Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Warriorship of Women

Settle in and get comfortable, grab a cup of your favorite beverage, this is going to be lengthy post.

Last month I was involved in a conversation with some fellow martial artists ( men and women) about how women have been oppressed since the dawn of time on a global scale. That is not the topic of this post, nor have I been on this planet since the dawn of time so I cant offer a point from that perspective. However, one point that was brought up in the broad scope of the topic specifically focused on how women have not been allowed to be warriors. Could they be warriors now in our modern age?  We discussed it back and forth, but the thought stayed with me. Can women be warriors? Have there ever been female warriors or has this always been a male dominated subculture?

Before I even went into history to examine the veracity of the statements made by my colleagues, I drew on my own experience. I have been in several schools in my martial path. All of them had a mixed population, although the harder styles tended to lean towards male students. I wondered if this was because the style was hard or were the women being treated differently? I took some impromptu polls of female students and found that in some schools they are treated differently than the men. For example, some women have been cautioned against doing push-ups off their knees because they are perceived as not strong enough. Others were told that they couldn't strike certain surfaces because it was too hard for a woman.

In my personal experience I have stood in front of some formidable female warriors. In most cases I outweighed them by a good 50-100 pounds. Not one of them flinched at this size or weight disparity, in fact they relished it because it allowed them to really execute their techniques. One senior student used to stand about six inches away from me and still manage to kick me in the head full force. Another was such a technician with her hands and evasive maneuvers it was like fighting smoke, until you got hit. Were these women the exception? I don't believe so.

So lets see if there are any precedents.

Fu Hao was one of the many wives of King Wu Ding of the Shang Dynasty and, unusually for that time served as a military general and high priestess.

Tomoe Gozen is thought to have been a late twelfth century female samurai, an onna bu geisha who may have pioneered the two sword style made famous in the 17th century by Miyamoto Mushashi.

The daughter of a Duke, Princess Pingyang raised and commanded her own army in the revolt against the Sui Dynasty. Later on her father would become Emperor Gaozu.

The Spartan princess Arachidamia is said to have fought Pyrrhus ( of the phrase pyrrhic victory) with a group of Spartan females under her command, and killed several soldiers before perishing.
The British Queen Boudicca led a revolt against the Roman Empire in 60 AD, but was decisively defeated.

Emilia Plater was a Polish noblewoman who fought as a Captain in the November 1830 uprising against Russia.

The Roman Empire was known to occasionally have women fighting called gladiatrix.

The Dahomey a people who live in Western Africa  established an all female militia, who served as  royal bodyguards to the king.

In Native American history, most of the Native American tribes contained a group of respected and well established women who were leaders of their militia. These leaders determined the fate of prisoners of war among other tribal decisions. Europeans and early American settlers refused to deal with the Native American women on such matters leading to their significance not being understood or appreciated until fairly recently. 

In Vietnam the sisters Trung Trac and Trung Nhi led a rebellion against the Han rule in 40 B.C. According to tradition they were joined by many women warriors and succeeded in establishing a short lived independence.

In South Asia and the Indian subcontinent the concept of woman warrior exists both in the mythos and in history. Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi was one of the leading figures of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and was described as "remarkable in beauty, cleverness, and perseverance. She was also considered the most dangerous of all the rebel leaders.

In Indonesia, Martha Christina Tiahahu joined a guerrilla war against the Dutch Colonial government as a teenager in 1817.

Lyudmila Pavilchencko was a Soviet sniper during World War II, and is regarded as the most successful female sniper in history.

This list is by no means exhaustive, however the examples set the precedent for female warriorship. In India which is considered the birthplace of martial arts by many, there are still many female warriors, specifically training in Kalari Payattu.
The word Kalari means practice ground in Malayalam.  The traditional training ground of Kalari Payattu , a martial art of Kerala which is a state in south India, is always done inside the Kalari which literally translates to threshing floor or battlefield. Payattu means exercise in arms or practice.
Kalari playgrounds have, for centuries been used by both, men and women. Historically when men went off to fight battles, young women were often left behind to defend their villages and families. Women also trained in Kalari were able to resist invaders and bandits along the roads. Those who were from a higher caste also had access to a wide array of weapons at their disposal. Those from lower castes used ordinary utensils such as knives, anything and everything was considered a potential weapon. The lower castes also specialized in a more sophisticated from of empty handed combat. 
Kalari also had a place of some importance in the education system  in ancient Kerala. Today Kalari Payattu is a method of physical fitness divided into several schools- Thekkan and Vaddakan being two of the most known. It is a system that even today teaches young girls hand to hand combat.

