It’s early Monday morning, and I’m in the gym. It’s my favorite place in the world, and probably the place where I spend the most time outside of my house. The 15-or-so other members of my jiu jitsu cohort stand along the wall with me, waiting for our instructor to share our day’s lesson.
We are dressed the same: We wear crisp white gis — also affectionately known (by me) as grappling pajamas. We have the same posture: standing at attention, hands clasped behind our backs. But we are not the same. I am the only woman in attendance. By my eyeball estimate, I am lighter than the closest-sized male by at least 30 pounds.
And as soon as my instructor finishes talking, one of those large men is going to put most of his weight across my body and will attempt to bend one of my joints backwards until I cry “uncle.”
As a feminist, I often ask myself what the hell I’m doing in a jiu jitsu dojo, a place that feels, very clearly, like a place made for people who are not me. Examine the evidence. There’s a single changing room, and although it’s ostensibly for either gender — it has a lock — 90% of the time it’s occupied by men. Men teach the classes, men attend the classes, and men make up the majority of competitors in the sport.
During classes, I often hear testicle jokes. I’m usually sweat on by men. I sometimes must cope with young training partners who are clearly uncomfortable grappling with a woman. I don’t judge their discomfort: jiu jitsu is intimate. When we spar, there is no way to avoid coming in very, very close contact.
This gym, like many other places in our society, is a predominately male space. So does this mean I shouldn’t use it? Should women give a wide berth to places men frequent? For me this answer is integral to everything I work for as a feminist.
Although my morning classes are generally majority-male, there are an increasing number of women who train alongside me. When I began at the gym, a small group of experienced women took me under their tutelage and made sure I was comfortable. Chief among the lessons they taught me? It’s OK to say “no” to anyone who makes you feel uncomfortable.
As a woman, hearing that spoken out loud was a revelation. And given self defense skills to counter any attack was life changing. Because although the gym can be a mostly male space, the sport is ideal for empowering women. Women who train are women who can feel confident in many situations — including rooms in which they are the only woman.
It’s clear that integration of gendered spaces is always a good thing. It breaks down walls for our sisters and our non-binary-gendered friends who deserve equal access. It goes beyond bathrooms to unspoken barriers to places where only men or only women are expected — like auto shops or preschool classroom.
What’s your story of breaking down walls? Share with us in the comments, here or on Facebook.