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Walk up the River, by Mary Stevens

I had the pleasure of talking to Mary Stevens from the Athena School of Karate on my podcast a few months ago. After a very interesting conversation I asked Mary if she would like to write a guest article for my blog. Mary said yes. True to her word, here we have her ‘walk up the river’ article, which covers a very important subject that is often overlooked and neglected by male instructors. Enjoy! Please find more information about Mary and her work below the article.

‘There comes a time when you need to stop just pulling people out of the river. You need to go upstream, and find out why they’re falling in’ Desmond Tutu.

Les invited me to write a guest blog here and I’m grateful to him for the chance to share some thoughts. When we spoke on his podcast, his commitment to understanding and supporting women in martial arts was very clear. I started my training in 2002: Wado-ryu karate originally and then several years of BJJ to gain some competence on the ground. I’m a full-time professional now, and I describe what I teach as traditional karate with modern self-protection. We can debate the definitions, by all means, however I’d think the majority of Les’s readers will feel fairly comfortable with those parameters. I love a good shuto uke; I think Iain has led a revolution; I list Gavin de Becker and Rory Miller on my dan grade syllabus; and I’m clear on the varied legalities of pre-emptive striking in the context of different countries. Just so we know where we are.

An unexpected side effect of the pandemic has been an increase in the number of conversations I’ve had with people about the value of karate and, in particular, the ongoing scarcity of female instructors. No one has secure data on this but a broad consensus seems to be that about 75-80% of karate instructors are male. Rather like black footballers, even if they make it as a player, they rarely find their way up to management level. So, while we all might sweep the dojo floor, something goes on to polish the glass ceiling as well. If you raise this question, you’ll get a typical range of answers as follows:

‘Girls quit when they are teenagers because they don’t like fighting.’

‘Women quit when they have children because they’re too tired or busy for hobbies.’

‘Guys in my dojo don’t like to partner with women; they feel uncomfortable hitting a woman.’

‘My dojo is 50/50 anyway so I don’t have a problem.’

If you read those statements and agreed with them instinctively then I’ve got great news for you. You can have an impact on progressing gender equality in martial arts if you want to! There’s room for you to make some changes which will make the dojo a fairer and more welcoming place for everyone, not just women.

The problem is not one person, nor is the solution. It’s a collection of the times when a girl doesn’t feel comfortable leaving the line because she’s worried she might be leaking period blood on her gi trousers. She might get through the class and then rush to the toilet, but another time, she’ll save herself the anxiety and avoid training instead. It’s the assumption that a woman with a baby ought to be at home, and will get the chance to catch up with her training later…when the kids have gone to university. It’s the partner work where women feel second best because if they ask for any consideration they’re seen as weak and worthless. It’s the fact that when presented with these points a lot of senseis will automatically knee jerk into disagreeing and pointing out how inclusive their dojo is, or saying one of their female students trains ‘just like the men’ or ‘it’s the same for small men’. Sure. It’s about individuals and individual situations. ‘Remember that when you are on the mat you are not male or female, your ethnicity does not matter and what you work with is no factor, you’re just a kimono.’ Marit Tyssedal Gabrielsen. That’s how it should be, because everyone kicks differently, is built differently, and interacts differently with the people around them.

If you’re listening to your female students, if you’re offering a comfortable environment which doesn’t have the men owning the dojo as a changing space while the women use a dirty toilet…then you’re making a difference. If you are sensitive to suitable size and power pairings, if you understand that grabbing and grappling might trigger traumatic memories for many women and you know how to deal with that…then you’re creating decent training spaces. If you have the guts to stamp on sexist attitudes from the dojo dudes and set an example of openness and trust … then you are rare.

I don’t think we need men to solve the problem of women in martial arts. We need men to solve the problem of men in martial arts. As in women’s self defence (a much longer blog!) it’s time to look at the causes, not the symptoms. Over to you.

Mary Stevens is a practical martial artist, club owner, writer, and charity worker.  My conversation with Mary focusses on the empowerment of women and her charitable work for the Fair Fight project in India and Africa, where she manages Karate teaching.  We also talked about mental health, inclusion, and story telling.  Mary also gives us some insight into creating a world for her Warrior Monkeys book series.

 Please if you can support Mary’s project at the Fair Fight website below.  

I hope that you find this episode inspiring.

Fair Fight

Warrior Monkeys

Athena Karate Club 

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🥋About: Les Bubka is an author, Karate coach, entrepreneur and creator of the #Hikite4ever T-shirt. Promoting inclusive Karate with a focus on mental health aspects of training. Teaching both nationally and internationally.

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