Stories of The Bottom Rope
I’ve written about the bottom rope before (articles at bottom) and this is my response to it coming up again recently. Interestingly, it was reintroduced by an American coach who was saying that his female fighters have always and will always go over the top rope, even in Thailand. Unfortunately, he had some other things to say about why he encourages his fighters to disregard this custom that, to me, smack of a particular racism and sexism that fantasizes about the exploited Thai female body that wasn’t something I could get behind.
Firstly, a lot of people in the west are simply unaware that women in Thailand, whether Thai or otherwise, have to enter the ring for fights by stooping under the bottom rope. Men go over the top rope. Since this is something that a lot of folks don’t know, I’ll give a very quick recap of the usual reasoning as to why this is a thing at all: in Thailand some rings are protected by spirits and there may be amulets or blessings marked around the ring. When you wear a mongkol on your head, there may be amulets inside it or you can just think of it as a protective piece itself, and so nothing should pass over that – a rope, for example, as it might hinder the protective magic. Therefore, men go over the top rope so that nothing passes over the mongkol. (When male fighters exit the ring, some go over the top rope again but many will slip through the middle ropes; since they’re not wearing the mongkol after the fight, this is a non-issue.) Women, however, because we menstruate as a fact of our life path – meaning it doesn’t matter if you are currently menstruating, if you no longer menstruate, or if you are too young to have started even as a child, it only matters that your body can at some point – our bodies are seen to be potentially hazardous to the same magic/blessings that protect the ring. So women can’t pass over that top rope because there might be amulets or blessings that would be level with the woman’s body and be damaged by that. So women are instructed to go under the bottom rope. As such, we cannot wear our mongkol while entering the ring and it’s placed on our heads once we are already in. The mongkol ought not pass under any ropes, but we must pass under all of them. Note: there is nothing in the logic of magic that proscribes that women cannot enter through the middle ropes – which would still be beneath any amulets or blessing – but the custom has developed into a kind of vague of the-lower-the-better rule with very few people even thinking about why. And at National stadia, women are barred from even touching the ring lest they be menstruating at the time – how could anyone other than herself know? – and they unleash their corrupting powers upon magic protections. The belief is, at it’s base and source, a belief that women are unclean or polluting.
Before I go any further, let me make myself clear. I am a Feminist, but I am not without my complexities. I am also a traditionalist in many ways. I value tradition. I value Thai culture, and in general I work to follow and preserve it. And with some contradiction also feel myself drawn to some of these very gendered distinctions. The bottom rope custom though, for me, is essentially grounded in the believed polluting quality of women, that the mere presence of women can make you (men) sick, or bring bad luck; neither of these are something I support. The stories below are my way of talking around the bottom rope, and hopefully making some of its aspects more clear.
How do Women Feel About That?
I appear to be in the minority when it comes to taking issue with this practice. Thai women, culturally, wouldn’t voice disagreement to something like this, although privately some admit they’d prefer to slip between the ropes rather than under all of them. And some Thai women defend the custom, saying it’s “polite,” and feel it is proper; and most western women simply brush it off as something they don’t care about at all. “I don’t care how I get into the ring, I’m just there to fight,” appears to be a repeated sentiment.
So why do I care? Because I think about it. For a lot of non-Thai women training in Thailand the issue of the rope doesn’t come up very often. It’s something they only experience when getting into the ring to fight, not something that they do at their own gyms or something that impacts training. So it doesn’t take up a lot of mental real estate. I’ve been in Thai gyms where women have to enter the ring under the ropes, as was the case at O. Meekhun where Phetjee Jaa lives/trains, a ring I trained in for a year. That ring isn’t blessed, I can almost be positive, and there are no shrines around the ring. So the practice is kept there because of custom without any of the customary articles that make it relevant. So, I might be more sensitive to the rope issue and think about it more than other women do because I had far more exposure to its meanings and consequences. Perhaps most impactfully, I spent the first 2.5 years of training in Thailand at the Lanna Muay Thai camp in the northern province of Chiang Mai, which is a simultaneously conservative and very western-friendly area. So the gym was at once not traditional and yet it kept a separate ring that was Men Only and was, indeed, about 6 inches higher than the ring that women were allowed to enter for training. Dogs could go in there, but women couldn’t.
