New Stage Feminism Through Muay Thai? Non-Comparative Struggle

Earlier in the day I had fought on the day reserved for honoring the 18th century Father of Muay Thai, Nai Khanomtom, amid the sacred ruins of the former...

Earlier in the day I had fought on the day reserved for honoring the 18th century Father of Muay Thai, Nai Khanomtom, amid the sacred ruins of the former halcyon capital of Siam, Ayutthaya. I was cut in the fight and bled profusely in late rounds, and the fight came very close to being called off by the ring doctor. As the doctor inspected me, during a timeout forced by the ref for my own good, the fight was held in the balance; with blood streaming down my face, I begged in Thai for the doctor to let me continue: “I can take it! I can endure! I want this.” – I was bouncing up and down to show vitality, that I wasn’t diminished by my cut and the blood, but I could see there came a moment where he began to sigh in doubt… was he going to call it? The fight would be over, I would lose. Then I said the magic words: “I can win,” and I saw in his eyes, right then, that he changed his mind and nodded to the ref, indicating that I could continue.

The hours after a fight can be pretty emotionally raw. Whether you win or lose, it’s like your skin has been peeled away and you’re just this exposed nerve, sensitive to everything. It’s actually a beautiful state to be in, even if it’s not always easy. I was in this state, standing in my cheap hotel room with the phone in one hand and my other hand twisting the clumps of Vaseline out of the hair around the crown of my head, when I got Wing Wong’s message on my Facebook page. I wouldn’t have needed to be in this kind of headspace to be moved by what Wing wrote, but because I was in that state, it overwhelmed me. Her message reached all through me:

Sylvie, I was VERY emotional reading your post winning the fight today. I am not sure whether it was because of the event with its deep historic context, I saw something deeper and larger than Muaythai. It might not be appropriate for me to say something like this, but I honestly think that you’ve reached a new stage/landmark/level (I just can’t find a good word) of feminism, one that is reflected through your journey of muaythai. Along the way you’ve been very aware of your muaythai and its correlation with feminism. Your blog tells us the struggles you’ve had, the challenges you’ve faced, and the battles you’ve fought. No doubt it has left its mark on the long course of Feminism. And today, what I feel was that ‘you did it’! When people out there talk about feminism, it is more about how you can do ‘better than men’ or ‘as good as men’. You’ve passed that. You show the world what you are capable of by how you train and fight. No more ‘evidence’ is needed to prove that. In my opinion, [the] compare and compete approach is not an effective way to ‘do’ or exhibit feminism. If you have to compare, women [are] not treated or considered as an independent being. Although all subjects in the society are interrelated but it just feel[s like] the hand holding the ruler is not fair when we are always compared with men to measure our own achievement.

The reason I was so emotional about your post today, is that I suddenly had this enlightenment that you are just being you, doing what you do, fighting the way you fight…

The reason I was so emotional about your post today, is that I suddenly had this enlightenment that you are just being you, doing what you do, fighting the way you fight, getting a cut and accepting this fact and chose to continue the fight, like the first time I saw you were cut in the Yokkao fight, and you said ‘it’s OK, I’m fine. Let me fight’. And this time the doctor let you continue. Your doing this is NOT to show ‘ I am better than anyone else, especially a man’ you just do this, and you happen to be a woman, and the fact that you’re a woman didn’t affect the doctor to make the call for a stoppage. Of course behind everything it is your resilience and persistence that made this happen. Yet you just didn’t have to force it like how feminism is commonly imaged ‘give 100 ton to me and I can lift it, no problem as I am stronger than a man’. You are doing what you always do and your will is respected. To me that is the ultimate goal of Feminism, at least under the current social structure. No judging by any body, no comparison, no eyebrow raised. I might have wandered too far off, but I remember when I was training at Petch RungRuang in Pattaya, you and us girls go twice a day, morning and the afternoon while some other regulars (mostly guys, not comparing, just stating the facts) go only in the afternoon. We are the Sylvie gang. People might think oh those girls want to prove ‘something’. But in fact we are not! We go twice a day because you do, and it’s necessary for the immersion, it’s good for our training and growth. I think that means something. I think I’ve used up all the English word I know try to express my feeling. I hope it gets delivered. It means all good and no bad/ill will.

There’s a lot here. Where do I begin? For starters, its enough to say that I was blown away by this message. The whole point of putting any of my training online, beginning 7 years ago, was to alter the singularity of what I as experiencing – to allow the possibility of it being about more than just me. My training was very isolated, just one-on-one sessions with Master K in his New Jersey basement more than an hour’s drive from where we lived in New York, Kevin holding the camera for 3-10 minute clips, unedited. We were in a little room in the middle of nowhere. I had no training partners, no peers, no teammates, no gym – just Master K (now in his mid-70s), my husband and a camera. I was literally and figuratively miles from everyone else who might share this experience. Surely there were other people in the world training in Muay Thai, but I had no connection to them. But this became my connection, recording my training and sharing it: sending a satellite into space with no promise that there will be any message back; so imagine how exciting it is when there is a message back. Even, or especially, something as simple as someone saying, “me too.”

