So What’s the Big Deal About Women and the Bottom Rope In Thailand?
photo credit above: Paula Bronstein at Getty Images
Guest Post – A Husband’s Point of View
There’s been some of recent conversation about the bottom rope, and the Thai custom that women not only pass under the rope when entering the fight ring, but also less well-known, that in some more conservative camps, that they enter training rings this way as well, so as to not disturb the protective powers of magic that consecrate the ring and everything that happens within it. One western coach took to Facebook to present a defiant rant that his female fighters would never go under the bottom rope, even if they happened to fight in Thailand – you can read that rant here, as well as follow up comments by myself and others on the Roundtable forum; and on the other hand female western fighters who fight or have fought in Thailand came together to say, almost in unison, it never bothered them at all to go under the bottom rope.
Read Sylvie’s article about the bottom rope, written after this one.
So what’s the deal? Is it a big deal, or is no deal at all? To widen the discussion I wanted to post here my extended comment from the Roundtable Forum about why Sylvie has perhaps greater sensitivity to this than some other western female fighters in Thailand – and I think that she’ll be writing her own blog post on this. No, it isn’t a case of having a strong ego, refusing to bend to Thai custom – she has in fact gone under the bottom rope to enter a ring for a fight more times than any other western fighter, now 139 times and counting, and has done so respectfully, each time. This is a mode of politeness and respect to a culture she loves. But she is quick to point out that the bottom rope custom is tied to larger issues, issues related to real world opportunities and experiences for women in Thailand, both for Thai women and for western women. She sees the stooping of women as causally related to the segregation of women, not only in terms of excluded spaces, but also access to financial and knowledge opportunities. I disagree with those who feel that this is just a “Thai” issue, that only impacts Thais, or that women of one cultural heritage should not try to help, or at least be in dialogue with the lives of women of another.
Interestingly enough, IFMA rules require that you enter the ring NOT under the bottom rope (over either of the top two ropes), even for women, even for fights in Thailand. If Thai women enter the ring under the bottom rope, they are technically in violation of the rule.
No, women in Thailand should not be hopping over the top rope, willy-nilly, in acts of defiance, or just plain disregard, but at the very least the entire syndrome of beliefs, practices, customs that surround the segregation of women from certain spaces of Muay Thai (spaces like: the top rope, middle ropes, clinch training ring, a Men Only practice ring, the mongkol, all the way to the Lumpinee ring, etc), should be under discussion. This not an off-the-table topic. To raise it does not mean that you do not value tradition, or traditional beliefs. We are not members of the Federation, beaming onto “primitive” or exotic planets, sworn to uphold the Prime Directive. A future of Muay Thai that involves the preservation of all that is meaningful on an International stage requires coming in contact with these questions, thinking about them, and attempting to find some synthesis, a meaningful way forward.
Spaces of Exclusion – Thinking About Opportunities
The quote, slightly edited, begins with Sylvie’s comment there, followed by my own:
So, whereas a lot of women only experience the bottom rope when they’re getting into the ring to fight, it’s a very small part of their experience. This is something they do maybe 20 times. But I got to witness on a twice-daily basis that I was excluded from aspects of training. The men would go into the men’s ring for clinching or sparring and I would quite literally be left out of it. When western men who were barely serious about their training and certainly weren’t going to fight…
This is the really compelling point about the experience. Even though Lanna was an extremely western gym, it may have been the only fully westernized gym in all of Thailand that kept a separate Men Only ring, out of a sort of cultural conservatism. Don’t hold me to this, but I would not be surprised if it was the only such gym. Being at Lanna long term I think provided a unique keyhole into the functionally sexist nature of this custom, something that just wouldn’t be seen if you are training at Thai gym as a woman and the only instance of the belief you come in contact with is the request that you enter under the bottom rope for fights (instead of, say, through middle ropes). What’s the big deal, right? That’s how it is done. But, when you see the remnants of the beliefs that underwrite this strongly conditioning daily training experiences in a gym like Lanna, something you have to deal with every single day and work hard to overcome, then the rope takes on a different weight, a different meaning. In this way, some of Kirian’s rant is focused on important things – albeit in an unfortunate tone, and with uninformed beliefs. No, Thai female fighters don’t suck because of the bottom rope – they don’t suck at all, they are VERY good – but there are built in ceilings for HOW good they can be because of the beliefs that surround the bottom rope.
Almost every day of the week Sylvie had to see western men being pulled into the Men’s Ring to do what could only feel like “man stuff”. This is where most sparring was done, and almost all of the clinching. Some of these men were very good, serious fighters, but it didn’t matter at all. Complete nubes would find themselves in the ring getting the work that Sylvie as an incredibly active fighter was desperate to have. She needed sparring, she needed clinch. In fact, I would say that one of the reasons Sylvie began fighting so much – and there were many reasons – it was because she could NOT get the kind of live action dynamic work in in training that she needed. She, instead, fought her way to knowledge and comfort. Here she was, a fighter who was becoming a clinch fighter, and she literally could not clinch regularly in the gym to improve in clinch. Instead she just had to muscle it in fights. So you have the westerner who was on her way to becoming the most prolific western fighter in Thailand history not having access to training that others who didn’t even want to fight would have, only because she was female. This was not consciously done. It wasn’t because Sylvie wasn’t respected in the gym, she was to a high degree, her training and fight dedication was a high standard others were compared to. It wasn’t because there was some sort of decision made about what is right for women in training, and right for men. It was just a matter how how it just lazily shook out because of how the gym was set up (in space, in practice) based on beliefs nobody was really thinking much about.
