A kick to the groin, a karate chop

IWD Bathurst

Sally Neaves and Leah Moulden from Rahamim at the IWD event in Bathurst.

I’ve just returned from a stint on a stall at the International Women’s Day event in Bathurst. This day has many and varied meanings, some entirely contradictory, but that’s to be expected. Women come in all ages, sizes, shapes, races, height of heels, wealth, education, sexualities and even biological starting-points (in the case of trans women). School girls in their white blouses trooped in. Business women networked. After unstructured time for a trawl around the stalls with their fliers about domestic violence, aged care and health, we were called to order to witness a martial arts display. The mats were brought out and a group of young women and one young man readied themselves nearby, wearing black suits with orange embroidered or appliquéd flames running up their trousers.

I’ve always had a bit of trouble with the self-defence narrative when it comes to women’s rights. Some of this may stem from the fact that, as a teenager, I was rubbish at judo. We practiced in a hot metal shed out at the pony club. The vinyl mats were spongy and thick and sweaty. I wore a hot, white, quilted suit. I remember half-heartedly doing a bit of uncoordinated kicking and flailing about. Deciding I was hopeless, I plumped for just riding it out until I could legitimately declare (to Mum, who sewed the suit) that I’d given it a go and now wanted out.

There’s also my suspicion that the self-defence narrative helps perpetuate the idea that men are violent, lustful creatures by their very nature. Rather than putting the onus on men to change their attitudes and behaviour, self-defence puts the onus on women to change their attitudes and behaviour. Fight like a girl!

But unlike me in the sweltering hall at the pony club, or me stuck in the mental back rooms of feminist discourse analysis, these young black-suited women were putting their hearts and hands and feet into it. They were shouting and grunting and making precise, jabbing, swishy movements. It was exhilarating to watch. Their moves told a different story about young women: not passive princesses but active creators of their own lives.

After the girls had dealt with each other, the young man of about the same age stepped forward to play his part as perpetrator, the prowling opportunistic stranger who might accost them in a dark alley or an underlit carpark.

Another twinge of unease. Despite the media’s entrancement with Anita Cobby and Jill Meagher – both victims of the lurking stranger – most violence towards women is perpetrated by their own partners or ex-partners. I think back to last winter, when Nadia Cameron was shot by her ex-partner after she’d left him. Lurking, murderous strangers certainly exist, but women are much more likely to be raped, injured or killed at the hands of the men they know.

The young man performed his role in good spirit, repeatedly felled by a young woman with a swishing long blonde ponytail. In a sharp, unambiguous movement, she pretended to knee him in the groin. This final humiliation was a high point for the ladies in the crowd, who met it with clapping and cheering. This seemed to be the end of the show. But it wasn’t, not yet.

Off to one side of the mats there were two big heavy concrete breeze blocks with three stacked roof tiles suspended between them. As the young women retreated and disappeared, the young man picked up the top tile and took it over to be inspected by members of the audience. Yes, a genuine roof tile out of someone’s shed, complete with spider webs. He went back and carefully replaced the tile. Someone lay a towel over the pile of three strong tiles. Holding his palms upward, he lowered and raised the backs of his forearms over the tiles, sizing them up. And then, in an almighty display of strength and technique, he suddenly punched his forearms downwards. The tiles smashed satisfyingly to the floor, kept from spraying in all directions by the bath towel. More clapping.

I made my way back across the room and sat down behind the gentle undulations of our crocheted river. I could hardly believe what I’d just seen, on International Women’s Day no less. It was as if a display of female strength and assertiveness could not go unanswered. It had to be immediately “corrected” by an even more dramatic display of male strength. That mental image of the vanquished boy on the mat with the girl standing triumphantly over him must not be allowed to linger. No, he had to get up and have the last “word”.

I’m sure this was not intentional. I’m sure it was simply the local martial arts group displaying its wares, putting itself through its usual paces. I’m sure nobody was thinking about the appropriateness of a dramatic display of male physical strength on a day dedicated to celebrating women’s rights and achievements. But that’s how culture works: it’s invisible. We find ourselves doing things that feel natural. After we’ve broken the natural order, we feel compelled to restore it again. So the roof tiles had to cop it.


