On being a female martial artist

Chloe MacleanChloe Maclean is a sociology PhD student at the university of Edinburgh exploring gendered embodiment in karate. She competes in karate internationally, with some of her achievements including Commonwealth, British and Scottish champion, alongside multiple medals from across the world. She is currently the Scottish Karate Governing Body’s director of women and girl’s interests where she seeks to ensure fair and empowering treatment of women and girls in the sport.

To have control over your own body is to have power over it. To have power is to be dangerous. To be a woman who can control her own body, and others, through the art of fighting, is to be dangerous indeed.

Walking into a karate club for the first time many people might imagine scenes of a stern looking gym, punch bags, strong men placing powerful kicks and punches into each other, all surrounded by a smell of hard work and sweat. The reality is remarkably different. Karate is a sport loved by many of its practitioners for its ‘family-feel’ with men, women, and children of all ages and abilities taking part. Despite being a combat sport, and as such perhaps something more associated with men and masculinity, women make up around 30-40% of the karate population in Scotland. Within karate classes women punch, kick, sweat, sprint, perfect technique, discover new uses of their body, hit pads, learn and laugh with their male training partners. In this mixed-sex combat arena many women can, and often do, out perform their male counter parts.

Successful karate women are celebrated and respected for their achievements be it as a karate practitioner who has reached their black belt – a symbol of high proficiency in the martial art – as a competitor winning medals on the national or international stage, as a referee committing their time and knowledge to help the development of the sport, or as a coach sharing their experience and knowledge to help others progress in their personal journey to become a better karate practitioner.

In embracing and displaying the combative, at times aggressive, at times agile and elegant, movements of the martial art, karate women defy many expectations of what it is to be a woman – they embody a persona that is strong, in control, and game. Yet the danger they present doesn’t strictly come from their ability to kick, punch, and strike physical damage onto another – karate is a very controlled environment where safety of yourself and your training partner is key, and violence outside karate is highly discouraged unless absolutely essential for self defence. Rather, it is in the challenges they pose to the legitimacy of conventional, restrictive, ideas about women, and their secondary status to men.

Women in karate, and other martial arts, are dangerous to conventional ideas of gender, and a gender order that subordinates women.

This is for a number of reasons:


  1. They learn to control, appreciate, and respect their own body.

Although a combative practice, karate, like many martial arts, is not solely about being strong, hitting hard, or being aggressive, but rather is about learning defensive combative moves with precise control and technique. It is an art. It teaches its practitioners how to be able to stop another person with a mix of minimal movements and adjustments of the body that have the potential to cause sever damage, but are executed with control and respect to training partners within karate classes. It involves learning about your own body’s capabilities, the unknown extent of its movements and potential uses of its limb. In this, women come to learn about their bodies, and experience their bodies, in ways that defy conventional understandings and depictions of women as fragile, weak, and primarily objects of beauty for others, that restrict women’s active life.

Karate women relearn their bodies as strong; as capable of multiple complex tasks; as good fighters; as expressive; as able to command space and deserving to command space – be it through advice they might give or physical movements they make; as useful; as skilled; as active agents in control of their own bodies for their own desires. In moving away from understandings of their body for others, women in karate take power over their body, and in doing so, become dangerous to conventional ideas of women’s role’s in society as passive and supportive to the actions/desires of others.


  1. They influence the bodies of others.

Not only do women in karate learn how to move and control their own bodies in nuanced ways, they learn how to influence the bodies of others – primarily their training partner or opponent. Through knowledge of their own body’s combative skills and the ways in which its body parts move, karate women learn to read and disrupt a training partner or opponents body. They can make their opponent make mistakes by drawing out a technique, keep their opponent at a distance they want them at, and put their opponent in submissive positions by scoring kicks or punches against their opponent. They can display control not only over their own body, but over others too, placing themselves in positions of skilled power.


  1. They can physically defend themselves if need be.

Further to the combat skills and control over other’s bodies that women learn in the safe environment of karate, these combative skills have directly transferable usage, if ever needed, in dangerous situations outside of karate. Male violence against women has been used and utilised to maintain men’s dominance and control over women for as long as we have known. Being able to fight back or prevent such violence is a way of restricting men’s control over women, and thus makes women who do karate, or indeed other combat sports, a threat to men’s power over women at a personal level.


  1. They disrupt the idea that all men are better athletes, more able fighters, or physically more able than all women.

By training side by side with men, performing the exact same moves, drills, and practices, and being evaluated to the exact same standards, the mixed sex practice of karate opens a window where women can be better practitioners than men, and be shown to be better than men. Whether women are shown to be better than men via the colour of belt they wear which reflects their skill level in the sport, by holding higher positions within the club such as coach, or by beating their male counter parts in competitions held within the class, these opportunities to make visible women’s skill over men disrupts ideas held across most sports, and indeed in relation to physicality in general, that all men are better than all women.

Rather, in out performing men, women in karate highlight the mixed spread of women and men across the spectrum of ability in karate, which does not necessarily have women at the bottom and men at the top, but rather can, and may, have a woman at the top as best karate athlete. In any sport such a disruption of the idea of male dominance would be great, but given the context that karate is a combat sport, and that violence is seen to be both key to masculinity and for ensuring men’s power over women, this disruption is particularly powerful.

Karate women are dangerous to ideas of femininity that inscribe women’s bodies as weak, fragile, and objects for the gaze of others. Karate women are dangerous to ideas of masculinity that define men as physically more capable and powerful than women. Karate women are dangerous to the continuation of a gender order that subordinates women.

Women in karate are dangerous.