Women have some advantages in martial arts

The general advantages of men when it comes to hand to hand combat are of course widely known, for obvious reasons. Strength and size, largely due to testosterone, gives men a very big advantage from the outset in this domain. When it comes to martial arts this is also true, even within martial arts styles where qualities such as skills, speed and flexibility are much more important than sheer muscle strength and physical size. All else being equal though, in terms of skills, being strong and more “robust” is always a good thing.

However, women actually also have several advantages over men when it comes to learning these kinds of martial arts. This is much less known and it may even sound a bit strange at first, but it actually makes sense.

Here are three of the main advantages that women have over men, when it comes to learning martial arts:

  1. Women are naturally more flexible than men. Testosterone makes men stronger than women, but it also makes men less flexible.
  2. Women have a lower point of gravity. In other words, women are shorter than men and have broader hips, so women have naturally better balance than men. Basically, while women’s bodies are shaped more or less like an “A”, men’s bodies are shaped more like a “V” – hence women’s better balance.
  3. Women are better at learning martial arts techniques. Many of the techniques in for example hapkido are quite counter intuitive – for example instead of resisting and trying to overpower the opponent, you should follow and redirect his momentum, in order to get him off balance or “trick” him into an unfavourable position or a lock. As men we are usually very accustomed to relying on and using our strength while wrestling or fighting someone. It’s like a reflex for us, so it is often quite difficult for us to “unlearn” this. Women, in general, have less of a problem with this.

I read that in ancient China, the men actually understood the female body was better suited for mastering kung fu techniques than the male body.  That is why girls there were only allowed to learn martial arts from women – who were in turn not allowed to learn the entire martial art system.  This was to make sure men would always be the best fighters…

Avital Zeisler – after experiencing a traumatic assault as teenager she became a martial arts expert

A while back I heard about a woman called Avital Zeisler. She is now a quite famous martial arts expert and instructor for women’s self defence. Avital decided to learn as much as she could about self-defense in order to overcome the trauma she experienced after being the victim of sexual assault as a teenager. After years of training not only did she became an expert at self defence – even developing her own system/practice for self defence for women – but also an inspirational writer and speaker, sharing her knowledge on this subject.

As she writes herself in one article:

Each and every self defense technique I learned brought me closer to my goal of reclaiming my being and having the practical knowledge of self protection. It was this part of the journey that led me to the realization that my healing process was intimately entwined with the depth of my self- defense training. I was eventually invited to train at the source of the self-defense system I was studying, known as Krav Maga.

As I have gained much practical experience and knowledge of self defense techniques, my definition of self defense has evolved to include aspects of physical, emotional and spiritual factors. True self defense is the ability to defend your right to create and live the best life possible, with the ability to protect your body and mind against a threat or act of violence — at all costs.

According to Avital the three tenets of her philosophy as a former sexual assault victim turned martial arts expert are:

  • I am no longer a victim of the threat of violence or actual violence – I know how to defend myself.
  • Emotionally, I am prepared to face life’s difficulties and know that solutions are possible – I am worthy of self confidence.
  • Spiritually, I believe that I can move forward in a positive and meaningful way and this is my right.

Here is a short TV interview with Avital and some self defence demonstrations from her.

Here is a one minute video of self defence demonstrations from Avita’s own Youtube channel.

And here is a longer 14 minutes video with her from TEDx Talks.

Practicing martial arts does not make a woman any less feminine

The other week, a blogger named Joanne Reed wrote a very good text recommending girls to learn martial arts to empower themselves. Joanne was also nice enough to ask my wife to give her point of view on the article – so she did. One thing that both me and my wife liked about the article was it’s emphasis on the fact that practicing martial arts does not make a woman less feminine. As Joanne says in her article:

“To all the girls and women out there, feel empowered, learn the art of self-defense, learn martial arts. You can be feminine and strong at the same time. Don’t be a victim, be a warrior! “

This is very true – and yet there is a stubborn stereotype that persists, that women who practice martial arts become masculine, “butch” and aggressive! In reality though, several very effective martial arts (including hapkido, which is the martial art that my wife teaches) are very suitable for women because they do not emphasise typically male features as muscle strength and size, but rather other factors, namely:

Reading/anticipation
Through practicing martial arts, you can learn how to read and anticipate the attacker’s moves and thus always be one step ahead. Thus you are able to take the right action in order to counter and even using his attacking moves to your advantage.