The story behind the imposition of this custom is that in the beginning Lanna had only one ring, and that an early female westerner there, an English woman who was a student at Chiang Mai University, used to be taken into the ring by the trainer Taywin for padwork. But not long after she started training in the ring “all the boxers,” presumably Thai boys, got sick. It was blamed on her having entered the ring. From that point forward the ring was designated off-limits to women, even to Pom, the Thai wife of Andy and co-owner of the gym, when she trained for a fight back in the day. Eventually a second ring was built so there would be a ring where women could train, but the Thai boxers wouldn’t train there at all, presumably for fear of getting sick or otherwise negatively affected. Over much time the Thai boys forgot about the difference and began training in either ring, but the Men Only ring retained a kind of “fighter’s ring” designation in vestigial belief, and it was probably for that reason that “real” fight work like sparring and clinching at Lanna remained focused inside that ring. But men regularly used the “women allowed” ring with absolutely no issue, making the need for a Men Only ring both moot and forgotten in a general sense. In a practical sense the separate Men Only ring only served to keep women out of it, and the men were exposing themselves to whatever dangers there were in the co-ed ring on more or less a regular basis.
Because few serious women trained at the gym regularly, at least while I was there, the issue of it being a Men Only ring only came up when a day-tripper would unknowingly climb up the stairs to the ring looking for padwork or trying to snap photos of their boyfriend in the ring. One of the trainers would holler and make a big to-do about getting her off the ring and explaining in two or three words “no! No lady!” that women weren’t allowed to be on that ring. There appeared to be a “5-second rule” much like dropped food on the ground, which was that if you got the offending woman off the ring fast enough you could just carry on without any damage having been done. But there were no signs, no real explanation. As such, the omission of women from that ring was just a quiet fact that nobody – other than me – had to think about. Western men didn’t have to think about it because they had free access and might not ever notice that no women go in there, and most women didn’t have to think about it because they were just directed into the co-ed ring to begin with.
I thought about it a lot because my lack of access to that ring meant a lack of access to training. My husband recently wrote about his view of me and that ring. I don’t care about going into that ring in particular, but missing out on clinching and sparring because that’s where it’s taking place meant that my omission from that ring in particular was costly to me. Because I saw men who were just burning off some calories between beer-chugging sessions getting better training than me on a daily basis, the connection between the limits put on me as a female fighter and what spaces I can and cannot occupy was very keen. Western men after a session would say: “Why didn’t you spar with us Sylvie?” And I would say, to their disbelief, “I’m not allowed in that ring”. They had no idea, and without exception they would call bullshit. Going under the bottom rope and being banned from some rings entirely is a correlation I have been aware of from frequent confrontation with it.
It should be considered that the bottom rope prescription could have grown up as a compromise with the magical/pollution problem of women entering the ring while menstruating. The problem is one of detection. One simply cannot tell not if a woman is menstruating, you are simply relying on her word and self-policing. If you are going to have women entering blessed rings at all there is a substantial fear/risk that they could do so while menstruating, or even that menstruation might begin during her presence in that space. This is simply unavoidable. I suspect as well that the reason why women cannot even touch the Lumpinee ring (especially with unbelieving tourists around), is that one could never tell if any were on their period, it is impossible to police and foreign women who aren’t familiar with the custom might not self-regulate at all. I suspect that the bottom rope custom grew as a compromise with this more absolute fear. It in no way solves the problem, but it makes a kind of visual, extreme bow to the problem. It perhaps is for this reason that women are not granted the middle ropes, even though the middle ropes would not disturb any top rope amulets or powers.
