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Anger Over the Bottom Rope For Women - And Race

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#1
K. von Duuglas-Ittu

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This is an interesting rant by a western coach over the custom of female fighters in Thailand having to enter the ring under the bottom rope. I leave his name out because there is no reason to be personal about this, I'm more interested in the weave of thoughts here.

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These are screenshots because after commenting on the post I was banned from continuing to comment - no big deal, it's his space and Muay Thai internet debate pretty much sucks. This is a huge, balls-out rant about the needed equality for women in sport and in particular for fighting, and it really strikes a powerful nerve in just the pure intensity of the celebration of Miriam Nakamoto -- hey, she was GOOD, one of the best ever. But most views on gender (and race and ethnicity) are not purely of one thing. I took pretty strong exception the characterization of Thai female fighters as generally being "treated as sex slaves and servants" (outlined red above) - does this guy even know much about actual Thai female fighters? After I made my first comment about this I believe he edited the word "treated" to "viewed" and then after making the post private to a circle he edited "sex slaves" to "after thoughts".

Despite the changes this is a common trope of the passionate male, western pro-female fight "expert" that I've seen, the idea that Thai female fighters are somehow on the edge of becoming (or in this case, treated like) sex workers. Steven Wright also forwarded this idea as well. It's all part of the fantasy image of the "poor" Thai girl, forced into horrible conditions, and that these conditions make female Thai fighters inferior to the liberated, socially embraced western female fighters of the world. It's a complicated argument. He's very right that female Thai fighters are NOT treated in the way way as male Thai fighters in Thailand, and there are huge cultural (and economic) reasons why. And yes, the bottom rope custom is intimately woven into this. But the willingness to slip into these frankly bizarre and uninformed fantasies about Thai women, is just sexist and to me also (Orientalist) racist. Yes, there are lots of sex worker issues surrounding the plight of Thai women in various socioeconomic groups. But the willingness in the west, especially for men, to see the factuality of Thai women as fundamentally that of having a sex-worker status, especially when it seems that these men often have very little knowledge of the real lives of the Thai female fighters they are supposedly championing, is troubling (and no, I know of very few gyms in Thailand now where women cannot train in the ring with men). We saw this again and again, in the early days, when western men tried to troll Sylvie's fighting - the Thai female fighter is fundamentally just a poor girl, a child, a sex-worker in waiting. This is part of a big western (male) fantasy projected onto an exotic land they don't really know, a land much more complex (ethnically, by class, by belief) than they are willing to believe. Almost every top Thai female fighter I know of I would probably characterize as Middle class. Middle class by western standards. You want to see what these women look like? Here is a list of them Sylvie wrote about, the best under 48kg << these women are not generally treated like sex slaves, servants, and nor are they even viewed as after thoughts, anymore than one might say western female fighters are in their gyms.

To his credit the author amended his words after making the rant private to a group of people. But I'm really interested in how these two thoughts: Women are Equal! AND These Asian Women are like Sex Slaves? can unconsciously compliment each other. The fact of the matter is that Thai female fighters are among the best in the world. In my opinion they are better, all things being considered, than their natural counterparts in the west, as a whole. Historically there have been some obstacles to actually showing this though: The best western female fighters (Nakamoto, Kitchen, Randamie, etc) historically have been giants to the best Thai female fighters and for that reason either large western fighters don't end up fighting the best Thai talent (if Thais at all), or when they do it can be with a significant weight advantage. Even to this day many of the top western fighters (Barlow, Meksen, van Soest), when weights are more equivalent, do not fight top Thais in Thailand - in fact these fighters hardly have fought each other. And importantly there are fundamental differences in how western and Thai scoring is done, something that leads to misunderstandings in East vs West matchups, and there are differing motivations at times. There is no "international stage" on which to judge Thai female fighter talent - no, the IFMAs have not been taken particularly seriously by most Thais. Yes, Thai female fighters do face a very different place in the gym than do male Thai fighters, something part of the problemized position of women in Thai culture, but it is incredibly disrespectful to describe that place as generally being like that of sex slaves, in any way, or that this status has lead to a general inferiority of Thai female fighters. The "sex slave" characterization trope for Thai women is a loaded one, instead of respecting Thais, one is just forwarding old stereotypes. Thai female fighters have devoted their lives to fighting. They deserve the respect of what they are, fighters who have long trained and fought in their National art.

