The “Over/Under” – Gender and Privilege in Thailand

Over I’m moving to Thailand in less than a month.  I’m so excited, so joyous and inspired by the realization of this dream that I can barely think of...

Over

I’m moving to Thailand in less than a month.  I’m so excited, so joyous and inspired by the realization of this dream that I can barely think of anything to be nervous about.  As it is, the difference between nervous and excited is attitude and so it is no surprise that nerves hardly play into my Muay Thai path at all anymore.  That said, there are a number of things about training in Thailand that give me pause to consider, although no hesitation to act.

I enjoy a tremendous level of privilege, given my race, nationality, primary language, and class.  As a white person I can travel virtually anywhere; as an American, anywhere I go accommodates my language so I don’t have to be proficient in another (although I make it a point to be); I can afford – through a great deal of effort – to travel; as a small woman I am often protected by strangers and I have a lot of support from my family, friends and most of all my husband; and my youth and the way I look have awarded me access to opportunities for which others might have to struggle.  I am very lucky and I hope to maintain a sense of appreciation and gratitude for what privileges I have, as well as retain a level of humility while taking advantage of them.

So it is not without some self-consciousness that I delve into the potential and in some cases promised difficulties I will face through my disadvantages when heading to Thailand.  As a woman in a male dominated sport, there are areas, facets, and treatments to which I do not have access.  Gender and sexuality in Thailand vs. the west is far too big a topic to even begin unthreading here, but suffice to say that there are complexities involved in being a woman and a foreigner training in a traditional, national and masculine-identified sport.

In traditional Muay Thai practice, the use of amulets and charms for protection and luck in the ring is still widespread.  The orientation of the body and primacy of the head is pronounced.  One must take care to remain respectful within the vast hierarchy and to pay respect to persons and traditions at all times.  The amulets and charms must be respected and honored, including where they are placed and in in what proximity to the head and feet of a person.  As part of this practice, amulets and charms in the ring – used for protection by the fighter – must never fall below the top of the body.  So fighters enter the ring by going over the top rope, never ducking under or down to protect the amulets and keep the head high.  A mongkol – the headpiece worn by fighters during opening Wai Kru/Ram Muay ceremony always goes over the ropes, never through.

Women, however, due to hierarchy and superstition cannot come in contact with some of these charms and in order to be sure that their heads do not go above the amulets and charms (which would revoke their power), women must enter the ring from under the bottom rope.  Not the middle, not over, but underneath the very bottom rope.

This isn’t the biggest problem in the world.  Female fighters receive a level of respect and acceptance in the actual context of fighting in Thailand that I haven’t seen in the west.  I was repeatedly praised for jai dee (showing good heart) in my fights, which is a quality respected in all fighters.  Ultimately, I think the conflict for me is that I can’t just work hard and expect to be recognized and appreciated for it.  It’s the fantasy of the working class that if you just buckle down and work hard enough you will eventually be acknowledged and rewarded for it and in this same way I think it’s the fantasy of the feminist out in the world that through her hard work she will eventually be acknowledged, recognized and accepted on her merits.  Both fantasies are false, no matter how well-intentioned.

It’s a difficult realization because women are not rejected from Muay Thai based on their merit – female fighters are recognized as really good fighters, not “good for a girl.”  So I can’t “earn” my way to the kind of respect and acknowledgement given to a man because I can’t earn my way to being a man.  That’s more how it works in the west – a woman kind of overcomes her malady of being a woman by performing or acting enough like a man to efface her femininity.  Contradictory to this, a kind of heightening of the sexual aspects of femininity are rewarded.  Attractive female fighters are more likely to get publicity, but less likely to get credit for their technical abilities or skills.  A woman boxer or fighter in a gym in the US might do well (intentionally or not) to hype up her sexuality by flirting, wearing tight or strategically exposing clothing that shows off her toned body in a manner that accentuates her objective attractiveness.  By “do well” I mean that she will be encouraged or praised by fellow, male boxers who are excited by a “hot” woman who can kick someone’s ass.  It’s not to say that she is never recognized for her technical abilities, but by and large it’s not the focus of her participation.