Reactions
Martial arts practice can radically sharpen your reaction speed, allowing you to move much more quickly in response to an attack and then taking the right actions without really having to think, but rather almost as a reflex.

Technique
Within a martial art like hapkido, there is an immense array of different techniques that allow a small woman to effectively throw, kick, strike, control and immobilise a much bigger and physically stronger attacker – sometimes by using his own size, strength and momentum against him.

Attitude/emotions
Martial arts practice can give you the confidence and calm that you need a potentially dangerous and violent situation, in order to not run the risk of panicking, freezing or acting irrationally and inefficiently. The mental strength, calmness, focus and discipline that you gain by practicing a martial art can serve you in basically any situation in your life – like work, studies or relationships.

Balance
Perfecting your balance is key concept in several martial arts is. This allows you to learn how to keep your own balance in order to fall or lose control – and how also to use gravity, leverage and physics to unbalance the attacker.

Speed
As mentioned above, martial arts training can give you the capability of instinctively anticipating and knowing how to respond to an attacker’s moves. And not only will an accomplished martial artist know what to do, the training will also develop her capacity to do it very quickly. For example, when showing me some of her hapkido skills, my wife has executed kicks and strikes placing her foot or hand inches from my face literally in the blink of an eye, before I even knew what “hit me”.

None of these six factors to become an expert martial artist causes a woman to lose her femininity in any way. Nor are they inherently masculine or more difficult for a woman to master than for a man.

And lastly, to really dispel the myth that martial arts training makes women masculine – here below is a little picture collage of women who have all practiced for years to become extremely good at different martial arts – yet obviously do not look masculine in any way.

(A pregnant) Mackenzie Dern (jiu jitsu expert and professional fighter), Katheryn Winnick (actress and 3rd-degree black belt in tae kwon do, and a 2nd-degree black belt in karate), Neetu Chandra (actress and 4th degree black belt tae kwon do), Nia Sanchez (former miss USA and 4th degree taekwondo black belt and, my wife Leticia (self defence teacher, martial arts instructor and hapkido expert).

Reader question: “Do you feel like less of a man?”

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A while back, I received a message from a guy who had read sa couple of posts on this blog. He asked me if my wife’s martial arts expertise and the fact that she can easily “kick my butt” in any way made me feel like less of a man in my relationship with her.

I can see where he is coming from and why he would pose this question. I know that for many men, getting your butt kicked “by a girl” is a huge embarrassment and basically means that you should “turn in your man card”. On the other hand, for many others, the whole thing is a total non-issue because martial arts is a skill like any other and relationships aren’t about two people beating each other up anyway, so obviously it doesn’t make a guy any less of a man.

So does my wife’s martial arts expertise and training make me feel like less of a man? No, it doesn’t. But it has challenged how I think of manliness and what it means to be a man (hence, one of the reasons I started this blog two years ago).

Even though I have been in a relationship with my wife for quite a long time now and years have passed since she first gave me a first hand demonstration of her martial arts skills and the effectiveness of hapkido techniques, I can still feel a certain level of embarrassment thinking and talking about it. It still “hurts my pride” to some extent and there is a sense of frustration that I, as a man with a significant size, weight and strength “advantage” over her, am not able to simply overpower her in a physical contest. But none of these feelings really affect me in my day to day life. To sum it up, I would say that it’s basically just a fact of life that I accept. Besides, the positive sides of my wife’s martial arts training (mostly for her of course, but also for me) are so much bigger and more important than any annoying feelings or stereotypes that I may sometimes experience.

However, I do think that to some extent I really would have felt less of a man if I hadn’t be able to admit that – because of her years of martial arts practice and natural talent for that – my wife is way better than me at fighting and self defence. I mean if I had tried to make up excuses or if I had been lying to others and maybe to myself about it. So I would say my advice to other men in a similar situation is to simply be honest, accept it and give the woman credit for the talent and hard work she has put down to achieve these skills. Be proud of her!