Righto, this has been an interesting one. As soon as I hit “Publish” on this blog, I started to worry about it. Was it fair to dump some heavy-duty feminist theory on the local martial arts group? Possibly not. But then, what’s the use of feminist theory if it’s not used to think through the situations we confront in everyday life? Social change happens when we keep these discussions going. Anyway, this evening I got a phone call from Gerarda, who is a leader of the martial arts group I’m talking about in this blog (and author of this book). She understood my problem with the appropriateness of the tile-smashing at the end and took that on board, but felt I’d also been sarcastic about the particular girls involved in the demonstration (or their group). Oh dear. The last thing I want to do is be negative about girls being involved in a positive, assertive activity that builds a sense of strength and confidence in the world. The girls demonstrating their skill yesterday were amazing, and I was genuinely impressed. Their group is obviously highly professional. Gerarda pointed out that the training received by the men in the group is all about self control and skill and the utmost respect for women. Young men with such training learn ways to handle themselves consciously and respectfully in the world. I do take this on board – it’s obviously a great club doing great things! Hopefully this note will go some way to counteracting the whiff of negativity in my piece. But I’ll let my original post stand, because I do think that on a broader level my uneasiness with the self defence narrative (ie its place in the wider movement against violence against women) is worth putting out there. But this is an ongoing conversation and one that links with much wider issues around creating a culture that is genuinely non-violent and respectful towards women. It was great to have that chat!


19 thoughts on “A kick to the groin, a karate chop

  1. Ali

    Perhaps the point was that women don’t feel the need to fight poor, indefensive little bricks! We are above that sort of needless show of physical strength. We only use necessary force

  2. Nancy

    I suspect it was, as you say, showcasing the clubs skills (spending many years in a tae Kwong do club) and now with hindsight and your excellent article they will realise (with horror hopefully) what the message received was! Great story Tracy

  3. Harry

    If anything the man breaking the tiles only highlights the women’s skills in defending herself against him.

  4. Jessica Davis

    I can’t believe that someone can put this much time and energy into making an issue when there are so many REAL issues facing women in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan. Why not write about a real issue and speak for women who cannot speak for themselves?

    This just seems so petty to me.

  5. Rory

    It is people like this who give feminists a bad name – they continue to attempt to create gender equality issues where there are none! How can someone who is bias towards martial arts (due to a bad personal experience) and who has stated they have no understanding of martial arts critique a martial arts demonstration?

    Pull your head in.

  6. Maria

    I do not agree with this article at all. I watched the entire performance and was completely blown away by every single one of the martial artist! They had obversely put a lot of time and effort into their demonstration, which I found very entertaining. It is wrong of you to criticise an innocent group of young people (mostly children) who were only there to entertain us. There are a great deal of serious problems women face in this world today. The martial arts demonstration is not one of them. Fourteen year old girls being married off to men twice their age… Now that’s a real problem!

  7. T

    After reading your article, I was fairly disappointed to see that from the entire performance all you took away from it was a that a male happened to finish the performance with a martial arts demonstration. It appears that many of your views on both men and women are distorted to enforce that women are helpless victims and that men are “violent, lustful creatures by their very nature”.

    I am glad that early on in the article you put a big “Beware! I am going to be negatively biased again martial arts as I have had bad experience with it” sticker, so that most readers will understand your point of view, however if you had actual trained in karate or perhaps stuck with any martial art, you may come to appreciate what you got to witness. You say “self-defense puts the onus on women to change their attitudes and behavior” implying that self-defense is taught for women to fend off men. Why else would you assume that it’s asking just women to change? Karate is a discipline that is taught to both males and females. It doesn’t teach gender-against-gender defense, It teaches self-defense. While yes, some moves i.e. a knee to the groin, can have a large impact on a male due to their physiology, these moves are effective regardless of gender.

    You constantly create a battle between the genders as if it is you who is unable to come to terms with gender equality. “That mental image of the vanquished boy on the mat with the girl standing triumphantly over him”, “This final humiliation was a high point for the ladies in the crowd, who met it with clapping and cheering”. The fact that it was a male being the assailant for that demonstration and being defended against would have had no impact on whether or not it was detrimental to the young man. He was simply doing a martial arts demonstration. Would it have been humiliating if a woman was the assailant? A woman been defended against by another woman, being applauded by other women? Absolutely not. From my experience, martial arts of all kinds in no way promotes this kind of behavior. I have never been to a Dojo or spoken to a Sensei that has ever singled out a gender or tried to humiliate an individual, but perhaps that is just my good experience with martial arts.

