Fight Like A Girl: How Benevolent Sexism Drove Me Away From A Sport I Loved

I love martial arts. I’ve wanted to be a martial artist since I knew what the term meant. For various reasons, I never got the chance growing up.

So imagine my joy a few years ago when a Krav Maga studio opened near enough where I lived for me to go.

And I did. And I won’t lie. Krav is TOUGH. It’s messy, it’s brutal, and for someone who’s used to pretty much everything coming easy, it was hard. fucking. work.

But I did it. I got up every Saturday and Sunday at 6 AM and bused out to the studio. I didn’t care that I was often the only girl there. I didn’t care that after two hours I was sore and achy and more exhausted than I thought it was possible to be. I didn’t care that I had to go to the gym five days a week just so I could be fit enough for Krav, or that training came very close to injuring me several times- I did, in fact, break a bone in my hand during a fall gone wrong. I didn’t care that the common reaction to me telling people about learning martial arts was a joke about wanting to beat boys up. or admonitions that I should do something more ladylike.

What finally drove me away?

My classmates.

Don’t get me wrong. I had amazing people at my studio. Many martial arts centres are either diploma mills (*cough*ShihanHusseini*cough*) or cesspits of testosterone and macho posturing. My male classmates were friendly, welcoming, and gentlemanly to a fault.

Which was exactly the problem.

Krav Maga is designed to be quick, simple, and above all, efficient. It doesn’t work if one of the people involved doesn’t WANT to fight.

I can’t tell you the amount of times my male sparring partners would hold back because they thought the fragile little china doll princess would shatter upon impact. Worse, every time more than one girl showed up, we’d automatically be shoved into a separate group to spar together. To this day, I don’t know how to do certain moves because my female sparring partner was too hesitant to actually attack. It might have made it easier on my male classmates to not be confronted by the prospect of hitting a girl, but that kind of gender segregation was extremely counterproductive for any actual women in the class.

Very bluntly, I and women like me are going to have far more cause to use any training than my male classmates ever will.

I get it, gentlemen; it’s a thrill knowing that you can kick the ass of whatever bozo looks at you (or your girl) sideways. But at the end of the day, the statistics don’t lie. Women are much likelier to be harassed, raped or murdered than you ever will be.

You don’t do us any favours playing the gentleman or refusing to spar with us. In fact, you put us in more danger. Flipping someone half my weight who couldn’t fight her way out of a paper bag is different from flipping someone taller and stronger than me. Taking a half-hearted punch from a girl so nervous she’s shaking is different from being socked by someone who knows what he’s doing. Being held down by somebody who actually does have the strength to hold me down is different from someone who’s only doing the bare minimum Sir asked her to. When you refuse to spar with me because I’m a girl, when you hold back for fear of hurting me, you’re making it that much more likely I WILL get hurt if the shit hits the fan. Because I doubt a man who wants to rape me is going to make any allowances because I’m a girl.

That’s not to say that there weren’t exceptions to this rule. Sreeram sir, my instructor, never treated me like I was breakable because I was a girl. Uday, poor sod, tried very hard to get me to do decent side kicks (I still suck – sorry, Uday!) I wouldn’t have made it through my grading without the encouragement and support of my male groupmates.

But despite how grateful I am to all of them, after six months I had to face the facts. Every time I stepped into that room, I was reminded, again and again, that I was a girl. That I was too delicate, too weak, to be treated like an equal. That many of my classmates would rather NOT spar with me, and if they did, it wouldn’t be with anything near the enthusiasm they had for sparring with the other boys. For the first time in my life, I knew what it was like to be a second-class citizen. To not be good enough because of my gender. And it broke my heart that it was Krav Maga that made me feel like that.

But that’s not really true. It’s not Krav Maga’s fault. It’s the fault of a society that tells girls that they ought to be pretty, and submissive, and ladylike. It’s the fault of a society that encourages boys to roughhouse and girls to play house. It’s a society that mocks one of the best atheletes in history for daring to not be delicate, feminine, a society that tells her she’s “built like a man,” just because she has muscles. It’s a society in which girls and women told that they shouldn’t lift weights because they’ll become “mannish,” where they’re told that their principal value is how desirable they can make themselves to men.

It’s a sexist, patriarchal society that, quite frankly, needs a kick to the nuts.

And you know what? There’s a kickboxing class at my gym this Thursday. I think I’m going to work some more on my side kicks.


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