And now we know... more
This week I went to camp. Not just any camp, but the most magical place in my martial arts world: PAWMA Camp. The Pacific Association of Women Martial Artists (PAWMA) holds a camp every year, where martial artists from up and down the west coast, Canada, and other parts of the US gather for a long weekend of training together. The depth of knowledge and experience present at camp is incredible. And the amazing martial artists who attend come from a broad range of traditions: hard styles, soft styles, internal arts, external arts, traditions with weapons, and empty-hand practices.
When PAWMA was founded 45 years ago there were two gender categories of human recognized in the lexicon of broader society: men and women. Martial arts was dominated by men. Non-men were not respected as equals by their fellow students or even their teachers (if they could get a teacher to accept them as a student at all). As in broader society, sexism was alive and well at the dojo. And women were not welcome.
But, of course, women were still there. Still showing up to classes, still putting the effort in, and still achieving rank after rank in all the styles. So a group of women martial artists got together and invited all the other women from all the other dojos to train together for a weekend. They shared knowledge, skills, wisdom, and camaraderie across martial arts styles and in spite of inter-school politics and distrust.
Nowadays we have broader recognition of the vast array of gender expression. And we have a more nuanced understanding of who experiences gender-based oppression in both broader society and at the dojo. Martial arts is still dominated by men and non-men are still not always welcome or safe in their training spaces. If PAWMA were founded today, it might have some other word in its title where the W stands. A word I don't think we have yet.
What brought those founding women together in 1978 was their shared experience of isolation, invisibilizing, and lack of safety in their training spaces. They wanted a haven in which to train that wasn't dominated by toxic masculinity. Today there are women experiencing the same impacts of toxic masculinity in their martial arts spaces. And there are non-binary humans, trans folks, and gender non-conforming individuals who also share that particular marginalized experience because of their gender identity or gender expression.
We didn't used to have language in popular culture to describe any gender experience other than the male or female binary. Now we do. The same can be said for many other things. We didn't used to have language to describe the experience of many forms of mental illness. Now we do. We didn't used to have language to describe the impending impacts of climate catastrophe. Now we do. And now that we know more about these topics and have crafted more nuanced language to discuss them, it's time to address them.
In order to forge ahead and make the necessary changes and shift society, everybody who is used to doing it the way it has been done thus far needs to put some baggage down and get on the new-way-train. Specifically the giant, heavy, unwieldy suitcase of needing to get it perfect. I see many people struggle throughout their personal anti-oppression journey more than they need to because they are committed to instant perfectionism.
Perfect doesn't exist. It's a myth. There is no way to be perfect at relating to other humans all the time, everywhere, in every possible scenario. Even once you become highly skilled in some form of relating, like non-judgmental communication, there will still come a moment when you're not on your communication A-game because you're hungry or you're tired or your best friend just died. And that's fine. You need to be in-process, you don't need to be perfect.
In fact, fixating on perfection is one way various forms of oppression perpetuate and persist. If you're not allowed to change unless you can do the new version perfectly, then you continue to practice the problematic version. And if you continue to practice the problematic version, you're not getting any practice at the non-problematic or less-problematic version. And if you never practice, you'll never improve your skills. And that is basically a guarantee that you'll never be perfect at the new version.
This is one of my favorite things about studying martial arts. No matter how much you learn, how often you practice, and how skilled you become, there is always another layer to unpack. There is always a deeper depth to explore. As a martial artist, you're never done learning, growing, and adapting. We practice skills in a training environment so we can use them when needed in the real world. And that practice of being continually in-process applies directly to all other aspects of living, working, and being human. Including anti-oppression work of all varieties.
Martial arts teaches situational awareness, which we can use to dismantle systems of oppression by seeing what is, instead of merely accepting the narrative of the status quo. The dedication to lifelong learning includes continuous self-reflection, which we can use to shed light on our own bias and examine the impact we have on the world around us regardless of our intentions. Partner work gives us valuable feedback about what works and what doesn't since no human exists in a vacuum.
Even within the inherently hierarchical system of most martial arts systems exists an opportunity to teach and learn in a way that eliminates toxic superiority. One student's value is not created by diminishing another student. Each student's value derives from their own efforts, actions, and choices. We can model and encourage our students to value the unique contributions each student brings to the dojo. And we can use policy and take action to protect the most marginalized folks from toxic, dehumanizing, and oppressive treatment.
The PAWMA community has begun discussing what it means to be an organization started by women for women at this present moment in time. We know more about gender and gender-based discrimination than we did before, and we have more nuanced language for our discussions. But we are at the future-focused edges of this gender inclusion consideration with no well-worn and obvious path forward. We're going to have to make our own, just like the founders did in 1978. The process will surely be messy and complicated, but I'm not worried. We're warriors and we've done this kind of thing before, so it will also be beautiful and courageous and human.
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Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.