Kenpo Women is pleased to present 2nd Degree Black Belt Karen Davis’s Thesis written in 1996.
I have felt from the beginning of my martial arts training that some of the challenges I have faced were unique to women. To make this assertion truly accurate I will have to compare our experiences with those of the men in the studio and I admit I have not done that on a large scale. However, I have interviewed many current and former female students, from the ranks of white through black belts to learn whether they too have experienced some of the same inhibitions, frustrations, joys and successes that I have. I was interested to discover whether we shared a large common ground or if we had lately unique experiences in navigating through the world of Kenpo Karate. The thesis I present here as a requirement for my Black Belt describes my findings and also my own feelings about the experience of being involved in this particular “man’s sport”.
Women in Karate
Women are raised to be quiet, gentle, apologetic and unaggressive. For safety reasons women learn to walk around trying not to attract unwanted attention. We walk down streets, through parking lots, whatever we might encounter danger, with our eyes averted, as if to say “Don’t see me, I’m not here”. Women feel like prey, and they are. While this reserve in our behavior is learned, I don’t believe it is strictly nature which accounts for the basic docility of women. I am raising two boys and a girl and while I admit I may do things differently with my daughter, I notice repeatedly how less assertive and boisterous she is.
Whatever the combination of factors, regardless of all of the arguments comparing nature to nurture, the result is generally the same – women are considered “the weaker sex”, even by themselves. With some exceptions of course, we are physically weaker. We often do not engage in physical sports growing up, especially contact sports. Of all the women I interviewed only one had participated in contact sports as a child. We watch boys rough housing at an early age and stand back to observe their outdoor play, football, wrestling, street fights, etc. The The movies and TV shows we grew up with rarely, if ever, portrayed females as anything but helpless. We are taught by society that men are our aggressors, and our protectors.Most males grow up accustomed to physical roughness and contact; girls grow up the onlookers, the cheerleaders.
However, despite this basically non-aggressive background, some women make the decision to learn karate. While most of our women students started with the goal of learning self defense, almost as many joined for the primary purpose of exercise. White often she is following one or more members of her family who have started, but in any case it is a brave decision to enter such an unfamiliar and masculine world. Almost now of our students started with the goal of becoming a black belt; initially, the goal of most women was to take it one step at a time, one belt at at ime, with belt promotion not playing too significant a part of their motivation.
At first there are many ingrained, taught and socially imposed barriers on a new female student which must be confronted, often for the first time her life. At this stage of being aggressive is a virtual impossibility. Blocks and strikes are tentative. Combining complex moves is difficult. Transition between stances is awkward and “ungraceful”. A loud kiyai is embarrassing. Two women remembering their kiyai’s being made fun of of which is an unpleasant memory for them still. To perform in front of people you don’t know is also intimidating , and one student I interviewed recalled that the beginning was difficult “knowing I wasn’t doing anything well, not wanting people to watch me practice” . Being in close proximity with a sweating man you don’t know is strange and taboo. “the first few weeks were embarrassing and I felt uncoordinated”, and “Guys touch parts of us and it gets them flustered” were typical feelings of women who had not been in the studio long. However, while the women I spoke with almost unanimously said a regular workout partner was “very important”, most agreed it did not matter whether it was a male or female. Gradually these “unfamiliar men” become friends and most of them are encouraging and helpful with the female students.
If a woman can survive all this and make it through her Orange belt test, then I believe she has a chance of overcoming these primarily mental limitations and becoming more assertive, if not yet aggressive. While it may be getting easier to perform techniques in the air with some force, performing them on a partner is still uncomfortable.
Fear of being hurt is another consideration for a women learning karate. Although my interviews with the more advanced female students show that most are not significantly afraid of injury, it takes a while to gain confidence in other student’s control to know they won’t hurt you. Likewise, we must learn control to be sure we don’t hurt someone else, something girls are taught from an early age no to do. Add to this natural tendency of a woman to apologize every time she hits someone, no matter whether he or she was hurt by it or not. Before she can stop it “I’m sorry” is out of her mouth. It doesn’t matter how often the instructor commands “Hit Me!”, most women are at first shy about it, and then apologetic.
I believe initially a woman is not aware that Karate takes such a big investment of time to become proficient, nor does she realize that she will be physically manhandled to such an extent, often with partners who are not aware of her trepidation and their own strength in relations to hers. However, this physical aspect of Karate is, I believe one of the most important parts in teaching a woman what she must ultimately learn from Karate: no matter what someone has done or is doing to you, you don’t quit. You don’t freeze up in panic or fear. While a punch ot the stomach may hurt, it won’t kill you – but your inaction may.
