So I went to an escrima seminar recently. And it was pretty awesome. Lots of interesting ideas, lots of very advanced people, fantastic teachers and different techniques and mindsets throughout the hall. And I could talk about stuff learned and things experienced, but to be honest, there are other people who’ll have more technical things to say on this topic in a forum more suited to the task, and besides, physical memory is hard to express in words, so I figured instead I’d try shoe-horning together two of my favourite things… gender and violence.
Let me clarify: this will not be a sociological debate. I’m happy to have that debate on demand, but did I mention that I also hurt all over? Ask me again when my arms aren’t quite so bruised. See: below.
A friend suggested I just start a blog about being a woman who likes her escrima. I am incredibly novice, but that, he argued, was a good thing – it could be something of a ten-year diary. Moreover, while there seem to be a lot of websites dedicated to ‘Kick-Ass-Awesome-Women-Kicking-Ass-.Com!!!’ there isn’t that much (with some honourable exceptions) about how being lighter and weaker than your peers might affect a woman doing martial arts, or indeed about how gender itself redefines expectations of violence. That sentence felt like a mouthful to write… but blimey, it’s a lot more than a mouthful once you stop and think about it.
But rather than plough straight in, let’s start with something basic – some of the boys in the seminar I attended really didn’t like the idea of hitting a girl. Bless ’em. Because I had no problem hitting them.
Two reasons why I had no problem hitting the many, many boys – a lot of them shaven-headed Germans with a significant amount more weight and muscle density than me – at this seminar:
1. I trust in my fellows to get out of the way. Simple fact – if they’re good enough, and these guys clearly were, they should be able to move. I confess, this attitude is… not exactly dented, but judiciously measured when fighting with sticks, as even a suppressed shot off a stick could seriously hurt someone. Thankfully, one the many things unarmed combat demonstrates its that really, I’m happy to go for the throat. (Though curiously, not the testicles, despite the several occasions when I found one arm locked behind my back and the other considering its limited tactical options and finding that one exceedingly tempting… I guess the argument is that in training a throat could be merely mildly strangled in the interests of making a tactical point, whereas testicles can only really be severely crushed.)
2. If the people I train with aren’t okay being hit by a girl, and a fairly chipper one at that, then when someone who actually is determined to hit them, hits them, they’re gonna be in for a right shock. And visa versa.
To put it another way: it’s really good to train with someone who’s actually prepared to hit you, so long as they have control and awareness. In my class, the boys are generally all completely fine with hitting me, owing to the fact that they’ve met me. Although even then, I will occasionally spar with my teachers, and the shock of suddenly finding yourself against someone who’s not only prepared to hit you, but to actually wollop you with power, makes my defense shaky indeed.
Then comes the scary thought: what if I’m training wrong? What if, without my noticing it, people are deliberately pulling their punches or aiming wide around me, and I’m so used to this now that I don’t even spot it happening? This would be something of a disaster for me in the long-term, as it essentially means I’m training errors into my brain.
I doubt that this is the case, owing as mentioned before to my classmates having met me, and my teachers (who I love and respect hugely) being excellent. But attending a seminar where I could feel strangers – boys – (they might prefer the term ‘men’ but to be honest, that’s a weighed word that needs further testing) – pulling their punches at the thought of my feminine wiles, rather than upon testing my actual limited ability – reminded me of this potential gender trap.
Indeed, when talking with a work colleague, he admitted that, despite training extensively in kick-boxing, he can’t bring himself to hit a girl.
“What, even when she’s attacking you?”
“But… if she’s attacking you?”
“I just can’t do it! I just can’t!”
In fairness, this individual is both charmingly old-fashioned and just one of the nicest men alive, but I was still astonished that, even when faced with violence from a woman, he couldn’t bring himself to strike back.
And make no mistake! This is fine. This is absolutely fine. I do not learn escrima because I want to beat anyone up, or indeed because I’m too concerned about being attacked myself. I learn it because it is an incredible and enjoyable skill, and yes, if one day it saves my life then hurrah. But actually using a martial art to defend myself is right down the bottom of skills I’d use in daily life. At least a dozen layers of ingrained ‘how to avoid the fight’ lie between me and that moment of conflict, and should I ever find myself using escrima on the street, I’ll account myself something of a loon to have wound up in that predicament.
I wish that more men had the noble instinct of my colleague in refusing to even think about hitting a women. But then, I also wish for that next step beyond – that having established rule 101 – don’t punch women – or men – or anyone! – we also establish rule 102: that if a woman chooses to fight, chooses to spar, chooses to learn a martial art and engage with you, then gender be damned. I am no wilting flower that needs a chivalrous man to protect me. If I am putting myself in the firing line, I do so deliberately, and it is as fellow novice in the realm of martial arts that I will attack you, and you will attack me, and the rest is merely anatomy. Perhaps, because of my size and strength, you must adapt when you fight with me, but I assure you (large German men with shaven heads, I assure you particularly) I am trying to adapt just as rapidly to fight you. Do us both a favour: give me proper punches. We can all learn something from the experience.