January 7, 2015 by Melissa Ray
“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.
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.
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.