So, we've covered the basics of some of the most popular martial arts in the world, and now it's time to get into the politics and gender issues. Here's where it gets contentious, and where things get a bit uglier than the ideal. Like most other areas, women face significant challenges in martial arts. But there are definite positives as well!
But first, the positive:
It's better as a woman in martial arts than it's ever been (or so I think)
I realize of course that this is incredibly subject, but hear me out. First off, many styles that were once almost exclusively run by and for men are now incredibly open and welcoming to women worldwide. My style, kyokushin, was basically a boy's fight club in its earliest days. Now, BOTH of the dojos I trained at in New York and LA/OC have significant numbers of women in a variety of roles, including instructors. In fact, the NY dojo was run by a couple, both of which were high-level black belts. The primary instructor's wife was also a black belt! Most of my brown belt sempai were women, even! In short, there was nothing to hold the women back from practicing and doing VERY well.
And the same will be seen in many other schools, dojos, and studios. The upside is also that they tend to attract more girls and women, which puts into effect a positive feedback loop. That's a big plus!
The other good thing is that the days of women not having any good opportunities for competition are definitely over (though they remain fewer, as I will explain), as most large martial arts organizations have women's/girls tournaments, and they are generally well-populated. If you want to compete, you will have your shot.
Furthermore, if you want to go pro, that's starting to finally materialize with the introduction of a women's class in UFC and in a few pro boxing circuits for women. And, despite early idiotic protests that nobody would watch women fight, women's UFC ratings have been quite good. Whether this is because of the "novelty" (gross) or because they're amazing fighters (my personal opinion) remains to be seen, but so far so good.
But it's still harder to be a woman
Here's the inevitable, and unfortunate, bad side: it's still harder to be a woman. No duh, right? But let me explain.
Firstly, even if women are often very successful as instructors, they are often in charge of the children's classes. Now, these classes also tend to attract a fair number of girls, so that's a plus, but this seems to remain true in my experience across a wide variety of martial arts. In many cases, women end up teaching the kids.
Secondly, there still remain far fewer women-run martial arts schools. It is still a largely male-run field. That is not to say that there aren't any, but there are definitely fewer. One could be an optimist though and say that this is an opportunity for women to move in and show 'em how it's done, because most martial arts schools are a TOTAL mess. But that's a different topic.
Finally, there still is, of course, sexism. We don't have to go far in the martial arts goods section to see it, like when my wife and I tried to buy some grappling gloves as the the only smaller sized gloves were pink:
Not to say that there's anything wrong with pink— in fact, I love the color pink and frequently wear pink shirts and ties— but the problem is that the only color is pink. It's one thing if there's a choice, it's another if the assumption is, "The wimmens love the pinks." So yeah, there's that.
Women and UFC
Damn, why is it always pink? Why not neon green? Or bright yellow? Anyway...
UFC is built on profit. I get that. But here we see the ugly underbelly: it's still selling the male gaze. That's not to say that UFC doesn't have a female audience, and that it doesn't also sell some of its fighters' attractiveness (hi there, GSP! I hate you for being so fucking awesome at everything, including abs!) but let's look at one of the current top heavyweight fighters in the world: Antonio Silva.
Silva is by no means "conventionally attractive," yet his fights sell very well. Can anyone seriously imagine Ronda Rousey's fights selling as well if she weren't conventionally attractive? There is a product there, and it's definitely not just fighting. Very few of the MMA sites and coverage even mention GSP's good looks, but boy oh boy do they harp on Rousey's.
Regardless, I believe that there is a big sea change in women's fighting, and that thanks to the amazing current batch of women's fighters, we will see an increase in women's fighting events. Whether we have a "not-svelte welterweight" class ever is a big, and important question.
On the Fallox Fox Controversy
Oh man, there is so much shit here that I can't even begin. Basically, Fallox Fox is a transgender woman who has been fairly successful lately in UFC. This has led some people to argue that she has an "unfair" advantage on account of formerly being a man.
What a load of garbage, I say. And, somewhat surprisingly, the UFC has agreed. In fact, when a male UFC fighter, Matt Mitrione went on some idiotic tirade, the UFC suspended him saying his behavior was unacceptable. And then Ronda Rousey also went ahead and said some slightly less stupid shit and didn't get suspended (yet?)
[My personal take? If you're as tough as you seem Rousey, it won't matter. Fox's weight and yours will likely match up, and the bone density won't mean shit. STFU and focus on your training and fighting, rather than bitching that Fox might have some advantage.]
So yes, there is still ugliness in MMA with regards to women, but I think that a lot what I've mentioned is not particularly endemic to MMA. And, frankly, UFC's somewhat staunch defense of Fox's rights to be respected as both a woman and as a fighter has been fairly impressive coming from an organization that only a few years ago would have probably imploded under the idea of women fighting at all. So that's progress!
Before you take the second half and decide, "oh jeez, fuck this martial arts shit!" try to understand that I think that, on the whole, martial arts is a great pursuit for anyone, regardless of age or gender. And I will say it again: it's better today than it's ever been. You will usually not have a hard time finding a school that will support you and help you to learn. But I want to discuss this honestly and critically, because even if it is something that I love, there is always room for improvement.
5. (Just added!) Styles not covered here, including kendo, krav maga, and Chinese martial arts