As to the bottom rope, this is such a complicated aspect of Muay Thai in Thailand it is very hard to untangle. Some Thai female fighters feel disrespected by the custom, some find it to be very meaningful and proper. Because the Muay Thai of Thailand is fundamentally a performance of traditional, hyper-masculinity, pulling on the threads of gender may unravel some of that respected cloth. There is to me no clear, principled answer here (Sylvie feels differently I suspect), but rather important principles that clash. But I do present his rant here because it contains some very powerful imagery in favor of female liberty. But in this case, the fact that the author seems pretty dis-conntected from Thailand itself (it's realities, its people, their beliefs) his particular brand of "Fuck your traditions!" feels a little not right.


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#2
dtrick924

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This image and rant crossed my facebook feed. I loved the initial image, it felt very powerful and pro-woman to me and I wanted to give it a thumbs up. Unfortunately reading the rant below it ruined the image for me. "Liking" the image felt like co-signing the rant. The ranter managed to get his digs in at Western female fighters fighting in Thailand and strip Thai female fighters of their agency at the same time.


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#3
K. von Duuglas-Ittu

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The ranter managed to get his digs in at Western female fighters fighting in Thailand and strip Thai female fighters of their agency at the same time.

 

This is the interesting thing. I'm sure the guy sees himself as a pure protector of female equality, even a champion of women. I'm pretty sure he doesn't even see how much disrespect towards women he managed to dish out, while jumping up and down about how awesome it was that Nakamoto defiantly went flying over the top rope. And yes, it's a great image.


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#4
Sylvie

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I do applaud how strongly the coach takes issue against the bottom rope. So many people cradle the "tradition" of it without also acknowledging that it is not simply two ways of doing something, but is putting women in their place in a manner that is not valuing that position. I've written about it many times before and I'm conflicted on how I do embrace a lot of those elements that make this practice meaningful, but I also cannot embrace that the meaning is inseparable from women being "lesser than". So yes, flying over the top rope is fucking badass. However, flying in the face of that practice while simultaneously claiming that Thai women aren't agents within the world of Muay, that they're being forced or coerced or exploited in the sport as a layover before - or even just akin to - being forced, coerced and exploited in the Sex Industry... well, fuck you very much. (I've heard this assumption or correlation between female Thai fighters and Thai prostitutes before. This coach WAS saying that Thai women are treated as sex slaves, whatever the hell he means by that, but also amended that part so I reckon he saw how ridiculous that claim was.) His message appears to be "your women aren't very good and aren't worthy opponents, but my western fighter is here to liberate them from the rope issue."

At her size, Miriam Nakamoto is not likely to be fighting against many Thai women, and in the World Championships that her coach describes, she indeed didn't face any. So whatever sub-par fighters he alludes to in the "Thai women are forced to train after hours" claim, they're not in direct competition with his fighter. Who is he talking about? I've fought two of the women who are regularly on the Thai National Team and follow most of those who have been on the team over the years, and these women individually have hundreds of fights. They're career fighters who dedicate time and love into the art. They're not at the precipice of prostitution, nor are any of them "afterthoughts." There are a myriad of issues that female fighters, especially Thai women, face in the uphill climb against institutionalized and cultural sexism, but actually identifying those issues specifically is the way to address and correct them - not a general and hyperbolized wash that, quite frankly, dismisses them. Thai women do not get the same money or coverage that men do (same as female fighters in the west); they do not have the same training opportunities, largely speaking (same as in the west); they may have shorter careers or not be able to devote themselves fully to training without also being in school or having a job in order to support themselves (same as in the west); and there is sexual harassment and dis-equal treatment in gyms, promotions, and access to exposure (same as in the west).

I don't know that this is a complete thought on my part, really. I agree with Kevin, mostly. Being pro-women as a male coach is awesome and I don't want to wag my finger at it, but I also can't handle the "I love women" message being tethered to the kind of sexist bullshit that this particular argument is attached to. 


