Monday, September 1, 2008

Gender and the Dojo

When I walk into the dojo, I see people in karate uniforms. It does not matter if the person is male or female. Gender should not play a role in an individual’s karate training. I have been fortunate that I have seen very little gender bias during my training. Most of my training partners have been male. As a current karate student and instructor, it is important to remember that it has not always been this way. There was a time when women were not welcomed in some dojo.

Tales from my personal experience:

When I first started karate, my husband was preparing for black belt testing. There were a few teenage boys in the beginner class when I began. I was taken aside and promoted to yellow belt ahead of them. This upset one of the teenage boys and he began complaining that the reason I was promoted was that I was ***married*** to a black belt. Married was not the word he used but I am sure that you know what I mean.

As a new Shodan, I was in the dojo while my husband was teaching. Some new students, who were friends of a friend of my husband, were in class. My husband was demonstrating a self-defense move against being pinned to the ground. The attacker was kneeling on top of the person while pinning the hands to the ground. My husband was on the ground. He was demonstrating how to move one arm up and the other down which causes the attacker to be off-balance. The new student, who was the uke, pointed to me and wanted me to demonstrate. I agreed and he pushed down on my hands will all his weight. The only way I could move my hands was if I starting using my legs with all my force. Fortunately, my husband ended the demonstration at this point and explained what it meant to be a good uke. I was called out because I was a female black belt. My husband and I learned from this experience and something like this has not happened since.

A few more subtle examples:

When people call the dojo and I answer the phone, they ask to talk to someone about the karate classes. I say “I can help you.” and many times there is a pause. After a few minutes of discussion about karate, I can almost feel the person relax on the other end of the phone.

There are times when I am teaching class and there are male black belts in the room. New students have directed questions to a male black belt on the floor instead of me.

Here is the common thread; the bias was always from people that are new to martial arts. Fellow martial artists know the hard work, dedication and training involved to get to Shodan. The people cited in my examples did not last too long in the dojo.


Martial Arts Mom said...

We have a female sensei and a male sensei of the same black belt rank. I would go to either of them without thinking twice. I think most of the members of our school would. But I think the newcomers probably do tend to gravitate toward the male sensei. But this is usually short-lived, thank goodness because they would lose alot of valuable knowledge if they did not use whatever they could possibly learn from her.

Steve said...

I go to a dojo that currently has a female Shihan (5th degree) and one black belt, a female. Gender doens't bother me in the least. I've always known that karate is beautiful about letting everyone advance at their own pace, while still recognizing that we all have different physical gifts and will not all be "superstars".

The teenage boys, well ... yuck! Some will be that way and never grow up. And what's a "uke"?!?!?! Uke's were from Ukraine - at least that is what they used to call themselves in NE Ohio.

But I was thinking about your telephone example - many times people will expect a "real" school to have a receptionist to answer a phone and not any instructors. I'll bet a young voice would be treated the same way.

Anonymous said...

This may be reverse discrimination, but I actually find it very reassuring when their are female black belts at a school, especially when they can throw me around or run me down in sparring. It's a sign that they had a good teacher and that the style is flexible enough to work for different body shapes, which varies enormously even within gender.

It's great to see someone talking about being a good "Uke". We have the concept, but not the nice term to hang it on, in my style, so it sometimes seems a little muted (imagine having to ask someone about bunkai without specifically using the word "bunkai"). In aikido, "Ukemi", the art of receiving a technique, is at least as important as doing the technique. Maybe someday I'll be in a position to bring that term into my style. But that's a long, long way off.

Colin Wee said...

I measure most of the black belts I train with by ability and knowledge. I've been lucky to train with really talented female martial artists who walk the walk.

Recently I had a new beginner brought in by my 7th kyu female student. He's about 6' and works with her in the same company. Immediately you could see that as the new person he was treating her differently than the others - "Oh I couldn't do that to Jacqui," "Oh, I'm so sorry for hitting you," etc.

It got so bad that she actually told him to just continue with the drills and exercises and quit apologising to her.

He has since stopped treating her like a girl in class - especially given that she's actually quite tough, very able, and can inflict real pain and damage just by using pure technique. It's gained his respect very significantly.

It puts a smile on my face whenever I see this newfound respect.

I love the martial arts, don't you?


Michele said...

Thank you for your comments.

MAM: After students are in the dojo a while, it seems that gender becomes a non-issue.

Steve: You make a good point...karate is individual. An uke is the term used for the partner who attacks. As for the teenage boy ...yuck is right!

BBBlues: Thanks for sharing your perspective. I agree that different sizes/shapes/gender is a testament to the effectiveness of the style/instructor.

Colin: Your story put a smile on my face! Way to go Jacqui!