Muay Ying in Thailand: Is the Glass Half Empty or Half Full?

21

January 7, 2015 by Melissa Ray

Teresa Wintermyr (Sweden) after winning the fight for third place in 2014’s World Muay Thai Angels tournament. Photo by Elaine Östman.

“Hey Melissa, why don’t you write an article on the current status of Muay Ying (women’s Muay Thai) in Thailand…?” suggested Kevin (Cummings), author and coordinator of the Faces of Thailand blog series in Chiang Mai City News.

“…from a feminist angle.”

I considered the word “feminist” and what the term has come to stand for in the modern day. Its meaning seems to have been skewed in recent years, with feminists mislabelled as man-haters and female pop stars mislabelled as feminists for baring their ass cheeks in music videos.

In fact, the dictionary definition of a feminist is “an advocate of the rights of women based on the theory of equality of the sexes”.

So am I a feminist? Well, of course I would like equal rights for women—I am one. But when it comes to Muay Thai in Thailand, I accept that there are—and probably always will be—gender inequalities. That said, personally, I don’t feel I’ve experienced any particular limitations in the sport because of my gender.

Perhaps I was lucky in my choice of gym. After moving to Thailand in mid-2006, I trained initially at Muay Thai Plaza in Bangkok, then at Chay Yai Gym in Chiang Mai, before returning to Bangkok and settling at my current gym, Eminent Air Boxing Gym, at the end of 2007.

At each of these gyms, I felt I received the same training as the male boxers. I was not excluded from any training activities, received equal instruction, and used the same facilities and equipment as the men. I had some excellent fight opportunities, including bouts on televised events to commemorate the birthdays of the King and Queen of Thailand, and ended up winning four world titles.

My fight purses in Thailand were by no means substantial (ranging from 1500 baht for fights in Chiang Mai to 10,000 baht for title defences), but they were comparable with those of the male foreign fighters from the gyms who competed on similar promotions, aside from a couple of major-name high earners.

I can’t say I haven’t had to listen to the odd sexist comment over the years, but—on the whole—I have no complaints about my treatment as a “nak muay ying” (female boxer) in Thailand.

I am one of few women to have been featured in the centrefold of Muay Siam weekly magazine.

However, not all gyms in Thailand are similarly accommodating to women. Pheung is one of two women training at a predominantly Thai fighters’ gym on the outskirts of Bangkok. The girls are allowed to train at the same time as the male fighters, and even to compete for the gym, but are forbidden from using the ring, and can only train in the gym’s matted area.

Whereas I have always been able to clinch and spar with men (including the Thai men), Phueng’s sole clinching and sparring partner is her fellow nak muay ying. I asked her how the male fighters at her gym respond to their presence.

“They’re shy!” she exclaimed. “Some of them talk to us but a few keep to themselves. They’re shy……shy of our monthly periods,” she specified.

Menstruation is the reason for all women having to enter any competition ring in Thailand below the lowest rope as it is believed that menstrual blood is polluting to spirits that protect fighters in the ring, negating their charms and magic. By entering the ring underneath the bottom rope, women are not considered higher than the spirits; thus the spirits’ protective powers remain intact.

Some foreign women are outraged at having to crawl on their knees into a boxing ring and consider it a denigrating practice, suggestive that women are lower level than men. Personally, I have never been overly bothered by the custom. I regard it as one of the many Thai rituals I don’t necessarily understand or agree with but do out of respect for the culture of the country I’ve chosen to spend time in.

The major stadiums in Bangkok (Rajadamnern Boxing Stadium, Lumpinee Boxing Stadium, Channel 7 Boxing Stadium and Siam Omnoi Stadium) go one step further and prohibit women from competing in—and even touching—the ring.

Former WMC intercontinental champion Niamh Griffin (Ireland) spent a decade in Thailand from the late 1990s—as professional fighter and, later, female commission member for IFMA—and wrote an article that covered the history of women in Muay Thai in Thailand. In her article, she described that Lumpinee and Rajadamnern stadiums both held female bouts during the 1960s and 1970s, until an incident at Rajadamnern in the 1970s resulted in the unofficial ban that remains today.

“A female TV producer was in the stadium preparing for a shoot. She stood in the ring while giving directions. No doubt a few people were uneasy about this, and when every one of the night’s fights ended in serious cuts, the natural thought was that this proved women did not belong anywhere near a boxing ring.”

Anyone who has visited Lumpinee Boxing Stadium will have noticed the signs displayed ringside: “LADIES PLEASE DON’T TOUCH THE STAGE”.