This lesson is perhaps the most valuable one a woman can learn in parring. Again, it takes quite a while for most women to feel comfortable hitting people hard without saying “I’m sorry”. It also takes a while not to flinch when you see someone bearing down on you. Without this training, a woman under attack on the street (or in the home) might do many things, but I believe that if she were struck hard she would be paralyzed by the shock of being hit, not necessarily by the pain it inflicted. Sparring teaches women two important lessons: don’t quit defending yourself, and don’t be shocked into inaction if you are hit.
For the woman in our studio, sparring has also taught them other things. It has taught one “to practice for speed& reflexes, with less emphasis on pain. blocks and strikes are important”. Another said she used to by shy before she before she got into the ring. Now it has carried over into her work and she no longer lets herself be intimidated.
The road to being assertive and confident continues through the belt levels. From talking to men in the studio I know Karate has a positive impact in many aspects of their lives, for women I know the changes are especially significant. “I’m very proud to be in Karate – I always mention it first when someone asks what I’ve been up to. ” “Karate has shown me that anything is possible if you really want it.” “Belief in myself…I used to believe that I was no good at sports. I’ve gained confidence from achieving something I didn’t think I could.” “I’m not as shy.” “Definitely more self esteem.” “i’m more assertive & realize I can do other sports because getting my black belt was so out of reach. “physically becoming more healthy & aware of what my body can do.” “more confident when out alone.” “I’m stronger, I don’t “win’ out” when it comes to something I believe in, I speak out more, I set demands and goals on myself to be a better person. ”
In addition to the very positive comments all the women and on the effect of karate in their lives, they were also consistent on a number of other subjects. I ask them what events related to Karate had made them especially proud and almost unanimously the answer was “My test for______Belt!” Sometimes the very same woman complained about the tests (“I hate taking tests but when I pass it’s exciting”_, and worried about the kicks at the end. Tournaments were also cited, and a few women also mentioned specific incidents in the studio like being singled out by Mr. White for doing something particularly well.
With only one exception, all women felt that encouragement and praise by peers and instructors was either “important” or “very important”. One comment I felt was interesting and probably relevant to a lot of us who grew up fairly unathletically was “(praise) needs a lot of reinforcement to break old beliefs (about our abilities).”
For all female students with a family at home family support was an important element to their success and commitment. In fact, lack of family support was the primary reason offered by some women who have quite karate, or why they don’t go to all the night classes (neglecting their family, not being there at dinnertime, to help with homework, etc.).
The role of instructors was mentioned often as an important ingredient in their experiences in the studio, both positive and negative. When asked if they recalled any embarrassing or intimidating incidents the most common response was criticism by instructors in public. However, most women had very positive comments about their instructors: “I feel fortunate to have the quality instructors that are available in this school. Without them, I would not have continued to this point.” The helpfulness of other students in general was also mentioned: “I liked the willingness of the upper belts to teach the lower belts, not because they had to, – some had a power thing – but I appreciated that they didn’t make you feel like an idiot. I like the camaraderie and family feeling.”
Any sensible woman knows not to throw caution to the wind i.e., doors must be locked, parking lots well lit, unsafe areas avoided etc., but no longer does she need to feel like walking prey. The knowledge she gains in self defense gives her a feeling of power. The hard work translates into success, which translates even further into a great pride of accomplishment. I would like our instructors to appreciate the unique obstacles a woman must overcome in learning martial arts, and then take great pride in helping achieve success.
Every instructor I’ve had since starting as a white belt has offered a part of themselves; I feel my ability is a composite of these generous people and I would like to thank:
Mr. Abrams and Mr. Steffens for their patience and encouragement in all those Tuesday and Thursday afternoon classes when learning Short form I seemed impossible,
Mr. McClure for accepting no less than 150% effort and sharing his knowledge of the theory & history of Kenpo,
Mr. Salinas for spending hours with me sparring my techniques, and for making a great sparring partner,
Mr. Matthews for his encouragement & praise in freestyle where I needed it regularly to stick with it,
Mr. Mirzaoff for teaching techniques in his own inimitable style, and especially for his invaluable help on my Black Belt form,
Mr. Newton for his great drills and personal enthusiasm,
Mr. VanDeusen for bringing his spirituality and sincerity to his students,
Mr. Lacmmetti for his precision in forms which always inspired me,
Mr. Lennon for giving me my first compliment ever as a white belt and for remaining interested in my martial arts training,
Ms. Fanarof, Mr. Parker, Mr. Wright, Mr. Witherby, Mr. Ottman, and countless students who have helped me along the way, (especially those I’m testing with for Black Belt),
and Mr. White, who has been a motivator and COACH like no other. I thank you for opening the world of Karate to me and allowing me the opportunity to add this success to my life.
I’d also like to thank all the women I interviewed for giving me their time, insights and encouragement, and my husband Steve without whose support at home I could NEVER have made the commitment to reach this goal!