So what has happened?  Why are women viewed as inferior warriors by modern society. especially in schools that teach martial arts?  It could be said that the media has played a role in this even though there are now more strong female protagonists. It could be that society is finally acknowledging women as warriors after a long time of denial. Whatever the case may be, there is a definitive shift in the perception of women as warriors taking place. I would argue that this is not a new trend but rather a return to a state that has always existed. 

So I presented a problem, let me suggest a solution. I wont say its the only solution, but it is a solution I can actively employ. In our school, we are what I like to call gender blind. Our instructors look past gender when training a student. What is taken into account is ability, mastery of technique, determination to learn, and character. These traits are not gender specific. In our school we believe in cultivating warriors, not tournament champions. That is not a slight against tournament based schools, I think tournaments have their own place in the martial world. It is just not the focus of our school. This means we do not make exceptions based on gender and we expect our students commitment to be based on a warriors mindset, male or female. If more martial arts schools adopted this stance I think we would cause more of a shift in the perception of women as warriors.

Its possible you may be thinking-well that's a good sentiment, but pound for pound a man is stronger than a woman. Being stronger, the man will win in any conflict. I disagree, but let me share an analogy that stresses the importance of technique.  My instructor, a Shihan- used to explain it this way.  The explanation was usually in response to my question of outweighing him by 100 pounds and he was still able to easily deal with my attacks. He would say " If I take a bullet and throw it at you, at most it will annoy you and be ineffective. If I take that same bullet, put it in a gun-the same small piece of metal has devastating consequences if shot at you, and connects." This is why we stress technique over strength. Its not that I feel strength is overrated, its good to be strong (we certainly do enough conditioning to support this fact), but if I had to choose between strength and technique I would choose technique-always. It has been my experience that technique overcomes strength when they meet.  This is why the females in our school are expected to be as  formidable as the males.

I was recently shown this in my weekly jujitsu class.  During class we working on a wrist lock and throw. The person I was paired with was a senior both in rank and in age ( she was easily ten years my senior). Whenever I am with a senior( in rank) I like to ask questions. In this case I presented the scenario that what if I just held my wrist in place could she still execute the lock and throw?  She said "Well why don't we try and see if I can?"  I proceeded to attack, she sidestepped, grabbed my wrist locked it and flung me easily. "I guess it does work" she said as she smiled at me while I lay on the floor. Just to make sure I understood the mechanics behind the exercise we worked on the same sequence for an hour. It was a literal, visceral (and jarring) lesson. When I did execute the sequence on her, it required no strength on my part but rather a shifting of the hips and unseating her balance. she reminded me that its not the strength that makes it effective-which is why so many people make mistakes, but rather proper technique. The technique is the foundation she kept telling me.

So what does this all mean? Well, if you are female and reading this post I encourage you to embrace the spirit of warriorship. If you are male and hold a different opinion than the one I shared here, that's fine. We are all entitled to our opinions, I would challenge you however to open your thoughts to the possibility that women are as capable as men in being warriors. 

I recently heard an interaction between my wife and one of my daughters. The context was that my daughter had hurt her knee. My wife went over and quickly addressed the situation acknowledging that bumping your knee hurt, but then she said something truly profound.  She looked at my daughter and said" We aren't going to let that stop us though, right? " My daughter nodded still in pain, but smiling.
"Do you know why not?" she asked my daughter.  Together in a rising crescendo they both answered.
" Because we are Warriors!" My daughter ran off to continue playing.

The warriorship of women has a long and rich tradition in history. It is up to us to make sure that in continues into the next generation and beyond.

I would like to hear from both my male and female readers. What are your thoughts? Agree or disagree? Lets continue the conversation.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body

Sensei Orlando

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