Some western men who have moderate experience with Thailand and feel themselves to be the keepers of Muay Thai tradition like to tell me (and any woman who questions the rope issue) that I’m being disrespectful and I should just follow tradition. I in fact do. And to be accurate, I would say it’s a custom, not a tradition. I’ve gone under the rope out of respect to the custom more times than any other westerner, more than 100 times. I don’t mutter under my breath or feel demeaned every single time I do it. But I also don’t believe that these very same western men would be enthusiastically ducking under the ropes if it was determined, for instance, that all foreign men (along with all women) had to go under, while Thai men go over. A demarcation of their not-a-Thai-man status would not be, I imagine, a welcome thing and especially so if the reason was that foreign men were deemed polluting or unclean. But, let’s for arguments’ sake say that I’m being disrespectful to even raise questions about a custom that is otherwise embraced by everyone but me, a custom I take issue with simply for the fact of my being a westerner with my unpleasant western feminism. Well, I trained for over a year with the female Thai phenom Phetjee Jaa at her family gym in Pattaya. The gym is herself, her brother Mawin (also a fighter) and her parents. Jee Jaa is consistently the only female at the gym and as such she’s the only one going under the bottom rope to get into the ring for training. The family is very much not observant of the belief systems that dictate the practice of going under the ropes – the ring is not blessed, as mentioned there are no offerings to spirits, no amulets – but they uphold this custom I sense because it’s kind of “high brow.” Interestingly, I once saw Phetjee Jaa’s father dramatically stop a child from handing a baby – literally an infant – over the ropes to someone inside and asked, “is that a boy or a girl?” He couldn’t tell, because it was an infant, and at this point in a child’s development there is no practical (polluting, magic) danger of upsetting the ring in the sense of why women supposedly can’t go over the ropes – which, perhaps shows his lack of awareness of why this is a custom at all. And then in the next breath he complained to me at length about how “Thailand is no good for women fighters,” because Jee Jaa couldn’t fight boys anymore and basically had no profitable future in the sport. He seemed to miss entirely that the custom of the ropes is the same custom that keeps her out of the esteemed national stadia in Bangkok. For her part, I witnessed Jee Jaa slip between the ropes instead of under them after a quick glance-around on more than one occasion. Would these western men accuse Phetjee Jaa of trying to ruin Thai culture and tradition in this secret act of resistance? By doing this in secret, she is not making a statement. Still, I don’t have the balls to break this rule, even when I’m alone at the gym and literally nobody else is around. How many other Thai women do though?
If you want to know just how good your unknown Thai opponent is, see if her hands touch the canvas when she gets into the ring. Fighters who have entered the ring countless times with a sensitivity to their dignity will not touch the canvas when they stoop, and sometimes not even their knees. Touching the ground means you are down. If she doesn’t touch the canvas there is a good chance she really knows how to fight.
Politeness and Femininity
On many occasions I have had to be the one to enforce the under the rope rule – I’m largely a very polite person. Not every single Thai person is consciously aware of the rule, including promoters and famous fighters. I’ve had to tell even men who have known me for years to not put my mongkol on yet because I have to go under the ropes to get in, and usually they say, “oh yeah, I forgot.” It is, like the fact of a male ring where they’re free to go, somewhat forgettable that women don’t just do the same things. My current gym, Petchrungruang, is pretty traditional. Pi Nu and his father Bamrung, who founded the gym, are some of the most observant Buddhists I’ve ever met. I’ve seen Pi Nu go to temple between fights on a card. And, over the years there have been only a few women seriously training at the gym, even though Bamrung and Pi Nu are some of the most pro-female fighter fellows I can think of. Phetjee Jaa and her family even lived at the gym and trained there twice per day for about 2 years. And so, as a pretty conservative and traditional family gym, I asked Pi Nu about the bottom rope and why women aren’t asked to enter the practice ring beneath it. He kind of shrugged, saying that they used to make women go under but then they just stopped bothering. Like, they got lazy about it. Unlike the ring where Jee Jaa’s family trains now, the Phetrungruang rings are blessed and have shrines on the corners, as well as fresh offerings to the spirits on a frequent basis. I don’t go over the top ropes, but I and most of the boys just slip through the middle. It’s easy to not think about it. But when I asked Pi Nu about women being barred from the national stadia, his conservative views came out in a strong, “noooo, women cannot.” It wasn’t a question at all, because that’s how it’s always been. And it made me realize something about the gradation of tradition and custom in Thailand.