Nigerian taekwondo champion Anita Aluya recommends learning martial arts for self defence

The other day I received a message from a Nigerian reader, telling me about two articles in which the former Nigerian taekwondo champion Anita Aluya is interviewed. I thought it could be interesting to publish a couple of excerpts from those two articles here on this blog. 

Aluya

The first article says there has been a rise in rape cases in Nigeria in recent times. Aluya, who now runs a taekwondo academy in Nigeria’s capital Lagos, believes that having a knowledge of martial arts will give girls a better chance of fighting off an attacker. She says martial arts training will make you more aware of the surroundings, so you will be able to detect and avoid dangerous situations much more effectively.

“I will advise every girl to take up martial arts. It will definitely build their mental alertness and reflex. For example, if someone sneaks up on you, you can easily take the person down. It gives you self confidence and keeps you sharp.”

“My advice is don’t fight a guy. What you must do is, go for the vital spots where you can hit the predator and he will quickly lose strength and composure. What you should do after hitting the vital spot is to run away from that vicinity.

In the second article, Aluya answers some rather prejudicious questions about why she is into martial arts. For example the journalist asks “why would a beautiful woman like you get so attracted to taekwondo, a sport perceived by many as unfriendly”? Here is what she answered to that question.

“(Laughs)  In the first place Taekwondo is not a sport that is unfriendly. It is also not a masculine sports per say and it does not in anyway patronize beautiful or ugly people. It is a sport for everyone both men and women. The definition of Tae-kwon-do has to with the art of the foot, hand and aspect of life.”

The male journalist also insisted on asking her about scenarios in which she might use her martial arts knowledge on a hypothetical future husband. Aluya tries to explain to him that beating people up is not something she enjoys or is looking out for – and that violence isn’t supposed to be a part of a relationship.

“We are trained fighters and in learning, one of the five tenets of Taekwondo which you must also learn is self-control. Before you react, you think. Sometimes you are told that Taekwondo or martial art is the act of fighting without fighting and how do you do that? It is by weighing the situation first. You don’t react because you can fight immediately. So if it is a situation that calls for mere argument, then why should I fight.”

The journalist however insisted, with follow up questions, about scenarios in which she would be violently attacked…

“If he is bringing an object to hit me, then I can see he is no longer my husband but an enemy. Then, I can break my husband’s ribs and carry him to hospital later for treatment. But what is important in this case is that I have already defended myself and that is what I learnt, which is self-defense.”

I would say this second article is a quite telling example of the attitudes that female martial artists still may face.

 

The sexual side of “reversed” gender roles

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For quite a while I have somewhat hesitated to write about this, because sex is such a private thing to talk about. And well, I definitely won’t go into any details. So no need to worry – or hope – about that. In any case, since I started this blog, several people have mentioned the subject both in comments and in private messages. Does the fact that my wife is a martial arts expert influence our love life?

Well, neither of us are into BDSM and I don’t have any particular “fetish”, so in that way it does not affect us. And as I mentioned in the previous post, I do not feel emasculated at all because she is a black belt. But as I have discussed in several other blog posts (like for example here), my wife’s martial arts expertise in certain ways does “reverse” the gender roles in the relationship, due to the fact that she is far better than me at self defence and physical fighting. And even though I can’t quite put my finger on why, this is actually kind of sexy. I guess it’s both because it challenges me as a man in an unusual way (perhaps in part because of the sense of not being in control) and it is also very impressive and cool, so it’s something I really admire about her. The martial arts training obviously also makes her very healthy and fit, which of course is also positive. So, to sum it up, I definitely find my wife’s black belt martial arts skills is a positive thing, also when it comes to love and sex.

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Interview with a woman in martial arts – 4: Chloe (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu)

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Name: Chloe
Age:
25
Martial art style:
BJJ – Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
Years practicing martial arts:
8 years – brown belt

How come you started learning martial arts?
Well, I was going to the gym for workouts, but then I decided I wanted to do something different – a different activity to stay in shape and also something that would really challenge me. I also though it would be a good idea to learn some self defence.

