Training Women in the Martial Arts – A Special Journey
Jennifer Lawler and Laura Kamienski
Wish Publishing, 2007
This book is for male and female martial arts instructors, female martial arts students, and supporters of women in martial arts. It aims to help people involved in the martial arts understand the challenges women face when training and help them create and provide appropriate martial arts instruction.
It’s a really interesting read, packed with real-life case studies, practical tips and fresh perspectives. Here are three themes that really stood out for me . . .
A critique of the way self-defence is often taught to women
The book makes a clear distinction between martial arts and self-defence training, and argues that teaching each one demands a completely different, highly specific set of knowledge, skills and experience. It also savagely criticises the way self defence is often taught to women, for a number or reasons.
The most powerful objection they make, is that such courses tend to focus on fending off a sudden, unprecedented attack from a stranger in “the street”. Yet statistics show that when women suffer violence and/or sexual assault, it’s far more likely to be from someone they know – and often at home or in another familiar setting.
The book therefore outlines and promotes a “multi-strategy” approach to self-defence, which focuses heavily on assertiveness and prevention (maintaining personal boundaries; reading the signs; defusing potential conflict) – rather than just learning how to fight back physically after violence has already erupted.
For me this was the most important takeaway from the whole book; and the writers’ depth of experience in the field of teaching self-defence to women really shines through in their detailed advice on this subject.
Three categories of men in the dojo (or dojang as the writers call it, being from a Tae Kwon Do background)
Perhaps it’s ironic that a book about overcoming gender discrimination makes such a simplistic generalisation about men in the dojo, dividing them neatly into three categories without any scope for ambivalence or overlap. And yet . . . the categories are actually really useful and in my experience very recognisable. They are: the Bully; the Rescuer (who wants to do the right thing, but can be very unintentionally harmful to women’s development); and the Supporter (otherwise known as the good guy).
Teaching women-only classes
Both writers are passionate advocates of women-only dojos and classes. They talk at length about the benefits of this, notably the opportunity for women to explore martial arts and/or self-defence in a safe, nurturing environment – and ultimately develop their leadership ability to a level that would not be possible if men were present.
They also outline the main criticisms of this approach, but only to rebut them all quite aggressively. Personally I think this teaching model probably would have a lot of advantages, although I’ve never experienced it – especially for women who are scared or uncomfortable with training with men; or unable to train with men for cultural reasons. But I feel it would have weaknesses too – and would have liked to see the arguments for and against women-only spaces acknowledged and analysed with a bit more balance and objectivity.
Some of the criticisms they refute are: training with other women is less intense (they argue that in fact it is equally, and sometime more intense); there’s no need for women-only training, as women are now treated equally in the dojo (they deny this emphatically, as implicit or subtle sexism is so insidious and pervasive); such classes perpetuate the notion of women as victims (to which they argue that women are victims, and need a safe space within which to understand and address their victimisation)
There is one really off-putting aspect to this book, which is its tendency to read as though most if not all Western women are fragile, incredibly damaged victims of severe male oppression. I had to cringe at the blithe citation of global statistics as if they apply equally to all of us – we [women] own only one percent of the world’s wealth!
The book catalogues example after example of men’s bad behaviour, and the horrible impact of this on women – The fact is that no one would have to train if men weren’t so violent – without ever touching on the possibility that some women might perpetrate violence or other abuse (on adults or children of either gender) – or be unkind to other women within the dojo – or be less than perfect, nurturing human beings and training partners in any other way.
There’s also little acknowledgement of the fact that some women are naturally athletic and confident in their own bodies, and will take to martial arts with relative ease.
But then again, violence and other abuse towards women and girls is such a horrendous and prevalent issue, which often doesn’t get a fraction of the attention it deserves. So it may well be that the writers felt the need to state their case polemically in order to get proper attention for the critical issues they are exploring. In any case, this doesn’t detract from the fact that this is a really interesting and original book on a rarely-covered topic – written by two women who appear to be wholeheartedly devoting their lives to empowering women and girls through the martial arts – and well worth reading . . .