Young Empowered Women SpeakLaurien Zurhake
Buzz. Buzz. WhatsApp message. I open the app and see that I received a message from one of the young ladies of my BJJ class, Sarah. It is Monday and 20 minutes to 7 O’Clock. Normally her training would start in 20 minutes on that very day if it had not been summer holiday. Two weeks ago the holiday started. “I am bored”, she writes, “We are somewhere in the middle of nowhere. I wish that I had to go to school, because then there would be at least training.” To make matters worse, it also happened to be her birthday: “I have during my birthday nothing better to do than to dream of training.” The extent to which BJJ has become a part of her life is astounding: unable to train equals horror. She is extremely vocal and verbal about it. What is noteworthy is that she is not the only one.
Two weeks ago we were on a youth Ju-Jutsu camp and I took the liberty of interviewing 5 young ladies from my BJJ class (FC-Fasanerie Nord) who train super regularly, because I wanted to give them a platform in which their voices are heard. Nowadays many articles analyzing differences between male and female perspectives, the BJJ lifestyle and so on circulate the Internet. Gender permeates all levels of society. The BJJ community is no exception. Yet, I would like to add another “category” into the equation, namely the perspective of our youth. As a starting point, I chose for this article to focus specifically on young women, aged 11 till 13 and hope to repeat this with young men as well. Their names are: Sanja (11), Sarah (13), Charlotte S. (12), Charlotte H. (12) and Felizia (13).
Whilst sitting at a lovely river bend I presented them with a number of questions. Throughout this interview, a number of issues became abundantly clear. Through this blog I hope that their opinions and thoughts shed light on different aspect of the BJJ.
What does BJJ mean for you?
The 5 ladies stare into the river for a moment letting the question sink in. Then they open their mouths and what was uttered most was ‘joy’ and ‘defense’. Sanja: “it is a cool hobby that brings joy and it is cool that you learn how to defend yourself a bit.” Sarah nods in agreement and adds: “it also means friendship.” The other young women agree and repeat that BJJ makes them happy, that they always look forward to training and that they feel safer. Practicing BJJ therefore means for them enjoyment, friendship and especially the feeling that they learn how to defend themselves better.
How is BJJ incorporated in your daily life?
They giggle a bit and Charlotte S. dryly states that BJJ is a “good method to deal with an annoying brother” or “annoying boys” Felizia jests. Then, changing her complexion slightly Charlotte continues on a more serious note that “certain BJJ movements I also do in normal life, like shrimping out of bed.” The girls laugh and clearly share Charlotte S’. sentiment. Charlotte H. takes over and states that the friendships she made during BJJ class remain strong outside the mats as well: “I often meet with the other BJJ girls.” Changing topic Felizia shares that it is important to her that what she trains also functions, “ball sports won’t help you on the street.” “BJJ made me physically much stronger and conditioned”, Sarah says. Felizia nods and continues: “it makes me feel safer at school.” Again the reference to self-defense was made, suggesting that it forms an important aspect for them choosing to practice martial arts. Let’s pursue this in greater detail:
How is it like as a young woman to practice BJJ and how do friends, classmates and other people react to you training BJJ?
“To me it is totally normal to practice a martial arts”, says Sanja, “In our gym there are many girls and boys and girls can train with one another without problems. I know, however, that is different in other gyms”. The other girls concur, the atmosphere is good, there is no drama and they feel comfortable. Then they discuss the advantages of training BJJ as a girl. “Women are often underestimated and seen as fragile”, Sarah claims, “it is true that women, in comparison to men, are in more danger on the streets, that is why BJJ is important. BJJ makes one more aware.” Charlotte S. and Charlotte H. are of the same mind: “women need to learn how to defend themselves and practicing a martial arts is therefore not only a ‘male-thing’.”
Off the mats, however, it is not so easy to share with others that they practice BJJ as young women: “When I wear a hoody with our gym logo, my classmates stare at me”, Sarah states, she proceeds: “A guy who does karate gets a positive reaction and I don’t. That is a shame because practicing BJJ is important for women. Also, when they know that a girl practices a martial arts, they often think immediately that she must be bad at it as she is a girl.” Charlotte H. adds “strange in a way that so few women do BJJ, because it is fun and for everyone.” Charlotte S. too encounters difficulties: “when I tell others that I fight competitions they don’t believe me. Especially boys don’t.” Felizia experiences the same: “I had to make videos to convince my classmates. Quite some boys box and I wasn’t allowed to participate. I participated anyway and now they just ignore me. During the ‘finals’ the boy stated that he wouldn’t fight me as I am a girl. I don’t know whether he was scared to loose face or wanted to be gentlemanlike.”
Apart from boys, these young ladies also encounter quite some resistance from girls of their own age. “BJJ improves self-awareness, body-awareness and to overcome with technique a bigger and stronger opponent”, Felizia declares, “many girls of my own age underestimate the importance of this. They forget that you can use this in daily life and unfortunately often say that they don’t understand why I, or other girls, choose to practice BJJ.” Luckily, good friends respect them a lot for it, even when they don’t completely understand why. Sanja “in the beginning people react shocked, but usually later it is ok.” “With me it works in a similar way”, Sarah says with a wink, “they think at first that I am a cute tiny blond girl. They just have to get to know me better – then they understand.” As a closing remark to this topic Charlotte S claims “still, no one reacts in a totally normal way like when someone does a ball sport.”
Are there enough youth (under 16) tournaments?
This was by far the easiest question as all 5 immediately shaking their heads and loudly stating “NO!”. Sarah expresses: “it is not per se about winning, but about testing yourself. And it is just fun. It is a shame that there aren’t many tournaments.” Even though BJJ is rapidly growing in Europe and there are many tournaments for juveniles, adults and masters, it is true that events hosting kids/teenager competitions are hard to come by. It is hard to say whether the wish to compete of these 5 ladies are representative for the whole body of kids and teenagers practicing BJJ, but I hope that there will be more competitions in the future.
During the interview it became clear that BJJ influences their lives in many ways. What I found astounding and shocking is how aware they are of the possible dangers that lure on the streets. True, BJJ gives them great joy, as they work with their bodies, minds and each other. Yet, we should not rule out their wish to learn how to defend themselves. Additionally, it was revealed that doing a martial arts as a girl is still not generally accepted amongst their peers: neither by boys and interestingly enough nor by girls. Clearly there is room for improvement in that regard.
What I also would like to observe in passing is that the answers of these girls largely tie in with the results of Sociology Assistant Professor Matt Wilkinson. He conducted a small survey amongst BJJ practitioners asking similar questions, termed “A phenomenology of Martial Arts: Why We Train”. There, too, BJJ was most of all described as a way of life, conditioning body and mind. Self-defense played also a part, although to a lesser extent the more mat hours a practitioner had.
Returning to these 5 ladies, BJJ is much more than just a sport, it is a lifestyle. It does not stop when there is no training due to a gym that is closed during holidays. It stirs and challenges them, they are young empowered women and they want more.