A lot of people are familiar with the Thai preoccupation with feet. Feet are low and dirty and profane, the head is high and clean and holy. So, don’t point your feet at people, don’t move things with your feet, and don’t put things that go on your feet (like socks) in proximity to the head (like high up on a clothes line; just hang them low). I’ve experienced unexpected people being hard-core about the foot thing, when I had my gloves on and tried to pull Vaseline out of my bag with my foot and a food vender chastized me. On the other hand, I’ve also seen how in the everyday practice of Thai boys lying all over each other in the ring, kicking each other in the face with their feet or pointing their feet at each other is no problem at all. It’s context. In places where you should be polite, on your best behavior, there are greater restrictions: at temple, for example, you keep your feet tucked behind you and away from images of the Buddha. If you’re hanging out with your bros in the back of a truck on the long drive to wherever, you can get away with pointing your feet right at your buddy’s face and nobody cares. It’s people being “loosely” impolite, not grievously impolite. But at places where you should be polite, like Temple or around elders, you need to be on your best manners. So you might have your elbows on the table at home all the time, but remember not to do it when you’re out to dinner with your grandma. It’s the same with this rule, somewhat. At PRR, which is a quite traditional family, women don’t have to go under the bottom rope (anymore) but Pi Nu defends the no women at Lumpinee deal because that’s a National Stadium… it’s where you would uphold the best manners. And the bottom rope is overkill anyway, you can uphold the same rule without making women crawl under, just don’t go over the top. It’s not really tradition, it’s custom. And custom is about politeness.
There is something to be said about women who embrace this custom. There are western women who “don’t care,” there are Thai women who do, and there are Thai women who will defend the practice of going under the bottom rope as what is right. I don’t know that I can fully unpack this, as it’s not my culture or my history, but from where I stand this is how I understand, and appreciate, this stance:
In nearly every culture on the planet, femininity is linked with politeness. My friend Yodying is one of the most prolific female Thai fighters I’ve ever encountered, with over 200 fights, and she’s also one of the most observant Buddhists as well. When I asked her how she felt about going under the ropes she was adamant that this is what women do, this is what’s right. I assume she sees it as lowering herself to the spirits that protect the ring, the amulets and powers that surround it. I do exactly this when I kneel next to the ladder before getting into the ring at every fight, but Yodying, I believe, sees it as an extension of that process. She does not see it as that men are not prostrating themselves, she just sees it as that men and women are different, so the process is different. For her, going under the ropes is being polite, which I think is also how a well-known female Thai fighter who said “if you don’t like it, don’t fight” sees it; it’s a form of expressing and practicing femininity within fighting. It’s part of being a good woman. (This is made more interesting by the fact that Yodying is a Tom and dons many typically male attributes, so adhering to this feminine conduct is a bit unexpected.) This expectation of women to be more consistently polite exists in a lot of cultures. Women are the keepers of more conservative values, and how women act in formal contexts are some of the last things to change. This is not to say that all Thai female fighters do not feel demeaned by the act. This female Thai boxer below pleads to be allowed to pass at least over the bottom rope, ie between ropes:
We from the west invested in Thailand need to remember that any culture is not homogeneous, either in beliefs or practices, or in values. Thailand does not have “a” feminism as I have heard expressed by some, but feminisms, an array of beliefs and values that sometimes might be in conflict with each other and varied by community. Thailand does not have “a” tradition, or singular custom, but a vast complex of beliefs and practices and nearly an infinite number of ways of applying them. Thailand is not monolithic. And Thailand is changing. Not long ago a woman could not even touch a mongkol without the fear of polluting its magic. Today they regularly wear them in the ring.
Who Told You?
About a year ago Kaensak Sor. Ploenjit, one of the all-time great Muay Thai fighters of Thailand and current trainer at AMA in New Jersey, USA, when visiting Thailand again cornered for me at a fight in Hua Hin. I’ve known Kaensak for five years now and trained with him for about a year before first moving to Thailand in 2012. The man grew up in Muay Thai and has made a life of it. He was twice Fighter of the Year in Thailand, a feat rarely achieved, and is one of the most famous names in Muay Thai in his generation. He’s been in the US for several years now and has many female students, including fighters, but I don’t know that he’s ever cornered a female fighter in Thailand.