Although Channel 7 Boxing Stadium does not display such signage, the policy is just as strictly enforced. I can remember once watching one of my Thai team mates compete at the stadium. His girlfriend had come along to support and was standing in the area immediately adjacent to the ring. Probably unaware of the no-touch ruling for women, she momentarily grasped the side of the ring as she cheered during the bout. A stadium official quickly rushed over, shooing her back as he barked, “Haam jab waytee! (Don’t touch the ring!)”, while ignoring my friend’s male supporters as they thumped on the ring canvas to spur my friend on.

Despite these restrictions, in other stadiums around the country, current day Muay Ying goes from strength to strength. Gone are the days when female bouts would be tagged onto the ends of promotions, with limited interest from the audience; women’s fights now feature prominently on many cards.

In 2014, Thailand held its highest profile female Muay Thai event—the World Muay Thai Angels (WMA) promotion: a 16-woman tournament (57 kg) held in three stages, culminating in its finale in Koh Samui last April. The prize for the overall winner was 1 million baht and a Toyota Vios car—a prize of such magnitude previously unknown for a Muay Ying competition in Thailand.

The promotion’s unique selling point was its emphasis on the beauty of the contestants, with a slogan “sud suay Muay Thai” (most beautiful Muay Thai) that continued the beauty theme. Prior to the competition, all of the contestants attended promotional shoots and events in full make up, party wear and heels. Fight wear consisted of satin shorts and cropped tops with cutaway sections—slightly more revealing than that typically worn by nak muay ying in Thailand. Weigh in garments, promotional boards, tickets, brochures, ring canvases and ropes were all coloured various shades of pink.

PC? No. Appealing to the public? Yes.

WMA promotional photo of contestant Teresa Wintermyr (Sweden).
Image source: www.facebook.com/Muaythaiangels

WMC world champion Teresa Wintermyr (Sweden) has been based in Thailand since 2008 and was the third-placed contestant in last year’s WMA tournament. She described the competition as a huge success, which gained a lot of exposure.

“I think the beauty concept of the promotion is what made it so popular in Thailand, which would probably be a bit politically incorrect in many other countries but in Thailand it certainly works this way. I think it was necessary in order to reach a bigger audience and not just the regular Muay Thai followers.”

The tournament certainly made a superstar of its winner, Thailand’s Chommanee Sor Tehiran, who has since appeared in numerous television shows and magazine interviews, and in Muay Siam’s 2015 calendar.

On the King’s Birthday last year (December 5th, 2014), Chommanee competed in and won a super 4-woman tournament at Sanam Luang in Bangkok, taking home the 100,000 baht prize and UNiTE trophy.

In a super 4-man tournament held on the same night (with an equal number of scheduled rounds), the winner was awarded 200,000 baht in prize money—double the women’s prize.

One-hundred thousand baht is a more than respectable prize for a women’s competition in Thailand, and demonstrates that Muay Ying is finally achieving the recognition it deserves from promoters and spectators. However, the discrepancy between the values of the men and women’s tournament prizes provides an indication of the gender inequalities that remain in Muay Thai. Though it’s fair to say that similar pay discrepancies based on gender occur in pretty much all sports, aside from tennis, for which an equal pay policy was introduced for the grand slam tournaments a few years ago.

It seems to me that judging the current status of Muay Ying in Thailand is kind of an “is the glass half empty or half full?” situation. We can focus on existing pay inequalities and the (largely superstition-based) restrictions that remain, or on recent rapid development and progress, and the increasing opportunities available for nak muay ying.

In my opinion, the glass is half full. And it’s getting fuller by the day.

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21 thoughts on “Muay Ying in Thailand: Is the Glass Half Empty or Half Full?

  1. domchin says:

    Melissa, great write-up. You’ve given a balanced view, free of judgement n angst. Tq for sharing!

  2. Great article – thank you.

  3. Niamh says:

    Very balanced Melissa, a great read!
    And so true, it does all depend on which gym you are in.
    I was lucky enough to spend most of my fight career with trainers like yours who treated me more or less the same as a foreign male fighter. But I did also spend time in more rural gyms where I was not allowed to train in the ring – very frustrating when preparing for fights let me tell you! I could clinch, spar etc in those places with men but only on the ground.
    To be honest it annoyed me more after I retired and could do something about it with IFMA; when I was fighting it was more a case of “heave a big sign and then get on with it”. I have huge respect for people like Katie Taylor in amateur boxing who fights and battles the gender differences in her sport at the same time.
    We have come so so far though – when I started women’s fights were always last so we wouldn’t contaminate the ring for the men. That could mean fighting at 1 or even 2am. It’s incredible to see a 100,000THB prize for women’s fighting – who knows where we will be in another 20 years?!