Why did you choose BJJ?
They were offering BJJ classes in the same building where I used to go to the gym to work out. And I heard people saying that BJJ would be a good martial art for women to learn, for self defence. I thought BJJ seemed like a cool thing to do. My body type suits BJJ quite well too.

What do you like the most about BJJ?
It’s fun and it’s the best workout for the whole body. When you start practicing BJJ it’s like you discover and use muscles that you didn’t even know you had! You get in shape and you get stronger. And it also really boosts your confidence. I feel better about myself in general. Practicing BJJ has helped me grow as a person. And I also feel confident I could defend myself in most situations. I like it that it’s much more about skills than just strength. Like, I am the shortest person in my BJJ class but I can actually beat everyone except maybe one or two guys.

They say most fights end up on the ground and BJJ focuses a lot on techniques that are effective on the ground, for example to neutralise an opponent or attacker that is trying to get on top of you.

Are there many women doing BJJ?
I have heard that it’s getting quite popular among women – which is great. Where I practice now, we are only three women in total. But it’s ok. I mean I don’t mind that at all. To be honest I generally actually prefer facing the guys because it’s more of a challenge. If I win against them it also really proves how much I’ve learned in BJJ.  

Why, in your opinion, should women get into BJJ?
I guess for the same reasons I said I like BJJ – it’s a great work out, you get stronger both physically and mentally and it’s a lot of fun!

Do you feel you are ever treated differently as a woman doing BJJ?
You mean while training or in life generally?

Well, I guess both…
Not really, the guys where I practice know me by now (laughter). I might be rather small, but I’m much stronger than I look and I’m pretty good at BJJ! Underestimate me at your own peril (laughter)! My boyfriend doesn’t mind it now, but he felt really embarrassed by it at first, when we started dating. He is quite a big guy (193 cm – 6’4”) and he was pretty sure he would be able to take me based on size and strength alone. But I still kicked his butt (laughter)!

And for the record how tall are you?
I am 165 cm – 5’5”.

I can identify with your boyfriend there – I felt really embarrassed the first time my wife showed off her hapkido skills on me. It’s a male ego thing (laughter).
(Laughter) Yes, eventually he just embraced my skills and strength though and he says he admires it a lot! I go easy on him, but there’s times he does actually get me too!

How Egyptian women are using martial arts to combat sexual harassment

I came across an article about a growing trend of women in Egypt that are learning silat, an Indonesian martial arts style (created by a woman, according to legend), to protect themselves from sexual harassment. It was pretty interesting so below are parts of it. The  entire article is found here.

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Fighting Their Abusers: How Egyptian women are using martial arts to combat sexual harassment

By Karim Zidan

Pencak silat — an umbrella term for the ancient Indonesian martial arts practiced in the cultural centre — is a fighting style that incorporates full-body strikes, grappling, and weaponry. The sport has since gained notoriety across the region and is now included in the Southeast Asian Games. It also made its Asian Games debut in Indonesia in 2018. However, few could have anticipated that Pencak silat would have such a profound impact on women in the Egyptian capital.

The Indonesian Cultural Centre in Dokki holds weekly training sessions involving all age groups. The main focus is on performative aspects of the martial arts, though it has become popular with Egyptian women, mainly teenagers and young adults, interested in learning a different form of self-defence. Dressed in red silat uniforms paired with black hijabs (head scarves), they would train in hand-to-hand combat and weapons, and do so alongside their male counterparts. When one of the women successfully disarmed and took down her opponent, the others clapped in support.

Fighting Sexual Harassment in Egypt

During the holy month of Ramadan, the Indonesian Cultural Centre in Cairo hosted group iftars (evening meals) for the men and women training in pencak silat. More than a dozen women attended the meal, some accompanied by small toddlers while others looked as though they were still in school themselves. They seated themselves on the carpeted floor and waited for the call to evening prayer that signalled it was time to break their fast. Despite the differences amongst these women, they were all united by a common goal: to defend themselves against sexual predators on the streets in Egypt.