And this isn’t purely negative or even experienced as a bad thing.  Boxing and Muay Thai are empowering and that can make you feel sexy.  The kind of flirting in a gym is not incidental and is absolutely charged by the chemistry and social nuances particular to the physical practice of the sport.  But inviting or engaging in that sexual charge necessarily influences the kind of social interaction, perspectives and respect between men and women in a male dominated or oriented sport.  Even the choice not to engage in this kind of interaction has consequences which can have adverse effects.

In Thailand I’m dealing with this same juggling act, but within a gender system and culture which is unfamiliar.  White, western women are perceived as sexually available and loose in Thailand, which is mostly a social misreading between both cultures.  Modesty and the kind of physical proximity involved in training Muay Thai are at odds with one another and the social boundaries between men and women make the interaction of the two sexes in close physical contact while engaging in clinching especially cluttered.  A male fighter traditionally doesn’t touch a woman close to a fight because it’s bad luck and the close body contact in clinching is easily perceived as very uncomfortable by those who adhere to traditional customs and absolutely sexual by those who acknowledge it as a pleasurable crossing of cultural boundaries.

I find myself in a precarious position.  It’s not super easy or comfortable to curb or efface one’s sexuality, especially in unfamiliar cultural or social settings.  I’m married and don’t have interest in creating sexually charged relationships in gyms, whether in Thailand or the US, but playful flirtation is currency in gyms all over the world.  Constantly rejecting flirtation or sexual playfulness, even if it seems innocuous, doesn’t feel good and it sends a “leave me alone” message.  But I don’t want to be left alone.  In fact, I want to be included and accepted, which I worry cannot be achieved through my hard work and dedication to training.  I am, just in the actual fact of my being a woman and a foreigner, an odd one out. I’m fortunate in that I come to this culture as a married woman and, though monogamy and sexual relations in Thai culture are issues too large to even begin here (but Laura Dal Farra wrote a great piece here), the presence of my husband places me in a separate status from a young, single woman in a gym (which is already pushing cultural sexual boundaries).  Out of respect for him boundaries are respected and being a “good” woman who is sexually unavailable through clear and understood cultural modes gives me a nice buffer, but it also categorizes me as the kind of woman who really doesn’t train and fight Muay Thai in traditional Thai gyms.

Under

This is how I see the issue of going under the bottom rope: it illustrates a distinction that is seemingly arbitrary in explanation for why this is the case, but cannot feel arbitrary because there is meaning in how you enter the ring.  A couple months ago I read an article on a bus in Brooklyn which is a public bus, but is largely patroned by an Orthodox Jewish community.  The bus is segregated by sex in order to accommodate cultural practices.  When a non-Orthodox woman boarded the bus and sat down she was instructed to move, told that women ride in the back of the bus.  She refused to move and the Orthodox riders were offended, as was the non-Orthodox woman and the general population of folks who read an article about it later.

Assume this bus was divided down the center and women sat on the right and men on the left.  Being asked to move to the opposite side of the bus, while irritating, is not nearly as offensive because it isn’t historically and politically loaded as being told that your place is the “back of the bus.”  Objectively, it’s arbitrary and doesn’t matter where you sit, what rope you go under or over.  But because it has meaning (even if it’s not meaningful in this particular-to-the-moment context) it must be taken as meaningful, and therein lies the offense.

Making the choice to move to a culture that will present particular and personal challenges is one that requires a great deal of consideration.  There will be times that it is infuriating and my upbringing and disposition are such that I tend to put up my dukes when I’m being boxed in – but it’s not the same thing to fight against being locked out.  And there’s the rub.  I’m meditating on it, getting ready; but if I may offer fair warning: Thailand better also be getting ready for me.

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A 100 lb. (46 kg) female Muay Thai fighter. Originally I trained under Kumron Vaitayanon (Master K) and Kaensak sor. Ploenjit in New Jersey. I then moved to Thailand to train and fight full time in April of 2012, devoting myself to fighting 100 Thai fights, as well as blogging full time. Having surpassed 100, and then 200, becoming the westerner with the most fights in Thailand, in history, my new goal is to fight an impossible 471 times, the historical record for the greatest number of documented professional fights (see western boxer Len Wickwar, circa 1940), and along the way to continue documenting the Muay Thai of Thailand in the Muay Thai Library project: see patreon.com/sylviemuay

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