By Jenypher Lanthier
After another exhausting day at my day job where I was a graphic designer, which frequently involved arguing with my boss over why I refused to use the comic sans font in anything I produced, I got to the gym around 6:00 pm and was ready to spar. I had sparred before but this was one of the first organized sessions that my Kru had set up, so it was a full house. Tuesday sparring at Siam No.1 was always a broad mixture of sizes and skills. Beginners, amateurs and professionals were all grouped together in the same sweat-drenched ring.
Siam No.1 is a hard working gym, carpet laid directly on concrete worn down to the mat in some areas, there were broken mirrors held together with duct tape, and more tape held together a 1970’s era green-colored ring canvas in numerous spots. This gym was home to many champions. Duct tape solved all of our problems and we liked it that way. After one of Ajahn Suchart Yodekerepauprai‘s infamous warm ups, I strapped on my navy blue leather shin guards that smelled almost as bad as the communal shin guards, slipped on my black twelve ounce gloves, and popped in my five dollar Shock Doctor mouth guard. There I stood all five foot three inches and one hundred twenty-two pounds of me, geared up and ready to rock.
The Thai round music began, signifying the first round. We were an odd number of people, myself being the only female in a large group of men, so each round someone would have to take a round off. The first round was apparently my round off as I didn’t have anyone to spar with. I waited patiently, watching each person, studying and devising strategies. As the music faded out, ending round one, I could feel a surge in my heart rate, as it picked up in anticipation for the next round. Partners shuffled around, meeting their next challengers and there I was again, with no one to spar. My heart began pounding but it wasn’t from excitement anymore, it was from the disappointment and frustration of not feeling included.
After the third round of inactivity my Kru looked over at my beet red face and yelled, “Why aren’t you sparring?” “No one wants to spar with me Kru,” I replied, clearly embarrassed. I felt like an awkward preteen last to get picked for the local baseball team, destined to waste away on the bench for half of the season. “Then make them spar you!” he replied. “Make them?” I repeated, puzzled by the question. “Yes, go stand in front of someone, and tell him that you are sparring him next round” he said frankly. Suddenly, this intense rush of frustration and anger boiled over and I marched into that ring as if I held a personal grudge with each individual and stood in front of the first guy I saw, looked up and said “We are sparring next round,” leaving little opportunity for him to disagree. Then I smashed my gloves against his and put my hands up.
It was as simple as choosing someone and touching gloves, but I had to decide to be an equal instead of choosing not to be. After that night, sparring was never a problem except for the occasional concussion. It was the first of many times that I would feel my gender having an impact on my career in Muay Thai. It was also the first of many times that I would have to reach outside my comfort zone and fight my way through my challenges of being female.
When I was asked to write about a female’s experience within the male-dominated Muay Thai community, I mistakenly thought it would be a piece of cake. I figured that being female and involved in Muay Thai for a number of years, that it would be as simple as throwing a jab, cross. It wasn’t until I sat down to write in the shade of a sunny July day that I discovered how difficult it would be. I was trying to recount every experience that may have occurred as a result of me being a woman. One of the most common themes I recognized was the feeling of being underestimated, misjudged, or undermined by our male counterparts. I don’t pin all the blame on the men as I can understand how they would assume women are weaker because in some cases, we are. However, are there things that we as women could be doing to help change the world’s mindset?
It has been almost eight years since that experience and women have come so far in the last ten to fifteen years in the Muay Thai. More important than the incidents themselves are the lessons that are learned and the strength that is built. Muay Thai can be an immensely empowering experience for any woman that chooses to push past any typically perceived limitations. From leading workouts to pad holding, sparring, fighting, coaching and officiating, the more we occupy these positions and expand our capabilities, the more respect we command, which will change these perceptions. Push through these challenges and you will reap the fruits of your labors.