  4. Great write up Melissa. My experience has been varied. I found that gyms that were accustomed to training Foreigners or had Foreigners in their families (or administration) seemed to be the ones that were more egalitarian in their treatment of me. That being said, in gyms where I found the imbalance more defined, I often found people within it that issued me the same respect as the men. It really was hit or miss for me, and often, I found it more to be on an individual level (meaning trainer, etc.) than a gym’s culture. I did train predominately in gyms that didn’t allow me in the ring, or gyms where I had to train last for being female, among other things (waiting to shower last, not having clinching partners, not being allowed to use the same mongkon as the men, etc.), but I didn’t feel that my humanity was degraded save for a few nasty people. It’s interesting, even writing this comment, there’s battling emotions going on, etc. – ie how a gym’s cultured based on division possibly enhanced someone’s ability to treat me in ways I felt exploited based on my gender, among other things, and not exclusive to exploitation I saw of younger, male, Thai nak muays.

    So yes, great piece Melissa – it has left me thinking…

    Lastly, it’s great to hear that things are improving for muay ying in Thailand.

    • Melissa Ray says:

      Thanks Laura. I suppose my article would have been quite different if I’d had the experiences you describe. Yes, things are definitely improving for Muay Ying over here and many more women becoming involved in the sport who are non-fighters.

  5. Melissa, it feels a little strong to say that there are western women who are “outraged” by having to go under the bottom rope. Perhaps you are thinking of someone, or comments I have not read or have forgotten. It seems more that some western women regard this as demeaning and unfortunate, and something invariably also linked to concepts of gender that affect the real opportunities of women to have careers as fighters. But as Sylvie wrote, it is not just foreign women who feel this way about the bottom rope, some Thai female boxers do too, as this Thai boxer said: “At least give us the second rope” (see the video in this post):
    http://8limbs.us/muay-thai-fighting/can-bleed-like-a-man-meme-lumpinee-muay-thai-culture-and-sexism

    Every day we watch 13 year old Phetjee Jaa crawl under the bottom rope in the ring at her family home, as a dutiful daughter and good Thai girl. She is a great kid. Phetjee Jaa who has fought 150 fights and is likely the most promising female fighter talent in all of Thailand. But we also see that when her father isn’t looking she sometimes does not. Does she feel the difference?

    It seems to me that any custom or rite that helps anchor beliefs that a class of people are polluting to the health of another more privileged class of people is not a good one in the end.

    It does not make sense to me that we are forced to choose between focusing on those customs that hold women’s opportunities back OR focus on the advancements that women have had. It isn’t an either/or situation. We should keep both in mind. There is no reason to choose sides. The glass is the glass, it has some water in it, we want to put more water in it.

  6. […] them. During this time, Melissa Ray of Muay Thai on the Brain wrote a post entitled ‘Muay Ying in Thailand: Is the Glass Half-Empty or Half-Full?‘, which I’d like to direct you to. Although some of the opinions voiced here […]

  7. Thanks for the nod, Melissa. The usual good read from you on what will always be an interesting subject: Muay Thai.

  8. femvocates says:

    Hi Melissa!! I read your article back in January while I was training Muay Thai in San Kamphaeng at Santai. I have just launched a new website about advocating for feminism around the world. I thought that this article fits PERFECTLY with our website. Would it be possible to re-post this article on my website? The website is http://www.femvocates.com if you want to check it out. Of course, I would properly credit you with a bio that includes the link to this site.

    Please let me know!
    Thank you so much!
    -Rebecca (a fellow Muay Thai lover!)

  9. […] my article “Muay Ying in Thailand: Is the Glass Half Empty or Half Full?” was re-posted on Femvocates website. Femvocates is a site created by fellow Muay Thai […]

  10. I believe that in Thailand, women fight under the same rules as men, with three minute rounds and full elbows being the norm, whereas in the west, women are still often restricted to two minutes. That’s true emancipation. It’s very obvious now that women are perfectly capable of handling 3 minute rounds, and to say otherwise is reminiscent of the early 60s when people seemed to believe that women were too fragile to run marathons (!!).

    It does seem ironic that, in a country that allows women to fight with full Thai rules, these superstitions still exist. But at least you and many others have been able to fulfill their dreams of fighting the Thai way.

    • Melissa Ray says:

      I think it’s 5 x 2 min here too. At a few venues 4 x 2 min for women, which is odd because it’s an even number of rounds. But at least full elbows is the norm over here.

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