only female student present at weekend classes, and always the youngest in the class. Even though I could not put my finger on why, I felt uncomfortable in this dojo.
There was one day when I was practicing with a bo (basically, a long wooden stick), when a male instructor told me, “You’re doing good. Just try not to hit yourself in the chest.”
I was so stunned, I could not answer. Not only was I not actually hitting myself in the chest, but he made the assumption that I don’t know my own body well enough to avoid hitting myself when practicing techniques. And that bothered me. A lot.
The second dojo that I attended since moving was also an isshinryu dojo, a much smaller school with, again, a mostly male student body. I was one of the youngest there and one of two women.
It was when I was practicing an elbow strike with two instructors, both male, and one asked me, as an analogy to the technique, “Do you mow the lawn?”
I said no.
He asked me if I did some other type of yard work, to which I replied no.
He said, “It looks like we’re dealing with a princess over here.”
I was angry at how they could ever criticize me without getting to know me, assuming that I had no work ethic because they knew these two minor things about me that did not describe my actual work ethic.
For all he knew, I lived in an apartment and didn’t have a lawn.
It is comments like this that fester when I am asked if I would like to go back to a dojo while I am on vacation or when school or life events get in the way. It is comments like that that make me say, “No, I don’t want to go back to that dojo because that black belt said that thing to me that offended me.”
It is not about who your teacher’s teacher’s teachers were, or how many push- ups you can do at a time, or how many students you have. It is about the kind of standard that you hold your students up to and whether they see a particular dojo as a place that they can really grow as students of martial arts. Students follow the example of whatever leader they have, and the student body contributes to the culture of a dojo just as much as the instructor. This means treating all students, girls and boys, men and women, with the same respect and holding them up to the same standard in their studies of marital arts.
I feel lucky that I had many positive female role models at my first dojo. These women were confident; they had careers and families and hobbies and reasons for entering marital arts unto their own. These women were not “princesses”.
Furthermore, the men in the dojo fostered this culture of equality. Never once did I encounter a sexist comment in this dojo. Never once was I told not to “hit myself in the chest”. Never once was I called a “princess”. We helped each other with katas and techniques. It was not just the women supporting each other. The men saw their female counterparts as adequate and intelligent people. Equality in a martial arts school must come from both sides.
Everyone goes into karate for different reasons. Many people join karate for physical fitness. Others join because a family member is in karate, and then join themselves out of interest. For many, especially women, martial arts is about taking initiative for your own safety. Karate is a confidence-builder. It is just as much about perfecting your character as it is learning the martial art.
I learned very quickly that having the ability to protect yourself and taking charge of your own safety are very real, especially for women. Knowing that I will be entering college in this upcoming year, real life application of karate is no longer something “only paranoid people do”. It is what people who want to take responsibility for their own safety do.
Since having these experiences, I found an isshinryu dojo in a nearby town that, thus far, is a supportive environment for men, women, and children alike. I have a good feeling about this dojo and I hope that my future experiences prove it to be what I am looking for in a karate school.