So we are at Grand Boxing Stadium in the sea-side town. Kaensak wrapped my hands, did my oil massage with absolutely no awkwardness about it (it’s uncomfortable for some grown men, because it’s slightly inappropriate behavior to touch a woman in public like this, despite the context) – he was just getting his fighter ready, nothing more…and he then tried to put my mongkol on. I told him I had to get into the ring first and couldn’t wear the mongkol while doing so because I have to go under the ropes. He looked incredulous, like he’d literally never heard this before. “Who told you?” he asked me. Ummm, the last three years of fighting in Thailand. He looked to Karuhat, also an absolute legend of the same time in Muay history with Kaensak and his good friend who was helping with my corner. Karuhat didn’t look up from his phone, just kind of affirmed that it was a thing. Kaensak was in such disbelief about it that he made me wait until my opponent had gotten into the ring and he’d actually witnessed her going under the ropes before he decided he’d go along with it.
It’s not shocking to me that Kaensak didn’t know. If you’ve never dealt with a female fighter in Thailand before, it might totally be off the radar. What was interesting about his response was that he resisted it, rather than just responding with, “oh, I didn’t know that.” He resisted it because I was representing him, I was his student in the ring and he was in my corner. Going under the ropes did not read to him as a neutral, oh, that’s just how women get into the ring, kind of thing; rather, he responded in exactly the way he would if a man had told him he had to crawl under the ropes. It was along the lines of, “the fuck you say?” Because a man going under the ropes would look… incredible. Not, for Kaensak, because that’s how women get in (because he didn’t know this), but because it’s humiliating to crawl into a ring in the context of Thailand’s nearly universal aesthetic where high symbolizes being pure and holy and low being base and profane. Who or what is visually above or below is of great importance in Thai representations. He did not want me crawling into the ring.
The IFMA and the Vision of Stephan Fox
I was pretty taken by my meeting with IFMA president Stephan Fox in Bangkok – a Conversation with Stephan Fox Changed How I Feel About the IFMA – a few months ago I was sitting in his sun-lit office with his awards and memorabilia of decades of life of Thailand’s Muay Thai surrounding us on every shelf, listening to his rapid-fire passionate vision of an International Muaythai (IFMA spells it as a single word). For those that don’t know, Stephan Fox and the IFMA, which has been holding international amateur World Championships for a very long time now, are spearheading a drive to make Muaythai an Olympic sport. But as he explained to me, it is much more than this. It is about creating an international stage, a program and a knowledge base in Muay that will allow it to be embraced by cultures all over the world, and a stage on which Thailand’s wonderful fighters can perform equally against others. The one thing that surprised me the most was the intense passion with which Stephan Fox talked about the bottom rope custom, and the wider superstition by which Thai men do not want to fight in the same rings as those women fought in (again, the menstruation taboo). “Come on now! It’s the 21st Century!” he boomed, telling the story of Thai male fighters who protested that they would not fight in a ring that women fought in. Some top Thai names. “Okay then, don’t fight!” he told them. Don’t be a part of the march towards modern, international fighting. (The men immediately gave in, when given the choice to share ring space with women or just not fight at all.) I’ve never met a man who was so forthright and knowledgeably against the bottom rope. In fact he talked about how the IFMA’s actually made it against the rules to enter under the bottom rope, even though Thai women technically break this rule when they do so from habit or self-enforcement. For Stephan Fox Thai customs are meaningful, but they cannot stand in the way of more common international concepts of equality and fairness. If the Thais want to be a part of the huge international growth of the sport they will have to adapt, fighting in rings women have entered.
