Martial Arts: Is it a Man’s World?

Third Dan Research Project

By Kimberley Funtanilla

Martial Arts: Is it a Man’s World?

From the offset, women have arguably been considered the lesser of the two genders when it comes to martial arts. Many see it as a sport in which you need to be the strongest and the toughest, in order to prevail. Although this may not be the view of most martial artists, it is certainly a common view shared with the rest of the world. Whilst I am the only female in my dojo, I have always been treated as an equal and never as the inferior, an experience that many women are not fortunate enough to have.

I have been to a handful of martial arts clubs in my twelve years of training and have always noticed the scarcity of female instructors. Can women be just as skilled as men, in martial arts and what obstacles with sexism, do they continue to face?

First, I look into the biological makeup of men and women. Although women tend to be smaller in stature than men, this does not necessarily put them at a disadvantage. In fact, this can prove to be a great advantage.

The stature of a woman tends to make them more flexible than men, which in turn, gives more fluidity. This allows better movement of joints, such as, hip joints. Taking Karate as an example, movement of the hips is essential in generating the power behind most techniques.

There are two main types of skeletal muscle fibres, slow-twitch and fast-twitch. Slow-twitch muscle fibres contract at a slow rate but, can sustain contractions for a long period time and thus are used for activities that require high endurance. Fast-twitch muscles are used for short bursts of energy, due to contracting at a faster rate for a short period of time. Generally, women tend to develop more slow-twitch muscle fibres than fast-twitch, unlike men, who are the opposite. This means women are naturally, better built for endurance and are likely to fatigue at a slower rate than men (though this can also depend on other factors such as, diet and activity levels). Women also have shorter muscles than men, which contract quicker, giving them a natural speed advantage.

Martial arts has always been more about technique rather than power, to overcome someone who may be stronger than yourself. Although it was not developed specifically for women, Karate is a great martial art for women to pick up seeing as men, tend to be physically stronger. Karate teaches that precision and accuracy is what is needed to stop an aggressor, rather than just brute force.

Women have been studying and practicing martial arts for eons, but have seldom been mentioned. Sokon Matsumura was a Karate master from Okinawa who trained the likes of Master Gichin Funakoshi. Unbeknown to many, his wife was supposedly a highly skilled martial artist herself and came from a family famous for their martial arts background. It is said that she would only marry someone who could beat her in combat. The two go back to the early 1800’s, which shows just how long ago women have been learning martial arts.

We could even take history back to the 12th century, to Tomoe Gozen, a legendary female samurai. Though uncommon during this time, there were a handful of women who were trained in combat. These women were under samurai teachings and were skilled in the art of the naginata (a long pole with a curved blade on the end). Going even further back into the Heian period (Japan, 794-1185 AD), some women were required to protect their homes and families whilst their husbands were away fighting in the war.

There are many female, professional martial artists making their mark in today’s society and they are dominating in their respected fields. These women are extremely important in motivating others to take up a martial art.

Women like Ronda Rousey are setting amazing examples of what you can achieve with dedication. Not long before her, women’s MMA professional fights were not as popular to watch. But now, more and more viewers are tuning in to see these captivating fights. Rika Usami, Karate Kata champion, is completely mesmerising to watch. She achieves power and elegance all at once in her Katas, something that requires a great deal of skill. Rika has stated in many interviews that she took up Karate because she saw a woman on TV, in a fight scene. She is now a world champion in Karate and has won countless competitions.

Martial arts has always been a popular film genre, compelling viewers and providing them with a rush of excitement. Bruce Lee’s ‘Enter the Dragon’ undeniably increased popularity and sparked interest in martial arts amongst viewers. There are many other films that have made their mark in Western culture such as ‘Ip Man’, ‘Undisputed’ and ‘Hard to Kill’. These films all have one main thing in common, they all have a male lead. There are very few action/martial arts films in Western culture that have strong female leads, due to the practice of martial arts always being dominated by men.
Women are not really seen to be very deadly or menacing, which means an action film is seen to be more appealing with a male front. Angelina Jolie and Uma Thurman are great examples of deadly characters. Although their films ‘SALT’ and ‘Kill Bill’ are fiction, they still permit viewers to see that women can be just as skilled in combat as men, if not better. There are still hurdles yet to cross, to really infiltrate Western films, to see action films just as popular with female leads, as they are with male leads.

Women can benefit from taking up a martial art in many ways, including, a boost of confidence and education in self-defence. Confidence can be the difference between life and death against an attacker and women should grab any opportunity they have, to learn even the basics, of self-defence. We cannot completely prevent attacks from happening but, we can always learn to try and defend ourselves in life threatening situations. Taking up a martial art is also a fun, more enjoyable way to get fit for women who see going to the gym, as more of a chore. Many end up quitting the gym because, they have no motivation. Karate can provide motivation in the form of other Karateka and Sensei’s, making the experience tailored to each individual.

As time goes on, Karate is seen as less of a boys’ sport and girls are being encouraged by parents to join. The future could hold something very different for the younger generations and could see a greater number of women not just being instructors, but also running their own clubs. As I have continued to train over the years, I am seeing a growth in numbers of female students and hopefully numbers will continue to rise.

I hope that eventually, there will be a greater increase in female leads in martial arts films, a continued increase in popularity of female martial arts competitions, and less belittling from our male counterparts. This can all be achieved with open minds and by cultivating future generations to look past gender barriers.