Talking Sexism, Rape Culture and Muay Thai at the UN

Of all the places I expected Muay Thai to take me, the United Nations wasn’t one of them.  However, in June, that’s exactly where it led me. I was invited to the UN’s Asia Pacific headquarters to speak, as part of a production of The Vagina Monologues.

A few month’s prior, I’d been chosen as the ‘Vagina Warrior’ for this year’s production of the show in Bangkok. Upon hearing about the show, UN Women invited us to do another one exclusively for their staff, as part of their Orange Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

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Previously, I’d been asked to speak at the end of the show. This time, I was opening it up. After a short introduction, Melissa Alvarado, the UN’s Ending Violence Against Women program manager, welcomed me to the stage.

“To help ease us into tonight’s performance, I’d like to invite Emma Thomas to share her story with us”, she began. “Emma is a Muay Thai fighter who is raising her voice about sexual assault and sexist practices in Muay Thai and about rape culture. Welcome, Emma.”

Here’s what I said after she passed me the microphone.

“Muay Thai has been so empowering for me, but it’s also shown me over and over again that as a woman, I’m not viewed as equal to the men I share the gym space with.

Male fighters enter the ring by stepping over the top rope, while female fighters have to crouch down and crawl underneath the bottom one. Then, there are some rings that we’re not allowed to enter at all. If you go to the most prestigious stadium in Thailand, you’ll see signs that say ‘ladies, do not touch the ring’.

Being a female fighter, in my experience, can be isolating. My way of combatting that was to write about it. I set up my site, Under the Ropes, where I wrote about how much I loved Muay Thai, how much it helped me grow, and what it was like to be a woman fighting in Thailand. That also meant writing about how I wasn’t treated in the same way or afforded the same opportunities as the men I trained with, and how sometimes I was paid half as much as them for fighting on the same shows. I also wrote about how, very early in my Muay Thai career, in one of the very first gyms I ever trained at in Thailand, I narrowly escaped an attempted rape by one of my own trainers. And, how when I spoke up about it, the other men in the gym responded with a weird mixture of bullying me, blaming me, completely ignoring me, and trying to sleep with me.

The takeaway from this is not that Muay Thai is dangerous for women, because the world is dangerous for women, and what happened to me happens everywhere. It happens anywhere that women are viewed as ‘less than’, and that includes the spaces in which we seek safety and community and empowerment.

When I did share my story, I was overwhelmed by the response I got from other women who reached out to me and said ‘this happened to me, too’. Incredibly, I was also contacted by the British Embassy, who said ‘we read your story, and we need to change how we respond to cases of rape and sexual assault in Thailand. Can we talk?’

I don’t think that women should have to bare our most traumatic experiences in order to create change. But when we do, and when people listen, amazing things can happen. That’s why community and support are so important. It’s also why I’m so proud to be part of what the UN and Bangkok Rising are doing today.”

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Going Under the Ropes

The ‘under the ropes’ rule is the clearest indicator of gender discrimination in Muay Thai. To many women in the sport, it serves as a constant uncomfortable reminder. However, to those on the outside, it’s not common knowledge.

A lot of Thai people are unaware of this rule, and many have expressed surprise when I’ve mentioned it. But it’s not just people outside of Muay Thai who are oblivious to it. This blissful ignorance extends to men in the sport, too.

Many male fighters are completely unaware of it because it’s never affected them. I realised this when I had my first fight for Attachai Gym.  Attachai has had 200 fights, reached the highest levels of Thailand’s most prestigious stadiums, and both fought and taught Muay Thai internationally. Still, when he took me to fight in Bangkok for the first time, he had no idea that I had to go under the ropes until I told him. Even when I did, he didn’t immediately believe me.

Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu had a similar experience with Kaensak Sor. Ploenchit. She told this story in a 2016 post, Stories of the Bottom Rope. Here’s an excerpt:

“I told him I had to get into the ring first and couldn’t wear the mongkol while doing so because I have to go under the ropes. He looked incredulous, like he’d literally never heard this before. “Who told you?” he asked me…Kaensak was in such disbelief about it that he made me wait until my opponent had gotten into the ring and he’d actually witnessed her going under the ropes before he decided he’d go along with it.”

These men have grown up in Muay Thai, had their entire lives revolve around the sport, and reached legendary status as fighters. Despite this, they’d managed to be completely unaware of this rule until they had to corner a female fighter.

This reminds me just how important it is to keep talking about it. To me, and to so many other female fighters, it’s just part of the Muay Thai lifestyle. We accept it as part of the sport we love, and respect the traditions and rituals it’s based on. When you’ve passed under the bottom rope enough times, it becomes a routine. Eventually, I became conditioned into knowing ‘my place’ in the ring without needing to be told. So much so, that in one fight, when members of production staff held down the top rope for me to step over like the men who had fought just before me, I refused to do so. Instead, I gestured for them to lift up the bottom one so that I could go under as normal. It was as if a cage had been accidentally left open, but instead of making a dash for freedom, I instinctively stayed put. I didn’t want to cause any upset.

While I still follow the gender-based rules of Muay Thai, I’m no longer afraid of upsetting anyone. That’s why I’ll be continuing to speak publicly about my experiences as a female fighter and campaigning for change. I’m happy to say that UN Women is providing me with a platform for that.

Working with UN Women

After the event, UN Women published a ‘From Where I Stand’ article on me. These stories highlight women who are facing challenges and making changes within their communities. I was honoured that they’d chosen my story to highlight.

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This sparked the beginning of a working relationship with UN Women. They’ve invited me to partner with them for future events and campaigns. The first is the HeforShe University Tour.

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In September, I’ll be going to several Universities around Bangkok for the tour to promote gender equality on each campus. This will involve talks by myself and other activists, Cindy Bishop’s Don’t Tell Me How to Dress Exhibition, and panel discussions with students, professors and activists about gender issues. Each event will end with an ‘ideathon’, which is a workshop with students to discuss the prevention of gender-based violence on their university campus. I’ll facilitate these workshops, encouraging students to share their ideas, experiences and concerns. We’ll brainstorm potential solutions, and at the end, we’ll submit them to the university administrators to demand action.

I’m delighted to be taking part in this campaign and excited to work more with UN Women. Here’s an itinerary for one of the events, with details of how to join.

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