Sometimes gender equality can be complex.
I always say pain is the best teacher, he grinned, as he twisted and compressed my wrist a little more. I laughed too. Although it hurt, he was kind and fully in control; and not inflicting anything dangerous or intolerable.
But after class, my female friend said: This is such great training. Nothing ever hurts here! This is how martial arts should be.
What was going on?
I’d made good friends with another woman from my dojo. The only problem was, she didn’t like anything that hurt—even the mildest pain made her resentful or distressed. Back in her native country, nothing had ever hurt in her training; and she didn’t understand why our class had to be different.
We all liked her, and started to carefully hold back when training with her, to keep her happy.
As we became closer, she invited me to a residential aikido summer school at her old dojo, back in her home country. It sounded like a great adventure; and I jumped at the chance.
Right from the first day of the course, I noticed something strange about her school. It seemed to comprise two different dojos, co-existing in parallel on the same mat. I saw a recognizable, vigorous form of aikido being taught by the very competent instructor—and practiced by the men. And something soft, dance-like and somehow anemic being practiced by the women.
Training with the women there was fun but unsatisfying. They carefully, conscientiously went through the motions, apparently unaware of the body mechanics or purpose of anything, even at the higher grades. Not wanting to be unkind or disruptive, I applied techniques in the same light, unreal way that they did, while they gracefully dropped to the ground in harmony with my movements—and vice versa. It felt weird, especially as these women seemed so serious about their practice—so diligent and focused; and proud of learning a martial art.
I also trained with male senior grades; and they engaged at just the level of intent I wanted. But when they paired up with women from their own club, they appeared to soften right down, and collude with their ineffective techniques. I realized this was somehow related to the fact that their country still has more traditional gender roles than my own culture.
The contrast was very strange. One time, my friend knelt carefully by my outstretched arm as I lay on the ground, barely touching it with the edges of her two hands, and said: you see; this is how I pin you. There’s no need to be rough. It felt like satire, but she was serious. Beautiful person that she is, she sincerely wanted to educate me into her own gentler, better way.
She badmouthed our sensei back home, and his barbaric dojo to her friends, repeating: it’s so wonderful to be back here; nothing ever hurts. She told me, I’ve been so sad, feeling like I’d forgotten everything. Now I’m back here, I know I’m good at aikido after all.
I suddenly understood just how unpleasant, alienating and even frightening our training had felt for her.
If this had been some kind of flaky, fake dojo, with an incompetent teacher, I would have understood it more. What made it so baffling, was that genuine aikido was being taught and practiced in the same lesson; but my friend and the other women seemed oblivious.
One day there was a football tournament, with three men’s teams and one women’s team. I signed up for the women’s team, but felt anxious, knowing nothing about football and seeing it as a rough, dangerous game. One of the men said: don’t worry, the women’s team always does well because we enjoy letting you win. I was curious. He said kindly: women are precious flowers; and it’s our job to protect you. His words didn’t feel patriarchal or condescending though. Just genuinely warm and caring.
And sure enough, the male teams went all out against each other to win; but let us beat them easily, despite our collective lack of skill. This dynamic was right out in the open and enjoyed by both sides. And I enjoyed it too. I can’t deny it felt nice to be treated as a “flower”. Conversely, if they’d played us at their normal level of intensity, they would surely have destroyed some of us.
But it was hard to make sense of what was going on. On the pitch, everyone knew that the women were being pampered and indulged, and saw it as nice, natural and loads of fun. But on the mat, the same double standard was also at play, but somehow denied.
Perhaps it was because football is just a game; the tournament was only for fun. But women learning martial arts is something different. It’s symbolic of our empowerment and protection from violence. How could any good person make light-hearted fun from that?
And I didn’t quite know how to feel about it all. Being treated in a deferential, old-fashioned way by the dojo men all week was enjoyable. It made me wonder if life might be easier if we all regressed a little in terms of gender roles. But there can be a dark underside to treating women as precious flowers, for both men and women. In this case, it meant a group of women believing they were learning a skill, but actually picking up very little if anything about balance breaking, or controlling another person, or other technical aspects.
And the men must have known. They were the ones bearing the responsibility of adjusting their training to make sure they never hurt or scared the women. So it felt to me like some kind of odd, unspoken secret being kept from the women.
I don’t think anyone in this story is “wrong” though. Culture is a huge influence on us. The men and women I trained with were just being good people in line with their cultural expectations, including the microculture of their own dojo. So it’s not about judgment – just lots of questions.
Were the men being kind in keeping the women safe and happy? Or were they being unkind by preventing the women from learning to defend themselves? I think the intention would have been all the former; but there’s arguably also something of the latter in the reality, albeit completely unintentional.
And how could I judge anyway? I’ve just told you that before the summer school, I’d been colluding with my friend’s impossible wish to master a martial art without ever experiencing or exploring pain (her own and others’)—as well as doing the same on this summer school. It can’t be right to hurt people who don’t want to be hurt though; so I’m not sure what choice these men really had.
Part of me is somehow drawn to that old-fashioned notion of being cherished and protected by society, simply by virtue of my gender. But like Eve having eaten the apple, I can’t go back. I’m too used by now to men freely sharing their knowledge with me; and to the excitement of hard training.
The hardest part for me about this episode was the soul searching it led to. Questions about how far my own dojo colleagues back home were playing with and pampering me, as a woman trying to be tough. Because how could I have known if they were? The women I met at summer school didn’t seem able to tell.
And more complicated still, how might this dynamic be playing out in my everyday life, without my consciously registering it? And how might it be reversed, with men oblivious to uncomfortable truths, which women understand, but shelter them from?
Lots of questions, and not so many answers. Just a sense of how complex gender “issues” can be; and that sometimes it’s too simplistic to try to find any definitive right answers.
Also by Kai Morgan
|The Attraction of Violence||Why do Friends Give Each Other a Hard Time?||Everybody Needs a Little Time Away||The Art of Not Playing Protector|
Photo: Getty Images