The Only Woman

Describe your experience as a woman training in Cuong Nhu.

For the last two years, I have participated in a local sparring tournament and have been the only woman. The first year I participated, I did terribly. I was beaten in both of my two rounds almost instantly. As much as I don’t want to be held back by questions of gender, it was difficult not to feel aware of and nervous about being the only woman. Having done horribly, I felt like somehow I’d let women martial artists down. I also couldn’t help but feel that, no matter what, my being the only woman would affect how others thought about my performance: Did doing poorly mean that people would think, “She didn’t do well, but of course it’s because of her gender”? If I’d done well, would people have thought, “She did well…for a woman”? And then there are all the questions of the biology of my sex: I’m smaller than most of the men and have a much shorter reach; as a result it was hard not to feel a bit fatalistic about ever being able to hold my own against the men.

But I love sparring, and so the second year, I didn’t even question whether or not I was going to participate. I’d been attending the regular sparring class, again, usually the only female, and I’d learned a lot about sparring and how to make the most of my strengths as a martial artist, my quick reflexes and relatively good stamina. The second year, I did much better. I still lost both my rounds, but I actually scored a few points on men who are significantly bigger than me and, in one case, outrank me.

I continue to attend sparring class regularly and am working to improve; for instance because I’m smaller than the men, I know I have to be better at getting inside where their longer reach is irrelevant, and I’ve been practicing drop kicks in order to make the most of my size. I feel very fortunate that the men I train with at the sparring class are all enthusiastic, helpful, and friendly. I learn something every time I go.

Sexism and unequal gender dynamics are still very much a part of the world, and so they are also a part of Cuong Nhu. My experience sparring encapsulates much of my experience studying Cuong Nhu: While I try not to let my gender dictate my outcomes, I can’t help but be aware of the places where I still have to defeat my own or society’s preconceptions about gender. Despite the fact that so many amazing women are part of Cuong Nhu, I am aware of the places where things aren’t on equal footing. At West Coast Training Camp, I attended several seminars in which the male instructors used only men to demonstrate techniques or drills, despite the presence of many high-ranking women. When I was sparring with a teenage boy and stopped to adjust my shin guard, he asked me if I needed him to go easier on me (despite the fact that I’d just scored a point on him). When I help co-teach the kids’ classes at my dojo, it breaks my heart to see the older girls, the ten to twelve year olds, doing weak techniques and wimpy “kiai”s or fixing their hair because they’re so caught up with a history that tells them they shouldn’t be strong.

And, of course, the larger societal gender dynamics continue to be at work. I can’t help but be angry about the fact that, for women, self-defense often feels like more of a life-and-death issue than it is for men. I, like a lot of women, came to martial arts, and Cuong Nhu specifically, out of a desire to feel safer as a woman. We are surrounded by daily reminders of the need to be vigilant as women: stories—true or urban legend—of women who are assaulted, beaten, raped. We’re told not to walk alone at night, not to be too friendly to strangers, not to linger in our cars. We’re told how we should dress to avoid undue attention and how to act to make sure nothing bad happens to us. I’ve been truly afraid as a woman twice in my life. Once I was chased by a group of drunk college boys who didn’t like that I had a shaved head, and another time I was groped in public by a mentally unstable man. Both times I felt targeted as a woman but didn’t yet know how to fight back. I was lucky in both situations to escape unharmed.

I don’t ever want to feel less free in my life because I’m a woman, and, yet, I also want to be smart and know what to do should the need ever arise. I do Cuong Nhu because I want to have the training to be truly free. Given this, it’s also important to me to be free in my Cuong Nhu training and not let gender dynamics hold me back.

I can get frustrated or angry about ongoing gender inequalities in Cuong Nhu and in the larger world, but I also know that, in order to really enjoy myself and grow in my training, I have to block much of this out and focus just on me. I’m not always so good at being in the moment or not over-thinking things, which is simultaneously both a challenge of training and why I love Cuong Nhu and probably explains partly why I love sparring so much; it forces me to be very in the moment and present. Further, my experience sparring speaks to what I strive for: I love it, so I do it; I try to learn as much as I can from it, and I try not to get frustrated by being the only woman or get down on myself when I struggle. As much as I am a feminist in every aspect of my life, I know I can’t get distracted by whatever gender dynamics may be at work in my training.

I feel very fortunate to train under one of the highest ranked women in the art, and I feel supported by my classmates, male and female. There is no question that I will continue training: it’s fun; I’m in much better shape than I was even in my twenties as a result; I like the focused, personal nature of my classes, and I want to be a strong woman, in every aspect of my life.


One thought on “The Only Woman

  1. This is a fantastic piece, Sara. I wonder if the Cuong Nhu community could take a page from the tech community, and create some mentorship-type relationships among women who do Chuong Nhu?

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