    The worst part about your entire article is that it is you that are putting down women. It’s disgusting that you refer to gender equality as “broken that natural order” as if to say that through nature women are lesser than man, that if you didn’t see these girls showing off their skill that you would have seen them as a “passive princesses” instead of “creators of their own lives”. How can you be advocate for women’s rights when it is you who is the one putting women down.

    On a final note, it appears that you got so upset due to the act that a male closed the performance “he had to get up and have the last ‘word’” but did you ever think that it wasn’t a sexist male who thrives on male dominance who choreographed this performance but actually a women? Or did the thought of a women having the ability to arrange such a thing never cross your mind?

  8. Shannon

    this above comment highlights my perspective to the T! I personally thought that society today was moving forward with gender equality and that people today encourage both genders equally however after reading your article it is very clear that my assumption was wrong. Your title should be ‘my BIASED interpretation of a sport I know absolutely NOTHING about’.

    Sure, the break would have been better positioned in the middle of the demonstration, but that really would work… If you do a break in the middle of a demonstration it leaves pieces of broken tile all over the floor that will most probably cut you. In order to avoid this week they would have needed to stop in the middle of the demo to clean up – that really wouldn’t have been practical! Also, there weren’t even any groin kicks in the demo… Clearly not much attention was paid to what was actually happening…

  9. Matt

    Attention “squawking galah” are you sure it was a judo class you did? Because in judo it is illegal to punch and kick. It does appear even your memories are misinformed.

  10. Tracy Post author

    Hello everyone. It’s great to have this conversation! As I kept trying to say, I was highly impressed by the skills being shown. It’s about context. This was International Women’s Day. One woman every week dies at the hands of her partner or ex partner. It’s a national (and international) conversation, and our own local IWD was held in that context. I think, when giving a performance, it’s worth considering the wider context. Things that can seem simple and straightforward can have layers of meaning that are worth looking into. In a different context, exactly the same performance might have a completely different meaning.

    When I say “martial arts narrative” I don’t mean “martial arts”. What I was referring to was a longer, historical discussion about where self defence “sits” in a long-running discussion about how society should confront the problem of violence against women.

    For an individual woman, it’s about staying safe and (if possible) strong and assertive. Go for it!

    But for society as a whole, I think we need to keep focusing our attention on what we’re “saying” (not just in words but in actions & how we arrange things) about the role of men and women in society. It’s like looking at the pink versus blue aisles in the toyshop. Individually, yay, great toy! But when you stand back and analyse it, you might want to ask, why are the girls’ toys all about nurturing and being pretty and the boys’ toys all about being active and having weapons? I was analysing the IWD performance in this sense – not in the sense of dissing martial arts in and of itself, or even the tile smashing in and of itself. I was analysing the bigger picture of the stories we tell each other about men and women. And to analyse that bigger picture, I was looking at a small example from everyday life. Because everyday life is where all of these big themes play out.

  11. Steph

    Really? On international women’s day this is the “issue” you want to talk about? How disappointing

  12. Jess

    As a martial arts practitioner myself, I feel like the main story that was being played out here may have been missed, and that story is one of respect.

    Any form of reputable martial arts is centred on respect. Respect for your instructors, respect for your peers, respect for your opponents and respect for yourself. This culture of having the utmost respect for others is exactly the message that is trying to be promoted by the IWD movement, and few thigs demonstrate this better than a martial arts display of this nature.

    Martial arts has no prejudice, no preconceived ideas of gender roles, and there are no shortcuts or easy ways out. The only way to progress is through perseverance, a strong mentality and the will to constantly set and exceed your own goals. The gender, ethnic background, religion, socioeconomic status or past history of students makes no difference in the eyes of a genuine instructor. The standards required are the same for all students, and in any good dojo, all training drills are focused on not only self-defence, but also minimising harm to your opponent. Not once have I encountered a gender divide in my training, not once has the issue of gender ever been called into question, and not once has the notion of the roles of men and women in society played a part in any of the training exercises practiced.