As a feminist I defend the right of any Thai female fighter to enter the ring under the bottom rope, if this meant paying homage to her heritage and culture. Stephan Fox also brought up another women’s rights issue within the IFMA: Can women fight with a hijab? There are those that feel that the hijab is linked to much wider issues of the control of female bodies and non-equality, and on the other hand there are those that feel that it would be simply wrong to force women to fight without one, if they chose to (or even if their fighting depended on) wearing one. He urged that in cases like these we must find ways for both sides to reach across and shake hands. And, in fact, the IFMA found compromise by stipulating that the hijab must be white in color (like those above), so that any cuts can be detected if there’s blood. This is how I feel about the bottom rope. I would defend a Thai fighter’s right to enter the ring in this ceremonial way, just as I would defend the right of a woman of Islam to fight with a hijab. But this does not mean that either practice is immune from critique and I defend these as choices.
Khatoey – The 3rd Gender and the Rope
I do not have a lot of examples of Khatoey (“ladyboy”) fighters at my disposal. There may be more frequent fights down on the Islands or at bars that could exhibit a difference in behavior, but my first experience was with the most famed Khatoey fighter, “The Beautiful Boxer,” Nong Toom. She’s had very few fights since transitioning from a fully male-bodied fighter to now fully female-bodied. When she enters the ring to fight, however, she goes over the top rope. This means that a person who dedicated their life to living by as many female signals as they can, becoming rightfully a woman in every sense of the word that is possible for them, still choose to scale the ropes when entering a fight. I’m not sure what it meant to her, but Nong Toom could have easily been more “feminine” by entering under the bottom rope. Instead she chooses not to lower herself. When Angie, a kathoey fighter who trains at Petchrungruang, was preparing for her first fight I was tasked by my trainer to teach her a Ram Muay. She didn’t like mine, as it’s not feminine, so she watched the one Nong Toom does and learned that one. But none of the men of the gym knew whether she should go under the ropes or over. Angie has not fully transitioned with her surgeries, but she has breasts and has been living as a woman for over 10 years. What was odd, to me, was that the Thai men of the gym asked me what she should do. This is fucking mind-boggling to me. I’m younger than all of them, so I’m not an authority; I’m also not Thai, so my cultural references are arguably far more limited in scope; and I’m a woman, which is not generally the demographic that is in charge of doling out the rules on this kind of thing. I was, weirdly, the most informed out of all of us and was able to reference Nong Toom, saying she goes over. And so it was decided that Angie would go over, too. These are not categorical things, grounded in hundreds of years of tradition. In fact much of the time the “rule” is followed in ad hoc kind of way.
Nong Toom, post-reassignment surgery entering the ring
Here’s the thing: most people who know and enforce this rule aren’t very well informed on it. They don’t particularly know why it’s a rule or what the functions are, so when a wildcard comes up – like someone who was born a man but looks, lives, and identifies as a woman – they don’t know how to reason it out. I reckon that if I hadn’t been around with the Nong Toom reference they may have erred on the side of caution and had her go under, because you wouldn’t want to be too liberal. However, even though Nong Toom and Angie completely identify and live as women, because they are not required to go under, they don’t. Despite Khatoey making great efforts to always mark themselves with the gender of their identity, these two Khatoey have chosen – given that they actually can pick between the two methods – not to go under. Because this is not just a flat, unloaded, unmeaningful variation in how one gets into the ring.
Amulets, Power, and Reserved for Men
The other day Kevin and I were in an amulet shop to have a case put on a Pra Khunpaen amulet. We sat at this back table where the guy who fits cases works (he is amazing at what he does) and another man who was hanging out at the shop came over to inspect what we had going on. This is how you do in these shops which are filled with glass cases of amulets, literally thousands of them, where vendors and collectors hang out very causally throughout an afternoon, and talk amulets and other things. Amulets are largely in the world of men. Women are sometimes given amulets by men who care about them (fathers, or romantic interests) for protection, but the majority of amulet interest, collection, and wearing is done by men. And it’s a culture to itself. Men who wear amulets also take great interest in what amulets others are wearing. Pi Nu’s father, Bamrung, wears a crazy impressive chain of amulets. There are three on there and the biggest one is the size of my palm. Bamrung saw the chain around Kevin’s neck once and wanted to see what amulets he had going on (Kevin’s are quite unusual: wasps and an axe), which I’ve noted as a common request between men who wear amulets. I reckon it’s like checking out each other’s tattoos or the engine of cars or what custom designs you have on your motorcycle… more than a hobby. At this amulet shop full of amulets, the guys who hang out there all day are a type; they’re older, they’re very manly, and able to geek out at any moment.