145 feminism bloody fight photo - muay Thai fight doctor-001

This, I believe, is the photo Wing Wong was responding to on my Facebook page that day, coming out of my fight with the ring doctor pointing almost proudly at the blood running down my face – a ring doctor who allowed me to keep on fighting despite the blood, to fight and to eventually win against the former World Champion.

The Babel of Comparison

And this experience of connection, for me, is a huge part of what Feminism is, what it means, what it aims to accomplish: it is the construction of “we“, as an experience. Women in the world, in a large and general sense, are isolated. We’re an incredibly social and supportive bunch, but there are endless cultural and social constructs which separate us out – we’re segregated from the “in group” of male privilege, simply by not being men, and then we’re severed from one another by the competition for acceptance and praise from the powers that be. In a way, it’s similar to the story of Babel. Everyone works together to build a tower to reach the Heavens, which isn’t going to fly with the celestial lot, so the tower is knocked over and in the fray languages are confused, tongues twisted, so that there are now thousands of languages and we can’t communicate as easily anymore. “Try working together now,” is the moral of that story. This is the same with women. When we work together, we’re seen as dangerous, so it’s better to scatter us around a little. But there is profound satisfaction to the simple shift in language between me and we. There is power in “we,” you and I. So when Wing writes to me and says, I see what you’re doing and the fact that you’re doing it means something to me, this is that shift between me and we. And it’s incredibly moving for me, even as I stood there in my hotel room, still vibrating from my fight hours before. That she saw a new kind or stage of Feminism in what I was doing is even more remarkable.

In the past I have been criticized for what I do by people who think it’s self-centered and that it benefits only me. It’s been a consistent refrain. Even daring to post my training or fights on Youtube, in the very beginning so many years ago, had been seen as an act of ego, of “look at me, I’m awesome.” – who are you to be posting your training? I’ll tell you, I didn’t feel like I was awesome, but I did feel my teacher Master K was. But even if I did think I was awesome, how come guys can say how awesome they are over and over, and women cannot? But “I’m awesome” hasn’t been the result. The result is that other women and men who are out there in isolation make a connection. They say, I can do this too. The result has been that I get to meet people like Wing, who has come and trained with me in Pattaya twice now. And as she writes in the post, she trains twice because I train twice – not because she’s trying to prove something, not as a statement; simply because it’s good for us. When it comes to comparing women and men, Wing is keen to point out that the ruler can never measure evenly – and I think this is true. In a sense we have to do away with rulers. We’re not playing under the same rules, even if ultimately that’s the goal of social equality. This is why I get frustrated when some fortunate women can tend to close off a discussion by saying, “I’m treated the same as the boys.” Great! But more globally, that’s not the case for millions of women who are trying to do what they love – they’re not trying to do it in order to make a point, they’re doing it for the same reasons anyone does it, which is that we love it, but it takes effort to be able to accomplish the same things. To have the same freedoms in doing it out of enjoyment or fulfillment. To be able to say, “yes, this is for me, but you can come along and do it too.” It sounds so damn simple, but of course it isn’t. The fact that a woman can get a prescription from her doctor without a signature of permission from her husband in the US took effort. If it’s not a struggle for you, that’s probably because it was a struggle for those who came before you. And the way you acknowledge that struggle, or the way you continue the rewards that came from it, is by connecting to the people who experienced it differently. You say “we,” even if that wasn’t your direct experience.

Non-comparative Feminism, as Wing has brought out, is a clean stream to bring together all sides. Men who don’t consider themselves feminist because there are associations with the word that somehow make people believe it’s about bettering or discounting men, can get on board with a non-comparative approach. We are not the same; we don’t have to be. But we want to have the same access to dreams and the same freedoms to do and be what we love. She gives a brilliant example in the doctor allowing me to continue fighting with my bloody face. I’m not trying to be better than a man or ultimately not even like a man, I’m just trying to continue on in the fight. Which is what any of us wants and the “yes” from that doctor means a “yes” for all of us. Let the small point not be lost, the referee in this fight was a woman, and she too was an authority who allowed me to continue, she could have easily forced the doctor to reconsider.

I’ve written myself into a corner here and I feel a rant brewing, so I’m going to stop here. This blog post is just a thought, an expression of gratitude for what Wing wrote to me, what she shared with me, and what it means for us. And that “us” is anyone, anyone, who has a stake in finding meaning in any of this. That’s the “we.”

Bloody in fight-001

photo from the fight, by LordK2

More Thoughts on Muay Thai and Feminism

If you enjoyed this post, you may like my Gendered Experience posts.

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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


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