No two Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) journeys are the same. Just as the journeys are unique, so are the females that have chosen this path. Some choose to start earlier in life, some later. Some are looking for something and for some that thing finds them. Females come in all shapes and sizes and so do their personalities, dispositions and how they handle life experiences. Some may be considered girly girls, some tomboys, but most don’t fit a label. There is not a single type that fits the mold of a Jiujiteira (female that trains Jiu-Jitsu). Women take on many roles and wear many hats. They are mothers, daughters, wives, sisters, doctors, students, lawyers, homemakers and waitresses. Even though they are as different, they all have one thing in common. It is their love for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu that unites them regardless of social, economic and cultural differences.
There are so many reasons females seek out Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training. Some want to learn how to professionally fight or fight back because they have been bullied, victimized, attacked and suffered some kind of trauma. Some females are looking for a way to get in shape and find an outlet to better themselves and build confidence. Regardless of the reason, most of these females find Jiu-Jitsu because of someone in their lives; a friend, spouse, partner, father or even child, encouraged them to explore the art. Men have often played a huge part in helping the growth of females in BJJ.
Taking that first step on a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu journey is the hardest. You have to be brave to enter an academy and step on those mats for the first time. It can be intimidating for both males and females. Trying something new can be scary and exciting. The concerns females have when starting BJJ are similar to that of males for the most part, but there are some subtle differences.
For males and females alike, common concerns are:
1) They have old injuries they don’t want to re-injure or don’t want to get injured
2) They are afraid they will not be good at it
3) They feel out of shape and need to get in shape to train
4) They feel intimidated by the instructor, class or just training in general
Some males might be concerned about getting their asses kicked and egos bruised, whereas females may be uncomfortable with grappling and having their personal space invaded. Most females have much less experience than men in rough housing because it not the social norm for females to be physically “fighting” with each other or with males. However, the times they are a’changing and with the mainstream popularity of Mixed Martial Arts and rising acknowledgement of female fighters, the idea won’t be as foreign for females in the generations to come.
Some females need a little nudge in the right direction to start their BJJ journey. Just having one female on the mats is a start and if that one female sticks with it, soon many more will come and be inspired and motivated to start their journeys as well. Women’s only introductory classes are also a great way to provide females with a comfortable and less intimidating environment to explore the art. Female groups that host open mats and events such as Sweaty Betties, Inspire and Girls in Gis (just to name a few) are also great ways to encourage newbies and provide support and encouragement for those already practicing. The key to having a higher percentage of females on the mats is rather simple; provide a welcoming, safe, supportive and encouraging environment. There will not only be a higher percentage of women, but as a whole an academy will flourish and be successful.
BJJ is not easy. If it was, then it wouldn’t be as addicting as it is. Everyone has their own challenges in BJJ. Everyone will want to quit at some point or another. Being the only female or one of a few females training at your academy can not only be challenging, but sometimes lonely. Even in the most supportive of environments a female can sometimes feel isolated because she doesn’t fit in or has to work harder to. Women have always had to fight harder to earn respect to prove they belong in a “man’s world”, the mats are just another place that this applies. Females have to train harder to prove themselves and their value on the mats and overcome challenges that men don’t have to simply because they are the gender minority. This doesn’t mean females deserve anything more or less than males. Women are not “entitled” to anything other equality and the respect she earns.
Even though some men are encouraging females in BJJ, others are still under the opinion that women don’t belong on the mats. These males will sometimes resort to tactics like bullying females physically and emotionally to drive them out of the gym. Some instructors won’t roll with female students. Some guys see rolling with a female as an open invitation to be inappropriate with sexual advances. Some guys think they are being supportive by “letting” a female tap them, but in reality they are doing a disservice to her by giving her a false sense of effectiveness in her technique. Phrases like “You are really good for a girl ” or “you’re strong for a girl” are just as damaging when used even with the intention to be supportive. Some guys are simply uncomfortable with having women on the mats. Very few women will survive or put up unhealthy training environment. A good sign of the culture within an academy is in the number of females you see on the mats.
Just under 100 years after the birth of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and despite much resistance, females are just now coming into their own in the BJJ world and starting to get some recognition for their efforts. The playing fields are not leveled, but there is hope for the future. Nothing has been handed to females. They earned recognition with the same blood, sweat and tears as their male training partners.
This progress has been made largely because of the efforts on part of the brave trail blazers like Yvone Duarte, Hannette Staack, Leka Viera, Leticia Ribeiro, Luca Dias and all the inspirational women that did all the heavy lifting to pave the path for the females training . The top level competitors of today like Bia Mesquita, Michelle Nicolini, Mackenzie Dern, Tammi Musumeci, Gabi Garcia and many more have brought females into the spot light in the competition circuit. All of the women before each generation have made it easier for the generations to follow, They have perpetuated the forward motion of the movement toward equality. Progress has been made, however there is still a very long way to go before we can honestly say gender really isn’t an issue on the mats and there is equality as a whole.
Jiu-Jitsu is an amazing tool for females that teaches females their value, discipline and supports them to be who they are with honesty and courage. Females that train BJJ don’t need to tear each other down to feel good about themselves, because they learn to be confident in whom they are. Jiu-Jitsu gives one strength to go through life and face its many ups and downs. It teaches life lessons and how to get out of the worst of situations and come out on top. It teaches self-reliance and how to protect oneself.
For so many women who are prone to body image issues, it teaches them love their body and to be in tune with their body. Jiu-Jitsu teaches females to always seek better lives for themselves and to express themselves freely in nontraditional ways and push limiting boundaries. To be fearless, brave and to be so many things that society has been telling females for many generations they are not.
Jiu-Jitsu disproves negative female stereotypes. Females are not weak. They are strong. It gives females the ability to take back their power they so willing have given away and that has been taken. The struggles they overcome and battle wounds they endure make them into who they are and inspire the next generations to take even further than the one before.
Girls in Gis staff writer
Shama Ko is a brown belt with Gracie Humaita out of Austin, TX. She has been a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner since November of 2003. She is a photographer, writer, community organizer and activist. She heads the Girls in Gis organization or as she calls it the “movement”. She describes herself as both a lover and a fighter. She loves to laugh and not take life too seriously.