Follow Up: Culture of Exclusion

I think last week’s post The Culture of Exclusion Is Deliberate could benefit from more detail. In that article, I claimed that gender discrimination in martial arts is pervasive and deliberately enforced,  and that in order to counteract it efforts for equality and accountability must be just as deliberate.  (And that this will be not be easily done, and that it will be uncomfortable from those who apparently benefit from our exclusion.)

Some of the pieces of evidence I offer below are truly disturbing, but they’re real and they only skim the surface.

The good news is, I believe we are winning. I believe the efforts of women and allies of equality are making our martial arts spaces and institutions ever more welcoming of diverse participation.  I’ve been so happy and encouraged to hear from other martial artists who are training in and successfully fostering martial arts environments that are nurturing and safe. I demand nothing less for myself and for everyone else.

We all deserve to train in peace.

Anyway, let’s get started.

This is a Gender Issue

It’s been suggested that the lack of women in martial arts “isn’t a gender issue,” that women just aren’t as interested in martial arts as men, as if men and women aren’t socialized differently, as if male-dominated spaces aren’t saturated with the threat of sexual harassment and exclusion. It is true – all oppression is intersectional – but gender is the most important factor when we see that women are drastically under-represented in martial arts.

The story always seems to go like this:

There aren’t any women in video games because girls just don’t like video games!

There aren’t any women in STEM because girls just aren’t interested in STEM!

There aren’t any women in the military because girls just don’t want to do it!

There aren’t any women in government because they just aren’t interested in politics!

There aren’t any women in martial arts because they just aren’t interested!

This kind of denial starts to get obtuse fast. Of course it’s a gender issue. One of the reasons women and girls aren’t interested in these communities is because we have learned early and learned well the kind of treatment we’re going to face. We have to negotiate a whole ‘nother set of factors when venturing into spaces like this. The threshold for entering and staying in martial arts is higher for women than men, in general, because of the supreme effort it takes to put up with this mess.  We’re far less likely to develop a curiosity or passion for something if we’re going to get underestimated, disrespected, and excluded.

If you’re plugged in and listening to women’s voices, the evidence comes in heaps.

Even worse are the beliefs that women aren’t even capable.  Fake geek girls. Girls are bad at math and science. Women soldiers will make other soldiers less safe. Do you want someone with PMS in charge of our nuclear program? Martial arts just isn’t for women. They aren’t cut out for it.

But see – if your art can’t adapt to all different kinds of bodies and people? Your art might not be that good.

Institutional Exclusion

Women experience discrimination on an institutional level meant in many cases to deliberately, literally exclude women from participating.

  • Women weren’t allowed to even watch professional sumo until the late 1800s. They are still barred from touching the ring and competing professionally in some associations. Fusae Ota, the first woman governor in Japan, was prohibited from entering the ring to present a traditional award in 2000.
  • The famed Kodokan, home of judo, didn’t have a women’s division until 1926, 44 years after the Kodokan’s founding.
  • The Kodokan did not allow women to advance past 5th degree black belt until 1972, after years of lobbying by Keiko Fukuda‘s supporters.
  • The International Olympic Committee tried to stop women’s judo in the 1992 Olympics citing concern over women’s reproductive health and encouraging lesbianism.
  • The International Olympic Committee attempted to stop Wojdan Shakerkani from competing in judo while wearing a head covering in 2012.
  • There wasn’t women’s boxing in the Olympics until 2012. Women weren’t welcome in the UFC until 2013.

Academic Exclusion

  • The accomplishments of women are routinely ignored, revised, and records of it destroyed and plagiarized.  Women’s History is frequently considered valueless – that women haven’t contributed anything of note and so it’s not worth recording or discussing.  The same is true in martial arts historical research and academic writing. Mentions of women and accounts of their contributions to martial arts are rarely given their due, their names forgotten and reduced to small chapters and footnotes.
  • Often, women’s participation in fighting sports and martial arts were treated as quaint  or novelty acts by the media and historians.

Destroying history is one of the most powerful tools to demoralize and put an end to culture and participation. The writing of history is a deliberate act and voices in power are the voices preserved.

Violent Exclusion

[content note on all links in this section: sexual violence, assault, misogyny, rape, domestic violence.]

  • Constant scare-tactics and victim-blaming philosophies applied to self-defense; the assumption that all women are only concerned about self-defense. This creates learning environments that are coercive, threatening, and ultimately not effective in improving women’s quality of life.
  • Women have been and continue to be excluded from participating under the hypocritical pretenses of safety. Warping and deliberately misleading the public about women’s bodies and women’s health is what actually poses a threat.
  • Fallon Fox, the first openly transgender professional MMA fighter, (out in 2013) continues to face invasive accusations, and hateful media coverage, and calls that she not be allowed to fight in the women’s division because she is transgender. (Hate and vitriol against transgender people, especially transgender women, is not isolated from the daily threat of violence. Trans youth suffer disproportionately from depression, homelessness and violent crime.)
  • MMA Culture Can Be Deadly For Women
  • Sexism, Misogyny and Domestic Violence in MMA Part 1 and Part 2
  • I turned off my Google News alert for ‘martial arts’ because nearly every week I had a story in my inbox about male martial arts instructors harassing and assaulting women.

These violent trends associated with martial arts culture deters participation, to say the least.

Everyday Indignities


You know, maybe we’re ‘not interested’ because we know all too well what kind of battle we’ll have to fight every day to be safe, to be included, to be taken seriously and (is it too much to ask) to be able to practice in peace?

It Doesn’t Stop There.

I must never forget that while women as a group experience discrimination in martial arts, not all women experience it the same. Black women, native/aboriginal women, other women of color, neuroatypical women, trans people, those who are disabled, or any people whose gender is not expressed within a binary: all have further discrimination and complications to navigate.  So when we think of the changes that need to be made in our culture to include women, they must never be at the expense of other marginalized groups. As Flavia Dzodan shouts at the top of her lungs, “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.”

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