So this guy who comes over to see what we had going on is peering over the shoulder of the man who does the cases. He sees it’s a Pra Khunpaen and, interestingly, assumes it’s my amulet. This is weird only because Kevin is sitting right there, so it was actually a stretch to assume it was mine. In the past I’ve been actually wearing my amulet and had a man laugh and tell me that Khunpaen is for men, not women. So I wasn’t surprised when this man said it to me as well. What was kind of sweet was that he balled his hands together, as if he were holding something precious and kind of pulled them into his chest as he said Khunpaen is reserved for men. Like it was something precious and special that men had for themselves. Khunpaen is kind of the Thai uber Man of legend. He’s part undefeated warrior, part warlock, and all Don Juan. I smiled back at him and said (in Thai) that I know it’s a man’s amulet, but I’m a nakmuay. His face totally changed and he kind of said, “Oh! Alright then!” The guy who was fitting the case peered over his eyeglasses at the other man and added, “she’s a champion.”
Here’s the thing about this: I understand why Khunpaen is a man’s thing, the super charming, magician-sorcerer-warrior-lover, the ultimate man. He’s Thai masculinity incarnate. So, the purpose of a Khunpaen amulet is to harness and strengthen that male energy, and the thought of a woman wearing it is kind of silly, because women aren’t men. It would be like a lady taking some kind of magical erection-enhancing medicine, to be crude about it. But that’s not all that Khunpaen amulets are, because the elements of masculinity that make him so potent are also applicable to the expressions of masculinity that make Muay what it is. So, telling this guy, “yeah, I know that’s meant to make men really masculine, but I’m a fighter,” made him reconsider his objection. He grew at ease with it, immediately, and to my amulet case maker it was all obvious. This is just an anecdote but it’s a valuable one because it goes to show that context can be powerful. I don’t know that this guy is going to have a different view of life or gender or the power of amulets from this conversation, but he was willing in that moment to consider that the powers we were discussing, which are reserved for men, can have value and relevance to a woman as well. I see this as a very important moment of flexibility, especially given the connection to the powers that protect the ring being the same. Perhaps there’s room for it to be considered that these powers and protections in the ring are not only for men.
A Level Playing Field
There seems to be great push-back against women being equal to men because it implies to some people that women are trying to be men. I reckon opposition to that comes fairly from both sides of the gender divide. Interestingly, a current topic in western Feminism is refocusing emphasis not on bringing women into the boardrooms and CEO positions that are largely occupied by men or putting women in traditionally male roles, but putting great effort into making it acceptable, and culturally valuable, for men to do traditionally female things: child-care, taking care of the household, etc. By removing the stigma of “women’s work”, the gates to equality are opened more widely for everyone. This particular path in Feminism feels appropriate to this discussion about the rope. For the women who don’t feel bothered by it, I’m happy that they don’t. However, because it has greater meaning than just how one gets into the ring for fighting, I reckon it’s worth discussing. When western men criticize women who oppose the bottom rope one might consider simply that if these men were told to go under the rope, they wouldn’t like it. And Thai men wouldn’t do it. As I mentioned above, imagine if only western men had to go under (as well as women), whereas Thai men went over. I don’t think western men would dig it, only because you could piece together that it was expressing a difference that wasn’t respectful to your person (western men certainly complain a lot about the difference in Thai and “farang” prices/costs in Thailand). I understand that western women don’t care how they get into the ring and their refrain that “I’m just focused on the fight,” but I also reckon that some of these women have not paid attention to the larger ramifications of this inequality. Because of my experience at Lanna, I saw complete muppets get better training and have access to training that I didn’t, for no reason other than that they are men. And if the valued members of a culture will not do what you are being asked to do, it’s not a huge stretch to understand that it’s a mark of social position, and one that can be costly in terms of access to opportunity.
