“I think it’s because of the stereotypes. Women are simply just seen as more fragile, and men stronger, more dominant. So yeah, I do think there is gender divide in Taekwondo”
This was the response I got when I asked my training partner, Leah Powell, about gender divides in our sport, Taekwondo. She spoke of how in competitions she wasn’t allowed to use the same techniques when breaking boards as her male teammates. I wondered if this was the same in other martial arts.
Taekwondo is an ancient martial art dating back about 2,000 years from Korea, and literally translated means “the way of the hand and foot”. When I was 6 years old my parents enrolled me at our local Dojang (place of training), so that I was self-reliant and could handle myself. Our club has always had more women than men. Seeing this awakened me as to what I could achieve in the future. Most were black belts and world champions, which meant travelling across the world and competing for their country. Because of them I wanted nothing more than to do the same, which is what kept me hooked to the sport. Since this, many of these girls have left to go to university, making way for the next generation of fighters to dominate the spotlight. And still, this new generation is primarily women.
This leads me to my main question; why are martial arts predominantly male based? According to data from New York City research firm Simmons Market research, 48% of people that participate in Taekwondo across the world are female – so where has the idea of it being a primarily masculine sport come from?
The early 20th century brought with it the rise of the suffragette movement. During this period many women started to enlist in the Japanese martial art of Jujutsu. One woman in particular, Edith Garrud, got the trend to hit the ground running, and before long, the majority of women in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) were being taught this art in order to protect themselves from the police, and all lead by Garrud. This was the start of women in martial arts.
Through 1970-1990, major martial arts films started to take off in America and the UK. Titles such as The Karate Kid refuelled people’s love for fighting and many men joined their local clubs in order to be the next Jackie Chan. Nowadays, I think the motive for men to join martial arts clubs is to gain muscle, strength, and learn how to fight properly. Maybe this what puts many women off from joining a club; it just reeks too much of testosterone.
On the other hand, recently there has been a rise in the #MeToo movement, and a trend of strong being the new skinny. Women want to feel empowered. Consequently, they’ve been ‘re-sparked’ by political and social movements such as Donald Trump’s presidency, and a rise of sexual assault allegations in Hollywood. Martial arts are a great way to literally fight back. Furthermore, huge athletes such as Ronda Rowsey, Nicola Adams, and Jade Jones have gained fame purely through their sport and fighting, leading to a different type of athletic role model for young women.
I asked my Taekwondo instructor Wendy Richards her view on this subject…
“Yes, I have definitely seen a change in how women are treated in Taekwondo. Not in the club, but internationally. And a lot of it is my fault” She went on to explain how she was the first woman to centre referee at a World Championships in Taekwondo, and how the only reason there hadn’t been one before her was to do with some cultures, where women simply don’t do those kinds of things. A lot of people who governed the international boards in Taekwondo had this attitude, and therefore weren’t keen on the idea of Mrs Richards refereeing. “The one thing I want people to understand about martial arts is that it’s not just all about kicking and punching. It is an art, a way of life. We are a family, and we do what we love together. That is the most important thing”
So- why are martial arts predominantly male based? I don’t believe they actually are. I think they used to be, and we have just carried foreword an obsolete mind-set. Where is this idea of it being a masculine sport come from? Everywhere. TV, films, social media, you name it. And because we are surrounded by it all the time it’s easy to just accept this as fact, when the reality is a little more interesting…
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