Long before I started training, I often felt like “Third Gender.” My earliest memories of pre-school were of a little troupe of boys who were my friends. I don’t remember their names now, but I remember that we would pretend to be soldiers, or play on an old, rusted-out tractor that had been painted in bright colours and left to us as play-equipment.
When I started primary school, children segregated themselves into gender groups, and I tried to do the same. A beautiful girl with long dark hair and big greenish eyes introduced me to the term “Best Friend” and claimed to be mine. She consecrated the “Best Friend-ship” by taking me to a big old pine tree that she called “the Tree of Sheba” and burying a fallen pine-seed under it. The next week, she had a new best friend, and I was heart-broken. I continued to visit the tree for a long time afterward to see if our seed grew – it never did.
Later in primary school, led by a thrillingly talented and tomboy-ish girl, who won every athletic event she entered, all of the girls in my grade started to play soccer. I found an outlet for my physical energy, my competitiveness and my lust for challenge (all of which had formerly been described as an “attitude problem”). I was never very skilled at soccer, but I enjoyed it immensely, and my eagerness to assert myself physically made me an effective, if not very skilled, defender. Our team went on to win local tournaments. We never really had a coach, although I do remember our male teacher being very supportive of our team and organising a seminar with a real, grown-up female soccer player.
Almost spontaneously, we practised every recess and lunch-time, usually against the “boys team,” who weren’t nearly as dominant in their tournaments as we were. We would run out to the oval and make a pair of goal posts out of hats and bins. Kids would be hurrying to eat their snacks or lunch while playing.
I loved the cameraderie in this experience. To this day, I miss the sense of female solidarity and pride that we had as children.
When it was time to go to high-school, I found myself in a school that was fundamentally racist and sexist. Sports like soccer were not available to girls. The strict uniform requirements made it very difficult to be active during recess and lunch breaks. Girls would watch the boys play AFL at lunch-time, or sit in circles and talk about other girls.
It was difficult for me to navigate this new, complicated world of female friendships. Teenage sexuality and my own bisexuality only complicated matters further. I developed a crush on a conservative female friend, a dedicated musician with a delicate physical constitution which only endeared her more to me, who was horrified and immediately stopped talking to me. I was taken advantage rather publicly of by a male “friend” who had spiked my drink and subsequently excommunicated from my group of female “friends” for being a “slut.”
I maintained some unlikely friendships in my last year at school – one with a wannabe-punk ex-boyfriend, and others with a group of gay men who I met during an acting class.
It was at this time that I started Pradahl Serey (the Cambodian equivalent of Muay Thai.) I turned up for the regular (translation: Men’s) class, and was told to come back for the “women’s class,” which was only on three times a week instead of six, and was half an hour shorter.
There were two other women who regularly came to the class. They were friends, a little older than me, and much more worldly. They talked about sex, work, night clubs and recreational drugs in a way that I couldn’t understand. They also didn’t like me, and before long were not talking to me at all. I started going to the “Men’s” class.
Reactions to me in this class were mixed. Some men hated me, and actively petitioned to have me “expelled” from the gym. But I did form some genuine training friendships, which was more than I had been able to do previously. Perhaps because these friendships were formed against a backdrop of such strong opposition, they meant a great deal to me.
Fast-forward many years, and here I am as a jiu jitsu blue-belt, finding myself in situations where I get asked to help other women.
There are a few reasons why I feel uncomfortable about this. One is that I am much less qualified than many of the people around me. There doesn’t seem to be a reason why I, as a blue belt, should be asked to help these women when there are brown and purple belts on the mat, except that I am female. Just as I have fought vehemently against being discriminated against because of my gender, I feel uncomfortable being singled out in this way because of it. These women’s jiu jitsu would be much better helped by brown belts than by me. (After all, no one should be aspiring after my failure to berimbolo, or my tendency to get scissor-swept too easily.)
Another reason for my unease about this request is that I can recall many instances in the past where being asked to “help the new girl” was code for something like “go play over there and don’t interrupt us.” It is for this reason that I actively avoid female “cliques” at training. I have had one experience of having a really fantastic female sparring partner, Crystal, to work with. I loved our sparring sessions, and they ultimately led to a strong and unique friendship that survives to this day, despite our living in different countries. But the “clique” of girls who hang on the corner of the mat, talking only amongst themselves, reminds me not only of the complicated female “friendship” circles whose unspoken codes I so brilliantly failed to decipher as a teenager, but of the Female Ghetto – that all-female space to which women in a traditionally male environment are often relegated so as not to get in the way of “men’s work.”
None of the male training partners or coaches who I choose to have in my life now have this mentality, but I think that many women have been sidelined so many times by other men that they no longer have to be asked to go back to the Female Ghetto – they create it themselves. (Partly I think that the reason why I am being asked to help these women is because these men themselves are also intimidated by the Female Ghetto.)
My attitude towards the Female Ghetto has disturbed me for a long time. Am I the feminist equivalent of a “House N****”, an Uncle Tom, someone who has been taught to hate herself and so has chosen to “pass”, to distance herself from her own and endear herself to existing power structures?
Amusingly, it’s my Wonder Woman fandom that has highlighted this question. Wonder Woman is an Amazon, one of a race of warrior women who live on Paradise Island, which is entirely populated by women. Men are not permitted here, and the flip side of this female empowerment fantasy is that men are viewed as weak, inferior, untrustworthy – as meat, at best.
To borrow (ironically, I hope) a cliché from self-conscious White folks, I don’t hate men – after all, “some of my best friends” are men. I’m not advocating misandry as a solution for anything. But why do I regard these real-life all-female spaces as Female Ghettos and not as manifestations of the Paradise Island archetype?
The reason that the Female Ghetto is not empowering, or even especially dignified, is that there is no benefit to being in a Female Ghetto. Placing yourself in a Female Ghetto screams, “Men are better than us and we are afraid of them, so we’re just going to hide out here.”
It’s difficult for me to imagine what it would take to transform a Female Ghetto into a Paradise Island, having experienced so little of Paradise Island in my own life. My childhood experiences with my girls’ soccer team was a Paradise Island experience, as is my friendship in and out of the ring with Crystal. In these cases, our female-ness was not a source of shame or a marker of inferiority. It didn’t exclude us from opportunities to train or develop, nor did we use it as a reason to exclude ourselves from the “real” play or training. We trained with men, but empowered each other, not through the restrictive unspoken codes of non-confrontation which seem to permeate so many all-female spaces, but through aggressive and uncompromising challenge and competition. Often, you need to really hit each other in sparring to offer each other the opportunity to learn and improve; we needed to play to the best of our abilities and really try to beat each other in soccer practice in order to beat our rivals on game day; and you need to roll properly – not politely, apologetically, or with the fear of offending or outshining each other – in order to develop as a jiu jitsu practitioner.
While Wonder Woman mythology has prompted me to consider the question of the Female Ghetto and Paradise Island, academic feminism has helped me to consider it in a broader context, one that isn’t just about me, and where the value of action is not measured purely against my own experiences.
Girls and women who have relegated themselves to Female Ghettos are at once the victims and perpetrators of crimes against their own dignity. They’ve been told so many times, in other contexts, to sit at the back of the bus that they just get on and walk straight down the aisle without even thinking about it. Perhaps what would help them most right now is not a jiu jitsu brown-belt level break-down of how to escape from closed guard, but an applied feminism red-belt level break-down of how to escape from internalised sexism and learned self-hate. As the “third gender” or the “mulatto” in this situation, who is at once insider and outsider in any given context, perhaps I am well-equipped to open up the Female Ghetto and allow these women to transform it into Paradise Island.