I also appreciate that women who embrace going under the bottom rope as simply being the way a woman behaves is a reasonable consideration. When I was living in the North, which is more conservative than where I am now in Pattaya, I observed many limitations to proper female etiquette that have stuck with me even after the move. It’s impolite for women to lift their legs into the air (part of what might make going over the rope a very un-ladylike thing to do, although clearly it can be figured out how to do it more politely), so certain kinds of abdominal exercises were off the table in the North while anybody else was around. This is easy enough for me to deal with, as much as it’s bothersome that it’s a somewhat meaningless limitation and I still refrain from many of these positions, even in the more liberal atmosphere of Pattaya. But if that very same limitation kept me from being able to do something that meant a great deal to me, like how the same customs that dictate a woman going under the ropes also keep women from fighting at the National Stadia, it becomes much harder to accept.
And to those western men who rally around the sanctity of Lumpinee and Rajadamnern as traditionally male spaces that shall never be corrupted by the presence of women in their rings, I will certainly admit that there is a romance to keeping these places as we imagine and remember them to be: formal presentations of the best Muay Thai in the country. But just because there is a romance does not make it “right”, especially when some of that romance is based on a sexist view of female anatomy and its pollution. Consider the fact that now western men can fight at these top stadia even with little or no skill – read Anyone can fight at Lumpinee, I know of a man who fought his first Muay Thai fight at Rajadamnern for instance, almost as a beginner. This means that much less skilled western men can fight in those spaces which some of the best Thai female fighters can never fight in, simply as men.
For those that doubt that the bottom rope tradition is linked to the real segregation of women, cutting them off from opportunity, I’d like to talk about MAX Muay Thai. For those that don’t know, MAX is a popular weekly nationally televised Muay Thai program based here in Pattaya, which also puts on Muay Thai fights every day of the week (not televised). MAX Muay Thai, especially the broadcast version, has made a point to actually undermine or reverse traditional Muay Thai. They give out a rule-set that tells fighters that if they fight in a Thai style (for instance in retreat when they have a lead), they will flat out lose. It has developed into about as un-traditional a Muay Thai show as can be, pushing for western style aggression in all things, caring little for the integrity of technique or art, falling down techniques and size mismatches everywhere, even giving out “entertainment” money bonuses after every fight, based solely on aggression. But women are not allowed to fight there. I and my opponent then, Muangsingjiew, in fact, are the last and only female fighters to have fought in the new stadium, now over a year ago (1/2015). The MAX show, in order to preserve the impression of being high-brow and traditional, likely because it was becoming so un-traditional in other aspects, then made a rule that no women, no matter their skill, would fight on the show. This is not just the televised show, this is all the shows during the week – shows featuring very minor talent. In fact, when they made this rule they decided that no women would fight, and no children would fight either (also no women and kids in the staging area, to be like the National Stadia in Bangkok). But because they had such a hard time filling the cards during the week they eventually changed their minds about children on the cards. Now women, even less desirable than children, are the only class of fighters barred from the ring.
I live about 10 minutes from this ring. My gym regularly provides fighters for the MAX shows. Kids from the gym fight on the show, and pretty much any western male can fight on MAX, regardless of skill – for very good money. Literally, a western guy can come to the gym, probably having never fought, and have a fight booked at MAX (during the week) within a day or two, while I with my numerous fights am barred from the ring, and more importantly, so are many other very worthy Thai female fighters in the region. Basically this is a completely sexist distinction, supposedly grounded in “tradition”, awarding freedoms to western men, solely based on their gender, which are denied of women (both western and Thai) who might be far more devoted and accomplished in the sport. Instead of fighting 10 minutes from my apartment I find myself taking great expense and traveling thousands of kilometers, so I can fight in other parts of the country, in rings that do not bar my gender. Phetjee Jaa, the absolute phenom female Thai fighter who is 14 now, was raised in Pattaya. She is the gem of the city, the whole country is proud of her, but she’s barred from fighting in this Pattaya ring, while western men pile into the ring and face at times ridiculous matchups, just for the sake of selling some tickets and giving the impression of tradition. While she keeps sneaking the occasional entry through the ropes during training, a few kilometers from MAX while nobody is looking, I hope that more and more people start to connect the segregation of the bottom rope to much larger inequalities, even those that stretch beyond Muay Thai.
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