    In fact, the notion of gender in martial arts is such a non-issue that I fail to think of a single occasion in which gender was represented in a negative light. There has never been a situation in my years of training, real or imagined, in which any individual was victimised, targeted or singled out. Training with others has allowed me to develop some of the closest friendships I have ever made, with lots of like-minded people of all from all backgrounds. The negative portrayal of a demonstration like this by preconceived and biased gender roles is undermining and insulting to me and to all those who have put in the hard work, blood, sweat and tears to better themselves as people for the overall benefit of society.

    It is unfortunate that your personal experience of martial arts was a negative one, but as a practitioner that has seen many clubs, styles and instructors, this indicates to me that you simply did not find the right style or discipline for you. The practice of martial arts is a journey of self-improvement and self-empowerment, and will be different for each individual. I would encourage anyone who values the notions of self-discipline, self-confidence and respect for others pursue some form of training that is right for them, as personal development in these areas is a vital component in resolving social issues such as the ones brought to light by the IWD movement.

  13. Laura

    The threat of violence is a very real issue in this country for many women — and, sadly, the majority of this violence is delivered by husbands, boyfriends, partners, fathers … For me, this article simply uses the story of the martial arts demonstration on IWD as a thought-provoking illustration to encourage readers to question why things are done the way they are. I agree, it was a tad thoughtless and unnecessary to end with a demonstration of man’s strength — no matter how controlled — at an IWD event. But agree with the author or not, she has every right to voice her opinion (on her own blog no less). If believing a woman should be able to give her opinion in a public forum without fear of being insulted and belittles makes me ‘one of those feminists’, then so be it.

  14. Rose

    I think both men and women are violent, lustful creatures by their very nature. Not solely of course. We’re also capable of compassion, selflessness and goodness. But the two seemingly opposite parts of our nature exist together and are expressed in various contexts and circumstances, as all history attests.

    I think a misunderstanding and responses to that may lie in part with what martial arts signifies to many female practitioners. The motivation to learn is probably initially mainly self-defence. But I think the way it is taught, learnt and practiced by many women, particularly the most thoughtful, serious and thorough, extends in to the realms of self-expression, discovery and empowerment, physical pleasure, mental discipline and even spirituality. Certainly, all these elements lie in its Chinese origins over and above its practical uses in one-to-one physical combat.

  15. David Bourne

    Hi Tracy, just to say you’re article was the gentlest of criticism of the martial arts performance. To end it with a man in a show of strength at an International Women’s Day celebration was not appropriate and you pointed that out, without demeaning the performance overall or taking away from the effort of those involved.
    I’m surprised at the comments section, if people are getting sensitive then it shows you’re onto something, how much better would it have been if a woman did the tile breaking?
    Anyway, I love your writing 🙂

  16. Helen Bergen

    I write as a parent who did karate as a teenager and who sent her son to karate lessons as a kid where he learnt great respect towards others as a fundamental of those lessons.

    *However* I think alot of comments here are missing the point – and I’m writing this with the gentlest of intention. I didn’t read the post as a criticism of the individuals in the class, nor as a criticism of the sport. I read that the girls were confident and celebrated, with a lovely image of their ponytails swinging as they moved bringing the writing alive. The point, I think, is that we as a society just don’t think about the multitude of embedded messages about the place of females and men in society, and that accumulated multitude of messages all go into the a big mixing pot that is the size of a whole lifetime and a whole society. This accumulation of ‘small’ things is what shapes and confirms attitudes that colour everything without people even realising it.

    Attitudes about violence to women come from that mixing pot. Violence towards women doesn’t stand by itself – no matter what culture we’re talking about – it is made up of a lifetime society-wide “little” messages that confirm a female and a male’s place in society, and in relation to each other.

    I don’t think the post was about karate. It was about those little things. If International Women’s Day is not the time to think about this, when is?

  17. Margaret

    I love this post – and your blog generally. But this post and the comments especially make me sad, and remind me why I can never live in a country town again.
    The embedded culture of misogynist violence in regional Australia is as awful as the racism against indigenous people.
    Whether it is lectures of rape prevention, slut shaming young girls into taking reponsibility for men’s actions or the aggressive feminist shaming of any attempt by a woman to question the cultures that perpetrate the horrific statistics of violence by men against women in this country.
    1 women in Australia gets murdered by someone she has loved every single week
    Until that statistic goes away, every single man and woman needs to question every thing in our culture that lets it happen, and to encourage others that do so with support, not hostility. This means an end to victim blaming, and questioning the values attached to men and aggression. Tracey you have done just that, and I thank you.

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