As time went by she found lots of ways to try to circumvent and partially solve this problem. She’s a very non-imposing person, especially in those days, but she had to force herself to ask, or even beg for clinching/sparring, day after day, asking trainers or potential partners to leave the men’s ring and come over into the mixed ring. What was regularly and frictionlessly awarded to ANY male in the gym was given to her as a kind of exception, an exception she would have to fight for. Almost any day she wanted to clinch it was a result of her having to press for it. She hates calling attention to herself in this way, but the truth of the matter was that if she didn’t very little sparring or clinch would ever get done. As her husband I know this because I had to every day check with her if she was able to get any of this work in, and if she didn’t, I would have to pressure her to stand up for herself. It was a current of in-oppportunity that was based on gender she had to swim against continually, and it was a huge, repeated, aggravating circle of communication that characterized the time there, and when we finally found Petchrungruang where clinch was encouraged and easily had, it was a stark and relieving contrast for us, especially because Sylvie had developed into a clinch first fighter. When she got to Petchrungruang she realized pretty quickly that she didn’t even know how to clinch, despite being a “clinch fighter” and training towards clinch for 2+ years in Thailand already. This is a firm and concrete example of how institutionalized custom based on seemingly benign but still sexist beliefs, had controlled the access to knowledge and experience for women, even though that was not its purpose. And even Petchrungruang, because it too is a traditional kai muay, has its own gendered current which Sylvie swims against regularly, in order to get the training she needs and wants, despite its embrace of her as a clinch fighter.
Now, Lanna is a great place to train. An awesome gym, and an awesome group of people. I can’t even say that is isn’t a good place to train as a woman, in fact, it probably is a very good place to train as a woman because, among other positive things, it has benefited from the presence of Sylvie for two and a half years, carving out a space of extremely serious work and fight expectations, just like Sylvie herself benefited from the notoriously hard working Sylvie Charbonneau before her who was at Lanna for 5 years, had a 50 fight career, and who set the precedent for high volume female fighting. Examples change possibilities. It is a gym with a legacy of long term, serious female fighters for really a decade now. But people should know that the Men’s Ring approach that they have is incredibly rare among western friendly gyms (not as Kirian seems to believe, generalized or common), and I would guess among Thai-first Muay Thai gyms it is no norm. But this is the thing. Here is a segregation of the actual training space, based on beliefs that are not even really strongly held by anyone actually IN the gym. The last Thai who seemed to really care about the sanctity of the Men’s Ring was a trainer named Wung. He hasn’t been at the gym in years. The present Thais (the last time we were there) don’t seem to really care about the distinction, though they will enforce it if a female accidentally wanders too close to the Men’s Ring. There is some pleasure of the Men’s Ring being a “man space” especially during man-testing time (clinching), but this is something that is almost not thought about in any big way. Nobody, including all the western men there, would even think that this segregation would have any impact on female fighters. But in fact, day to day, it had a huge impact on Sylvie. This is almost by definition institutionalized sexism. Men don’t even notice it, women really notice it, because it has systematic impact on the real potential of women.
Now, the number of women significantly affected by this Lanna policy have been very few. But the experience of it I think really gave a unique insight into the bottom rope issue for Sylvie, one very different than what most other western female fighters have faced. Yes, going under the rope to enter a fight is a ceremonial nuance that certainly can be done with no skin off your nose. But I would wager that in Thai spaces where you have to enter the under bottom rope for the training ring (or of having a ring that is off-limits all together), there are a set of beliefs about gender which will limit what you can achieve as a female fighter.
One of the things I’ll never really forget is seeing Phetjee Jaa look around briefly to make sure that nobody (her Father) is watching, and quickly enter the family training ring through the middle ropes. It’s just an unvarnished moment of a young fighter, 13 then, seeing the bottom rope prescription as superfluous, and even in a moment of adolescent independence, something to violate. Endlessly she climbs under the bottom rope in the family ring, for years now, you would think she was used to it. But she was very happy to skip through the middle ropes unscolded, with a small smile. It was not without some irony when I would listen to Sangwean, her father, rail against Thai bias against women, that fighters like his daughter would not be allowed to fight in so many contexts, all the way up to Lumpinee – the family dreamed of her fighting there as a champion one day – not even realizing that the beliefs that anchor those limits of his child are very much the same beliefs he self-enforces on his own daughter, in his own ring at home.
I should say that for me the issue of the bottom rope segregation is a very complex one, one with no easy answers, no single firm footing to take in principle, but rather there is a clash of worthy principles. For those of us who love Muay Thai it is a love for the Muay Thai “as it is”, and as it seems to have always been, something worth saving. This is going to come in conflict with the opportunities of women. It is just these kinds of clashing questions, when values do not easily match up, that benefit the most from dialogue.