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#5
WaffleNinja

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Despite the changes this is a common trope of the passionate male, western pro-female fight "expert" that I've seen, the idea that Thai female fighters are somehow on the edge of becoming (or in this case, treated like) sex workers. Steven Wright also forwarded this idea as well. It's all part of the fantasy image of the "poor" Thai girl, forced into horrible conditions, and that these conditions make female Thai fighters inferior to the liberated, socially embraced western female fighters of the world. It's a complicated argument. He's very right that female Thai fighters are NOT treated in the way way as male Thai fighters in Thailand, and there are huge cultural (and economic) reasons why. And yes, the bottom rope custom is intimately woven into this. But the willingness to slip into these frankly bizarre and uninformed fantasies about Thai women, is just sexist and to me also (Orientalist) racist. 

Yes this is an interesting topic. It reminds me of the more well documented "noble savage" stereotype of indigenous Americans. Its not racist in the malicious hatefully sense, but it is a racial prejudice which leads to a cultural misunderstandings, and is in its own way degrading. The "other" is held to a lower standard, so even when the intention is to help them, it is still conceptualizing them as in some way lesser.

 

It is interesting how it seemingly does, consciously or subconsciously, complement the trope of the heroic compassionate male who saves the damsel in distress. I have a hunch they have an enabling effect on each other, and because the damsel in distress aspect seems more pervasive across cultures(possibly a bias of incomplete evidence on my part here) I think it is the independent variable which facilitates the ethnic preconceptions.


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#6
WaffleNinja

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 I'm conflicted on how I do embrace a lot of those elements that make this practice meaningful, but I also cannot embrace that the meaning is inseparable from women being "lesser than". 

It has always been striking to me how I can see you strongly value traditions and see their quaint beauty, yet oppose the bottom rope thing. I think there is much of tradition that we should maintain yet also elements that can be gracefully discarded to improve our societies. To me the rope thing reminds me a lot of the Christian and Buddhist religious institutions which reserve the highest of ranks for men. The practice suggests a lesser status of women, but I have always been under the impression that it is just seen as a harmless practice by most women. Maybe I haven't asked around enough though! Btw your current win streak is pretty awesome! 


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#7
K. von Duuglas-Ittu

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 To me the rope thing reminds me a lot of the Christian and Buddhist religious institutions which reserve the highest of ranks for men. The practice suggests a lesser status of women, but I have always been under the impression that it is just seen as a harmless practice by most women.

 

That sounds to me like a very astute parallel. It's the kind of thing that within the culture is almost invisible, in the sense that it just is the way it is, and nothing profound even really seems implied by it. But then if you go about unpacking it big ideas start to appear.


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#8
threeoaks

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Very interesting.  I got all bent out of shape reading your thoughts yesterday Kevin. I don't like the obvious dig at Sylvie, the bastard.  Thanks for everyone's thoughts. I think you laid it all out there everyone.  The bottom rope is a sexist tradition, and its a personal choice to go under or over.  Going over it, it helps if one takes an imperious (imperialist) tone and possibly have a large loud-mouthed coach behind you.  Yeah we need men to confront this stuff sometimes.  Ok I am going to lapse into profanity shortly so I will just thank you.


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#9
Sylvie

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It has always been striking to me how I can see you strongly value traditions and see their quaint beauty, yet oppose the bottom rope thing. I think there is much of tradition that we should maintain yet also elements that can be gracefully discarded to improve our societies. To me the rope thing reminds me a lot of the Christian and Buddhist religious institutions which reserve the highest of ranks for men. The practice suggests a lesser status of women, but I have always been under the impression that it is just seen as a harmless practice by most women. Maybe I haven't asked around enough though! Btw your current win streak is pretty awesome! 

That's a great example, really. I reckon a lot of women, Thai and western, do not read the rope issue to be illustrative of larger limitations for and attitudes for women. And I do believe that my focus on it has a lot to do with it being a much bigger presence in my experience of training in Thailand than it is for a lot of other western women, due to having trained at Lanna for 2.5 years at the onset of my time here. There were two rings there, a male ring, in which I was not allowed at all, and the "women's ring," which was really just a ring women were allowed in, not actually for women. 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 asked me why I wasn't taking part and I explained why, they were surprised because they'd literally never had to consider it. The didn't even realize I was excluded because they didn't have to think about it. I think, likewise, if you don't have to think about it very often, it seems like a very insignificant thing.

That said, I've also noted that both Thais and westerners alike seem to miss the connection between women entering under the bottom rope and women being excluded entirely from the national stadium rings. If you make that connection, the rope becomes far more difficult. 


