When you hear about martial arts, the first thing that comes up in your mind would be: It’s a man's world. In our society, men tend to play rough with each other, and it's encouraged, or at least tolerated. Girls tend to be discouraged from such action. And sometimes, women are told in a thousand subtle and unsubtle ways through their families, friends, and media that they are valued as nurturers and as objects of beauty. In the context of martial arts, all of these unconscious internalized messages, exist, no matter how much we consciously may reject them.
Why is that so? Are women afraid of physical contact? Are women frowned upon by their parents for getting bruised? Girls grow up to become timid. They are cautious, guarded and reluctant to stand up for themselves. Because we have been taught by society, the family, or even the school that martial art is not for women.
But the existing condition of gender inequality has been challenged. For those of you who are frustrated with the lagging status portrayed in mass media, there are increasingly massive amounts of movement of women in the sport and business world. These ladies represent a genuine quest of women longing for equality and independence.
Women in martial arts are more likely to challenge patterns and stereotypes
To find out, we interviewed three karatekas from different ages and backgrounds from Honbu Dojo, Traditional Shitokai Karatedo, Kuala Lumpur.
There's Maya Clavijo, a 14 years old karateka who started learning Karate when she was 6 years old.
There's also Risna Vinayati Salman, a 29 years old brown belt with 3rd Kyu in Shito-Ryu karate.
And Zila, a 46 years old karateka, a career woman, and a mother of two beautiful kids.
How long have you been studying martial arts?
Maya: I have been trained for 8 years.
Risna: I started my journey in Dec 2014 but had to take a break on and off between 2017 and 2019 due to personal reasons. I have resumed training in late 2019 and have been working hard to catch up where I left off.
Zila: I started with taekwondo at the age of 15 at Sekolah Tunku Ampuan Durah Seremban, due to some reasons I stopped. But later at the age of 44 years old, I joined Karate when I took my sons to enrol for Karate class. This is the beginning of my Karate lesson.
Why did you pick Karate as your form of martial arts?
Maya: When I was in Venezuela, my neighbour was a Japanese man. He owns a Karate dojo. I started learning Karate at his dojo. I love doing Karate because it teaches me discipline and trains me to be mentally strong. In Karate, belt colour has its own meaning. That is why it started from a lighter to the darker belt because it represents the sacrifice, level of practice, discipline, determination, and growth. The belts symbolize your progress as an individual – both inside & outside the dojo.
Risna: I didn't choose Karate. Karate chose me. Jokes aside; Growing up, I was inspired by my dad who used to do Tomoi (or Muay Thai). It looked cool to be able to do those techniques. I believe that it's better to be a warrior in a garden, than a gardener at war. It's good to know a thing or two, and hopefully, never use it. I decided on Karate because of the convenience of the location. Now Karate has grown onto me, as an art and a mode of self-defence and self-improvement. I also find doing forms (kata) aesthetically pleasing and relaxing for me to do.
Do you find Karate empowers you as a woman?
Maya: I think learning Karate builds me to be steady if there's any situation that requires me to be vigilant, I can defend myself. Karate teaches me to give my full effort and live up to my best ability.
Risna: Martial arts, in general, will provide a sense of empowerment to everyone. Not only women. In addition to learning how to defend yourself, it builds individual character, self-discipline, focus and improved confidence. After coming to karate, I felt a difference and I encouraged more people to join; especially women!
Zila: Yes. It builds self-confidence, enhances the body strength as well as the mind, discipline and friendship.
Can you tell me, with your own words, the differences from one country to another, when it comes to the style of teaching in Karate?
Maya: I think the style of teaching in Venezuela was quite different from how I'm taught now, here in Malaysia. In Venezuela, it was a very competition based (Kata and Kumite), you trained for competitions, to gain knowledge and learn from mistakes. It made you hungry to become a better Karateka because you wanted to win, to represent your dojo and for your teammates. There were gradings only once a year, and when they had them, everyone participated. However, in Malaysia, the focus is more on grading instead of competitions. Everyone is hungry to achieve the next higher level belt, you learn how to teach a class, teach your Kouhai. In both countries, there is a hunger to become a better karateka, what their goal is, is what's different.
Do you have any messages to young girls out there to encourage more women participation in martial arts, specifically Karate?
Risna: We as women should learn to stand up for ourselves and be able to be as strong and independent as possible. I find that picking up martial arts, regardless of the style a good source to start self-improvement. We also learn how to defend ourselves if it ever calls for it (hopefully never). Don't be shy to give it a try, you never know unless you try.
Maya: The world of martial arts is still quite male-dominated. Sometimes, you find your teammates and senseis very supportive. However, sometimes, they might discriminate against you for your gender. What I'm trying to say is; never feel intimidated by a man, you are as good as them. Keep going and don't let them discriminate against you or think you are weaker just because you are a girl. Work hard, do your best, and prove them wrong. Show that you are better than them. Good karateka always treats everyone with respect.
How do you find Karate empowers you as a young woman?
Maya: I think that it definitely makes me feel more confident, more experienced. It makes me feel different, in a good way and I think it's something unique about me. I don't know many karatekas that are women here. I've been doing Karate from quite a young age, so since young, Karate has always taught me different skills; not just self-defence. It has taught me discipline, confidence, strength, teamwork. It has helped me become the person who I am today.
Risna: When Karate was brought into Japan, it was used in its school system and in the military. Karate enables its students to be both mentally and physically fit, the same way it is trained now. Karate demands a certain level of physical fitness and flexibility. Thus, practising it will help students improve and maintain a higher level of fitness. This will then lead to improved energy levels and reduction of stress! Mentally, there are many traits that are learned subconsciously. We learn to pick ourselves up when we lose a match or when we fall. We learn empathy and learn to encourage our classmates who are falling behind. We learn to strive for perfection in our techniques. We learn that hard work and consistent training will bring results.
We are pretty much interested in your virtue towards achieving a black belt and the value of its colours for you as a karateka. Would you mind elaborate more on that?
Maya: Although there are many different ways of interpreting why the colour of the belts get darker in Karate. I have my own, which my previous sensei used to tell me. The common Karate practice is a little different from the way they first taught me in my Venezuelan dojo. Compared to Venezuela, when I can only take my grading every once a year, in Malaysia, they held grading for once every three months. Even so, I waited for 6 months to 1 year to do my grading, though I can do it once in every 3 months time. Though doing grading every 3 months can level up my brown belt faster, I don't want to rush it. I don't want to be a bad black belt holder; I want to be an experienced black belt when I reach that level.
The belt in Karate gets darker because of the hard work you put in, the blood, sweat and tears. Your gain in knowledge as you train in Karate. That is why the first belt starts at white; you're still inexperienced, you haven't worked hard for it yet. However, as you gradually become a higher level the belt gets darker because each time, your hard work accumulates.