Recently, in international news, Saudi Arabian women were granted the right to vote starting in 2015. Crazy, right? Here we are in this day and age, celebrating that women are being seen equally. But we have to remind ourselves women weren’t always seen as equals (some may argue are still not). There used to be a time where not only were women not voting, they were not driving, or owning property, or training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
When Yvone Duarte started training jiu jitsu, she didn’t have the same amount of females to look up to as we do today. In fact, she had none. Yvonne is credited with being the first black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu history. Her journey was hard, but she paved the way for girls in gis. Being a woman in South America, not only was she working, but she was responsible for “the education of the children, and housekeeping.” Yvone was also aware that “sexism makes every situation worse,” and “devoting time to a sport such as jiu jitsu was not easy” for women. The determination and disciple was another daily struggle, but one that she pursued wholeheartedly. Yvonne believes that this may explain why of her generation “she was the one to reach the black belt.” She recalls, briefly, having to juggle her job, and training, all while being pregnant. But for her, as with most of us, “a day without training is an incomplete day.”
Women like Leticia Ribeiro, Mackenzie Dern, and Gabi Garcia are following the path paved by Yvone, and young girls now have role models to look up to, and women who have games they can aspire to. Yvone thinks that it’s incredible. She feels a great satisfaction seeing “a significant number of women on the mat in various corners of the world.” But it wasn’t always an option for women to compete. In the ‘80s, Yvone and the 14 women training with her in the gym needed to test their knowledge. They wanted to compete. Yvone remembers asking Marcelo Behring and Rickson Gracie if women could be included in the Carioca Championship. “Today, this seems easy,” Yvone said, but at the time there was a huge barrier. When the question was then taken to Master Helio Gracie, he agreed under the context “no women of the Gracie family participate.” Soon after, other leagues and associations followed suit. Sometimes, the women did up to four fights, and though there were few, “the technical quality [was] assured.” Thus, ushering in the era of women competing.
So as women continue to grow in the sport of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, they continue to open doors and create paths. While Yvone was the first, she will not be the last woman in jiu jitsu. For women new to sport, or those have been long time players, Yvone offers this piece of advice; “Jiu- jitsu can be a sport, an art, a social environment, a philosophy. No matter what it is, it is you that decide what jiu- jitsu represents in your life!”