On a recent Wednesday afternoon in Iaido, all the students were female. Sensei was the only man in class. Half-jokingly, he asked “where are all the men?” We shrugged, and went on drawing our swords, slicing through envisioned attackers, holding difficult stances, and counting loudly in Japanese to build our ‘haras’ or centers.
With this class still fresh in my mind, I was browsing the New York Times the next morning. I was pulled in by an article in the magazine about female big-wave surfers. The headline read, “The Fight for Gender Equality in One of the Most Dangerous Sports on Earth.” My first thought was, “excuse me, what? Why in the hell does gender matter when surfing?” When dealing with a 50 foot wave, does weight differential matter at all? Whether I am a man and weigh 200 pounds or a woman and weigh 130, aren’t I just a speck of dust compared with the massive force of the ocean? The answer is yes, yes I am a minuscule speck of dust. The surfers in the article recount the force of the waves ripping arms out of sockets, slicing a hamstring off a thigh bone, and causing severe concussions. And death is ever present. It does not matter if you identify as a woman, a man, or non-binary. To surf these waves, you have to be incredibly brave and crazy. As I read the article, my heart sank at the various ways the surfing world kept women out. I was so frustrated I could barely talk. “What the $%$# do you mean women aren’t invited to big-wave competitions? At all. Why are men so threatened when a woman is strong? And why is the response to that threat oppression? Why isn’t it reflection on what it even means to be strong?” One of the women recounted how sponsors wanted her to present herself as sexy in a bikini rather than strong and fearless of the waves in a wetsuit, though the article credits her as being the best female big-wave surfer in the entire world. Then it all started to make sense. “Oh yeah, there are all these ideas I sometimes forget about.” Ideas about who all women are, what their role and function in life is, and how they’re supposed to be. Attractive ornaments, caretakers, sidekicks, support systems. They’re not really supposed to try to charge up colossal waves and almost die trying to surf them. That’s what men do, duh. Of course, we all have ideas about men too, and what they are supposed to be that are equally false and damaging. It seems like we are all stuck in a cage that we continue to reinforce.
After reading the article, I wanted to call Sensei immediately. I wanted to say, “Do you want to know why there are so many women at the dojo who are consistent in their practice, and are bringing it? Why yesterday’s Iaido class was all female? It’s because you never treat us as societal ideas of women.”
When I was very young, my grandmother used to tell me bedtime stories from the Indian epic, The Mahabharata. My favorite character (as with millions of people), was the warrior Arjuna. Not only was he the best warrior, he also attained, and saw the true face of existence with Krishna on the battlefield. One particular story remained in my head. When Arjuna, his brothers, and cousins are young and being trained as warriors, they are tested by their teacher, Dronacharya. Dronacharya ties a small wooden parrot on a branch high up on a tree, and asks each of his students, one by one, to take aim with the bow and arrow at the wooden bird without shooting. He asks them what they see when they aim. One says, the sky, the tree, the bird. Another describes branches of the tree. Yet another talks about the leaves of the tree. When Arjuna takes aim and is asked what he sees, he says, “I see black. That’s it.” As one of the female surfers in the article says, he is in “one million percent focus” — he can only see the pupil of the bird. Dronacharya asks Arjuna to the take the shot, and his arrow easily pierces the eye of the bird.
When I heard that story, I thought, “Right, that’s it. That’s what I want to be when I grow up. Arjuna.” Even if in later years I hid this desire, there was never really any doubt in my heart. I never thought, “Oh, I’m a woman, so I should be like Arjuna’s wife, or sister, or daughter.” Only being Arjuna would satisfy me. Yet millions of women for hundreds of years and to this day are relegated to only the sidekick roles. I’m not saying that we can’t carry out the roles of caretakers or give support to others in our lives. But choosing to step in and out of these roles freely and having these roles circumscribe your life are two different things. Yes, some things have changed for women, in some very important ways. But in many ways, old attitudes about gender and roles absolutely persist. I wonder if they will ever go away.
At the dojo, each of us who trains has the opportunity to be Arjuna, to pierce through the eye of the bird in our lives. I realized how I train with Sensei has nothing to do with any ideas of what a female person is “supposed to be.” As a teacher, and martial artist, he is taking every factor about me into account: my height, my weight, my flexibility, my speed, my cultural conditioning, my temperament, my past experiences. But these are simply tools to use, or limitations to break through. “More arm drags and suburi for you!” or “Oh, more heavy object training for you!”
Every day at the dojo, I am asked to push myself beyond what I think I am capable of. So many times, I think, “ok, maybe I’m going to die today. Who knows what’s going to happen.” I am taken seriously as a student, and as a student I’m treated as capable of taking a punch to the face, organizing a potluck, refining my technique, breaking through, or showing a new student how to bow on to the mat. Every single person at the dojo has the opportunity to do all of these things.
This non-consideration of gender as a limitation to training is why I think there are so many strong women at the dojo. Of course, as a woman specifically, Sensei supports me. I have had countless conversations with him about gender in my own culture. Once, he pointedly told me, “don’t you take any shit from any man.” Of course, Sensei is also supportive of men in the dojo and especially interested in what they think being a man is supposed to be. Men are challenged to go outside of the ideas of who they think they are, and what kinds of things men do. “Haryo, why don’t the men help more with folding the dojo laundry - do they think that it’s women’s work? Teach them.” And of the people who identify as gender non-binary? He is supportive of them too, learning more about the subject, using preferred pronouns in classes, and educating all of us.
But while there is a clear recognition of gender and how it functions in society, what is going on at the dojo is far more radical than a support for “girl power.” In terms of training on the mat, it simply does not matter to Sensei who you think you are, how you identify, how big you are. If you show up and train hard, things start to open up. Be prepared to have ideas of yourself smashed - no matter what these ideas are.
Most women have had some sort of messaging, either subtle, or if we are honest, not so subtle about how we are supposed to be. In every area of life, whether it is relationships, the workplace, or with families, most women have to play some sort of gender game or go along with some idea of what it means to be a woman. At the dojo, the only thing we are supposed to be is low to the ground, open, and sincere. And so, as difficult as the training is, the women are here. Because here is a space where we are encouraged to pierce through the eye of the bird. Here, we surf the big waves.