Sexual harassment is a notorious problem throughout Egypt. A 2017 survey by UN Women and Promundo revealed that nearly 60% of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed while a 2017 Thomson Reuters poll that surveyed experts in women’s issues, Cairo was named the most dangerous city in the world for women. There are also no official statistic for crimes of sexual violence against women in Egypt because the vast majority of victim choose not to report the crimes, either out of shame or fear.

New laws were introduced into the Egyptian Constitution in 2014, while others such as Article 306 of the penal code, were amended to make verbal and physical assault punishable by up to 50,000 Egyptian pounds (approx. $2980 USD) and a prison sentence ranging from six months to five years.

Despite the recent changes to the legal framework, sexual violence remains a significant concern for most Egyptian women. They continue to face potential threats, which is why some have turned to self defence as a possible solution.

While offering women the opportunity to learn how to defend themselves is a way to improve their physical health and fitness, it can also increase confidence and mental strength. By teaching women to fight, Indonesian Cultural Centre in Cairo is empowering thousands of women who would otherwise be defenceless in the face of their harassers.

“Of course there are problems in the street,” Egyptian teenager Rahma Hatem told Reuters during a break from training. “If someone comes near me, I’m able to defend myself well. I have confidence now and no one can harass me because I can face them.”

 

Interview with a woman in martial arts – 3: Frida (hapkido)

 

 

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Here is my third interview with a woman in martial arts (here are the first and second). This time it’s Frida, who took up martial arts (with my wife, Leticia, as instructor) in January this year, in order to learn some self defence.

Name: Frida
Age: 26
Martial art style: hapkido
Time practicing martial arts: 5 months

How come you started practicing hapkido?
I had been thinking about learning self defence for maybe 10 years! I want to be able to defend myself if I ever need to. But I was hesitant to start. Seems like I always found a reason not to. Then I met Leticia and I finally “took the plunge” and started taking her self defence classes. I appreciate that she, as the instructor, is also a woman – and about my age too! Practicing here is a safe, relaxed and encouraging environment.

What made you hesitate for so long about taking up martial arts training?
Maybe to some extent it was just laziness. But on the other hand I have been going to the gym and done some dancing and earlier I did gymnastics. So it wasn’t just that I was too lazy to get going. I guess I was a bit scared of it, to be honest. And I think I also kind of doubted my abilities. I never saw myself as someone who would fight physically.   

What do you like so far about your hapkido training?
I enjoy it! I didn’t really expect it before I started, but the training is actually lots of fun! And as I learn some techniques, it’s also very empowering. I feel these are things that I could use in a real life emergency situation. For me it’s great that it’s about techniques and timing and hitting the right spots – not just being strong physically. And now that I know I am able defend myself I feel much more confident and less nervous in certain situations and places.

For me the training has also been a good way to relieve stress and anxiety. I feel I am in better shape today, both physically and mentally, after taking up hapkido! It’s partially because of the work out in the training, but also from other exercises we do, that are basically like meditation. In her classes, Leticia focuses a lot on staying calm and concentrated… so hopefully we won’t panic or anything if we find ourselves in a threatening situation. And I feel this kind of mental preparation is something that you can use in lots and lots of situations in life – definitely not just when it comes to physical self defence. I feel I am growing as a person.

Anything you don’t like?
Hm, honestly, so far not really. I can’t think of anything!

How have people reacted to your new activity?
Positively! I’ve only had positive reactions so far. My boyfriend seems a bit worried that I will get injured or so though while training. But he is supportive.

Interview with a woman in martial arts – 2: Melanie (taekwondo)

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Here is my second interview with a woman in martial arts. This time it’s Melanie, from the blog Little Black Belt!
Name: Melanie
Age: 39
Martial art style: taekwondo
Level:
Second degree black belt

When did you start with taekwondo and for how long have you been practicing?
I started practicing taekwondo around 1989 at age ten. I trained for two years then quit in 1991 right before I started junior high school. In 2013 at the age of thirty-three I decided to get back into it after having it in the back of my mind for years. I started over as a white belt and am now a second degree black belt.