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#10
K. von Duuglas-Ittu

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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 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 thing you come in contact 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 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. 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 all 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 it has benefited from the presence of Sylvie for two and a half years, carving out a space of extremely serious work and expectations, just like Sylvie herself benefited from the very 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. 


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#11
WaffleNinja

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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.

I have a bit of anecdotal evidence that also suggests this kind of thing can be really limiting. I was on my high school's wrestling team and after a few years of wrestling the really dedicated kids got a chance to go on a trip to go to Poland and train with a Polish wrestling team. When we got there it wasn't long before it we noticed that the Polish guys were doing fine against our guys, but the Polish girls were getting crushed against our girls. After a while we found out that in Poland the men and women aren't allowed to wrestle each other, and the limitations showed in their performance.


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#12
K. von Duuglas-Ittu

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When we got there it wasn't long before it we noticed that the Polish guys were doing fine against our guys, but the Polish girls were getting crushed against our girls. After a while we found out that in Poland the men and women aren't allowed to wrestle each other, and the limitations showed in their performance.

 

I think some of this can be seen in the overall fight styles of many Thai female fighters, a lack of opportunity of experience, due to cultural beliefs. For instance some female Thai fighters can really struggle with western aggressive, punching attacks, just because they have trained differently, not "trained like a man", so to speak, sparring hard. There could be a valid generalization there. But, where you can really see it is in clinch among Thai female fighters (which parallels your story about wrestling in Poland). There are serious cultural issues with females and males being physically proximate, especially as adolescence sets in, so lots of Thai female fighters are not very strong in clinch, despite being from the land of the best clinch technique in the world. They don't clinch with the boys. And even if they do, it's not the same pedagogy of focus. Sylvie's growth came specifically from that opportunity, clinching like a Thai boy. There are some very good female Thai clinch fighters. Loma (world champ), Phetjee Jaa, have incredible technique and timing. But these are rare exceptions. Usually these are females who found themselves training at an early age among boys - for instance Phetjee Jaa trained right along side her brother, who is a pretty awesome clincher. Now, western female fighters generally aren't very strong in the clinch either, but for different reasons, most of it having to do with the limits of clinch instruction in the west (lack of deep knowledge or practice).


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#13
Emma Thomas

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At first, it seems like this coach is being very 'pro-women', but as you read further into the post, it becomes clearer that it's not about all female fighters, it's just about his fighter. This isn't the first time I've heard someone say that Thai girls are forced into fighting, that they aren't strong and that they're basically 'sex slaves'. Whenever I hear this stuff, I think to myself 'how long have these people actually spent in Thailand?' 'Have they ever even been around Thai female fighters?'. I think in his mind, he's making this great statement against sexism, but I'm not sure that he realises that he's dishing out his own form of it at the same time. It's stupid. It doesn't count for much to make this bold statement against sexism in Muay Thai and then shit on all Thai female fighters and the Western women who fight them in the same breath. Then he adds in a nice dig at Sylvie's Go Fund Me for good measure. Nah, fuck this guy.

I do appreciate the part where he said that the fact that something is tradition doesn't mean that it's right. That is something I agree with. He just could have come up with a much less dickish way to say all of that. 


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#14
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My head coach is a westerner, and interestingly he makes me go under the ropes in a fight. We don't have a ring at our gym so I'm not sure if he would still make females go under in a training setting. I'm not sure how I feel about it as a feminist, but I do have deep respect for my coach and my understanding is that it's part of the Thai tradition and he just wants to keep it that way on the night. He definitely has no problem with men and women sparring and clinching together (often regardless of size and experience) and gives equal attention to both sexes when it comes to fight training.


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#15
K. von Duuglas-Ittu

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My head coach is a westerner, and interestingly he makes me go under the ropes in a fight. We don't have a ring at our gym so I'm not sure if he would still make females go under in a training setting. I'm not sure how I feel about it as a feminist, but I do have deep respect for my coach and my understanding is that it's part of the Thai tradition and he just wants to keep it that way on the night. He definitely has no problem with men and women sparring and clinching together (often regardless of size and experience) and gives equal attention to both sexes when it comes to fight training.

 

Interesting! Well, how do you feel about it as a feminist? The preservation of the custom, divorced from the beliefs that produced it, in the west is complex. If it becomes gathered together with other things like the Wai Kru/Ram Muay, prajet, mongkol, they potentially just become ornaments of an Asian culture.


  • threeoaks likes this

All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare. - Spinoza






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