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Fight Like a Girl: The Role of Women in Muay Thai Boxing

Anne Lieberman has always been interested in how gender and culture intersect—she studied African American Studies and Women's Studies in college, and now works for a human rights organization on issues of gender and sexuality in Thailand. She's also always been interested in martial arts, which she has studied since she was 7.

And in 2010, she got the opportunity to combine those interests, after being awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to research the role of women in Muay Thai boxing, Thailand’s national sport (and train in it, too!).

I first met Anne at a reception at the U.S. Consulate in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and was fascinated by her work. Her practice of Muay Thai and her research on how women practice it challenged so many traditional notions of gender in Thailand and around the world, and I had to learn more. I recently caught up with Anne to discuss what she’s learned from the sport and her research—and what you can learn, too.

How did you get started in Muay Thai fighting? What made you stick with it over the years?

I grew up doing martial arts. My mom tried to get me to do ballet starting from age 5, but she realized very quickly I only made it through class because I wanted the candy we were given at the end.

I started doing Tang So Doo—a Korean martial art similar to Tae Kwon Do and Karate—when I was 7 or so. I only started doing Muay Thai when I was awarded the Fulbright, but I continue to practice because I fell in love with it. It's beautiful and expressive. The community is fantastic. And it's so much fun.

Can you give us some Muay Thai basics? How is a winner determined, and what techniques are used? What makes this martial art unique?

Muay Thai is traditionally called "The Science of Eight Limbs" because you use eight limbs to strike—both hands, elbows, feet, and knees. Muay Thai is, of course, from Thailand, and there's a lot of folklore linking Muay Thai to Thai autonomy (Thailand was the only nation in Southeast Asia never to be formally colonized by a foreign power the way Burma or Vietnam were, for example).

Since the 70s, Muay Thai has become increasingly global, and international participation in the sport has grown exponentially each year. One of my favorite moments was when I went to watch the World Muay Thai Championships in Thailand and saw teams from everywhere—Iran, Azerbaijan, Morocco, Belarus, Sweden, the United States, South Africa—the list goes on and on. I hadn't realized just how global Muay Thai was until that moment.

The breakdown of scoring is too complicated to get into here, but my friend and fighter Syvlie Von-Duuglus-Ittu wrote a great piece on her blog about scoring Muay Thai fights, illuminating some of the differences between the way fights can be scored in the U.S. vs. Thailand.

What was it like to train as a farang [a Thai word for someone of European ancestry] woman? What was the biggest lesson you learned from your experience?

Training as a farang woman (and I'm glad you added that extra "farang" layer in this question because it is very different than training as a Thai woman or a Japanese woman or a woman of color period in Thailand) is drastically different depending on the gym and where you're training in the country. To be taken seriously, I trained really hard every day and came ready to learn. When people saw how dedicated I was, they were more open to helping me—giving me extra rounds on the pads, walking me through different bag work exercises one-on-one. Also, because I speak some Thai, we were able to develop a different kind of relationship. I became more of like a little sister to them.

But there's another layer to training as a woman in Thailand—one that is more controversial—and that's about the sexual politics at play, especially between male trainers and female fighters. Few farang female fighters come and live in Thailand for extended periods of time. I had the opportunity to interview several of them, as I felt that their experience was integral to how female fighters are viewed in Thailand and how they constantly negotiate their place in a male-dominated sport.

Many of them expressed that they felt some kind of sexual pressure from their trainers. The intensity varied: One woman I interviewed was almost raped, another was verbally harassed and made uncomfortable by a trainer's advances; several ended up dating their trainers. In some cases, if a woman wouldn't sleep with her trainer, this affected the kind of training she received.

This is not unique to Thailand, though—these kinds of sexual dynamics take place everywhere. (The story of the woman raped by her Jiu-Jitsu instructors in Maryland is a prime example of this.) But what was unique to Thailand is that there seemed to be this perception that farang women were promiscuous partiers and that white women would (and wanted to) sleep with almost anyone. This is one of the many ways the fraught relationship between tourism and sex and sexuality in Thailand bubbles over into the Muay Thai world.

What was one of the most interesting things you discovered in your research?

One of the most interesting pieces of my research was around the question of historical narrative: who tells the story of female participation in Muay Thai (and how) and all of the power dynamics associated with that question. For the most part, the story of women in Muay Thai in Thailand is a narrative that has been told by men (the promoters, the trainers) about women. That's why I wanted to do an oral history project about female fighters. I wanted to know how women understood their experience as female fighters. I wanted to know how they would write their history.

Do you find that men and women tell their historical narrative differently? Is there a gender gap in how they describe their training and fighting?

It's not that women and men tell the narrative differently, it's that women haven't been given the chance to tell a narrative at all. Sitting down and doing an oral history with some of these female fighters meant that women had the space to talk about their journey with Muay Thai in a way that was separated from a dominant narrative that had been outlined by male voices.

Interestingly, when I interviewed arguably the only female promoter in Thailand, she told me that there were also transgendered fighters (specifically, conventionally female bodied people transitioning to a conventionally male body) who fought Muay Thai or western-style boxing to get money for hormone replacement therapy. This is significant because while many people know the story of Nong Toom, the "Beautiful Boxer" and Thailand's "lady boy" population more generally, not many people are aware of the diversity of the trans community in Thailand.

What have you learned professionally from Muay Thai?

Muay Thai will teach you discipline, humility, and respect. In addition, in one training session, one of my coaches said, "This is Muay Thai. You're gonna get hit. It's about getting hit on your own terms." That means that you take hits, but you understand why you're taking them—you see the bigger picture. You say, "OK. Every time my opponent throws a left hook, she drops her right hand. If I let her throw that hook, I can set up for a power shot—a cross, a head kick—the second she drops that hand." So what you're doing is understanding how you can turn adversity in your favor.

With your career and life generally, you will experience challenges—hits, if you will—but it's about how you respond and come back from those challenges. You develop strategies to overcome adversity. Getting hit on your own terms is all about perspective. You can get hit and get hurt or you can just get hit.

What would you say to women who are really interested in pursuing Muay Thai, but feel intimidated to try it?

Trying something new is almost always intimidating in some way, but the Muay Thai community is so welcoming. I've trained at gyms all over the country and the world and I've found that, for the most part, there is a kind of warmth associated with a passion for Muay Thai, a sense of community that feels markedly different from other types of spaces. It's intimidating at first, but it's so empowering. If you're in the NY area, come find me!

What's next for you?

Anne LiebermanRight now, I'm working for American Jewish World Service (AJWS), an international development and human rights organization. I'm working with my colleague on developing our sexual health and rights grantmaking strategy in Thailand, and I'm using a lot of what I learned about gender and sexuality during my time in Thailand to inform our work. I am really looking forward to continuing our work in Thailand, and of course my amateur Muay Thai career. One day, I hope to turn pro. For now, I continue to be thankful for each and every opportunity I have to get in that ring.