How come you started with taekwondo?
For some reason that I can’t remember now I told my parents I wanted to learn karate. I wasn’t very athletic other than being a good swimmer, and I definitely wasn’t into team sports. I was a quiet, shy kid who preferred reading and drawing to social activities. Maybe I was drawn in by the mystique of martial arts. I think I had a fight inside me waiting to get out. My parents took me up on it and signed us all up for lessons at our local taekwondo school. I grew up in a small west Texas town of about 11,000 people, and taekwondo just happened to be the only martial art in the area. Had I lived in a larger city with more choices maybe I would have done something else.

The second time I got into taekwondo as an adult  I was seeking something positive at a time when I was really struggling emotionally. I looked good on paper with degrees and a career, but I was unhappy and didn’t have the best coping skills. Finally I just snapped and thought, “Enough of this crap. I’m tired of making myself miserable. It’s time to do something fun. Why not get back into taekwondo?” As fate would have it, my west Texas childhood instructors’ Korean grandmaster operated a taekwondo school in the city where I live now. How could I not do it? Taekwondo had always been in my life. I just had to find it again.

What do you like the most about taekwondo?
Just wait until my memoir is published; it’s all in there! 🙂

It’s hard to pinpoint what I like the most. What I appreciate the most is how it helped me grow mentally and emotionally. It happened so fast that I had to start writing it down, which is how my blog Little Black Belt got its start. Re-learning and practicing taekwondo opened my eyes to how I was choosing to live my life. It made me more confident, self-aware, and accountable. It gave me something fun and uplifting to focus on in the midst of what we all call “adulting”: going to work, maintaining a household, paying bills, etc. Of course I love the actual art itself and the techniques I’ve learned and continue to practice as a black belt, but I’m more grateful for the “taekwondo spirit” I’ve gained than the physical stuff.

Are there many women practicing taekwondo?
Taekwondo is an incredibly popular martial art, so you see both a lot of males and females. Probably more men in the higher ranks and governing bodies, but that is slowly evening out. I now train with a female master. She is an inspiring leader and an amazing taekwondo coach.

What are some of the reactions you have faced as a taekwondo practitioner – positive and negative?
I’ll start with the negative so I can end on a good note: I’m tired of the dumb jokes every black belt has probably heard, like “Oh, I’d better not make you mad!” or “Wow, you’re a black belt? Do you think you could kick my ass?”

Fortunately, I’ver never been in a situation where I needed to kick someone’s ass other than a time when I thought I was going to get attacked by a rather aggressive dog. Ha!

These days taekwondo has a mixed reputation. Taekwondo has also become pretty controversial and much-disputed practice in the martial arts world what with the differing opinions over Olympic style sparring, demo teams that seem to do more hip hop dancing than actual technique, and those unfortunate “McDojangs” that are very real, at least in the United States. There’s also the matter of how it doesn’t take very long (relatively, anyway) to get a black belt in taekwondo. Getting a black belt in taekwondo doesn’t take as long as some other martial arts, although I want to make clear that a first degree black belt in taekwondo is not the pinnacle of…well…anything. It means you’re really good at color belt techniques and you get to start all over and work on harder things for many many years. At the right school with the right training and the right testing requirements the taekwondo black belt has merit.

Here’s the positive:
Taekwondo has made me into a much better person to be around. I’m happy, healthy, in good shape, and I’ve found my tribe of people I truly care about and want to spend my time helping. It gave me a sense of community and connected me with awesome people I would have never met. Other people noticed changes in me–a more positive attitude, more confidence, and more willingness to interact with others and lead. I’m not sure how this happened, but kicking the crap out of other people actually made me nicer. Who knew?

It’s been six years since I decided to bring taekwondo back into my life. I’m not sure what state I’d be in now if I hadn’t done that. I’m in the best physical shape of my life, and I look forward to making my life fun and exciting. Maybe I’d been hoping for that secret to happiness when I told my parents at ten years old that I wanted to become a martial artist.