Human Library: Life as a Female Muay Thai Fighter

In December, I took part in Bangkok’s first Human Library event for UN Women and Bangkok Rising as part of our 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.

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The Human Library is a unique storytelling concept that began in Copenhagen. It invites the public to ‘unjudge’ others by having open and honest conversations about difficult topics. The ‘books’ are people who have experienced discrimination, violence or marginalization. They tell their stories to audiences in small, intimate groups, who then have the opportunity to ask questions. The idea is to break down barriers, challenge stereotypes and remove stigma.

I helped to plan and organize the event and was asked to take part as a book, too. My book title was Under the Ropes: Life As a Female Muay Thai Fighter.

The other books titles for our Human Library were:

  • Our Life As Fabulous, Unapologetic, Unique, Proud LGBTQ Warriors
  • Life As an Asian Adoptee Facing Racism in France
  • Life As a Rape Survivor and Mental Health Activist
  • Life Growing Up As an Ethnic Minority Woman
  • Zootopia: Life As a Transgender Woman
  • Life As a Female Documentary Director
  • Life As His Obsession
  • A Story of Freedom: Life as a Survivor of Human Trafficking

The night began with an opening ceremony, which included a speech from a UN Women representative about violence against women, and an explanation of the ground rules.

human library bangkok rules

Each book was assigned a ‘librarian’ for the night, who made sure these rules were adhered to. Audience members could choose which stories they were most interested in, and visit them in their designated spot in the building. After each 20-minute session, they’d rotate to another book.

human library bangkok map

My Story

 

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Books weren’t required to bring any items to illustrate their stories, but I wanted some for mine. I brought a pair of gloves that I trained in every day for several years, some tape casts that I wore on my hands for multiple fights, a trophy, a medal, and a prajiet. Usually, these items sit on a shelf in my living room.

As well as providing imagery for my audience, they also acted as a reminder for me. Before, during and after my fighting career, I’ve often doubted myself. There were many times in which I felt that I wasn’t good enough, that I wasn’t cut out to be a fighter, or that my story didn’t matter. Now that I haven’t fought for so long, I find it even harder to connect with the image of myself as a fighter. These objects remind me of what I am, what I went through, and that I need to give myself more credit. So, it was important that they were part of my backdrop.

Here’s the story I told on the night:

I don’t look like much of a fighter. I never did. Anyone who knew me growing up was surprised when I became one — even me. I had no athletic background, and couldn’t even defend myself in a heated debate, let alone a physical fight. I was often described as a doormat or a pushover, and I believed those descriptions to be true.

When I found Muay Thai in 2010, something started to change in me. Learning to punch and kick was like discovering a secret power I never knew I had. At first, it was just a way to work out, but before long, training was all I wanted to do. So, I moved into a gym in Chiang Mai. When one of the trainers there asked me if I wanted to fight, I laughed. ‘I could never do that, I’m not good enough’, I thought. But secretly, I dreamt of getting in the ring just once. I just wasn’t confident enough to say it out loud yet.  

I later moved into another gym in Bangkok, where I built up the courage to have my first fight. After that, I dove in even deeper. Training and fighting became my entire life for the next several years, and I went on to fight 29 times.

Every time I fought, I grew, and I felt as though I came out of the ring as a different person each time. There, I was learning how to stand up for myself. I was used to avoiding conflict, keeping quiet and taking up as little space as possible. But in the ring, I fought back. I was never knocked down and I never gave up.

In the gym, I was still falling into those old habits, because as a woman, I was sometimes made to feel like I didn’t have as much of a right to be there as the men I trained with. Traditionally, the ring is a sacred space, and some people believe women shouldn’t have access to it. That’s why some stadiums don’t allow women to fight there, and even in the ones that do, we have to enter by crawling underneath the bottom rope while men step over the top one.

Many times, I was the last fight of the show, crawling into the ring at the end of the night when much of the audience had gone home. Afterwards, I’d pick up a pay packet that was sometimes half as much as the one my male teammates received.

I almost never had to crawl under the ropes in the gym, but I still had to navigate the space very carefully as a woman. I had to take extra care over the way I dressed, acted and spoke every day. I often felt isolated, or that I didn’t have as much freedom or value as the men there.

This was never clearer than in that first gym in Chiang Mai, when I was sexually assaulted by one of my trainers in 2010.

It happened after a gym night out. The trainer was very well-respected, and all of the men around me had told me what a great guy he was. So great, in fact, that I should stick with him because he would get me home safely at the end of the night.

But he didn’t.

Instead, he took me back to the gym and led me to a room behind the ring. His room. it was almost bare, apart from a mattress on the floor. Before I knew it, I was on that mattress, trying to pull my clothes back on as fast as he was pulling them off me, and trying to free my arms as he was pinning them down. I didn’t fight back. I couldn’t. I just froze, unable to move or speak.

I didn’t know that this was a normal response to trauma, so I didn’t report it to the police. The only people I told were the other men in the gym, who’d been out with me that night. When I broke down and cried, they were quick to tell me that it wasn’t their fault. They told me to “stop being so miserable”, “cheer up” and “get over it”. Some began sexually harassing me, and one even broke my door down in the middle of the night when I refused his advances.

The gym quickly went from being my sanctuary to a hostile environment, and I started to doubt my place in it. I was lucky that I found a place in my second gym in Bangkok, but even there, I had to carve it out myself every day. I then tried my best to welcome other women into it, because I know that there are many in Muay Thai who’ve been through the same thing I have — in more ways than one.

I know this because when I went public with my story, I heard lots of similar ones from women in other gyms. Just the other day, I was contacted by yet another woman who’d been assaulted by a trainer. It makes me so sad and angry that this is so common, and to some extent, accepted as normal. To many, this is just something we have to put up with if we go into a ‘male-dominated sport’. I refuse to accept this, so I’ve made it my mission to speak up against rape culture, both in my sport and elsewhere. 

This year, I’ve spoken publicly several times about my sexual assault. One of those appearances was in a room full of Thai police officers. I was invited by the British Embassy to speak a conference to train them on how to deal with other survivors of rape and sexual assault. It feels good to be using what happened to me to make a difference, and to have turned something that I once found shameful into a source of power. This is how I’m fighting back.

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I haven’t fought in the ring for 2 years now, but I still train as much as I can. Muay Thai is still my life, but sometimes I struggle to see myself as a fighter. Sometimes, I doubt myself. I forget about all those years I spent living and breathing the sport and the times I had my hand raised after winning by knockout. Instead, I get preoccupied with how my body doesn’t look or feel the same anymore, or the niggling thought that I was never any good at Muay Thai at all – which was often a seed planted by men around me. Several times during my fight career, trainers, family members, and even a boyfriend (now ex, to be clear) told me that I should give it up. They said that fighting wasn’t for me. But it was, and it is. 

Audience Response

Each audience responded differently, choosing different parts of my story to discuss further. Here are some of the thoughtful questions they asked. I’ve provided the answers that I gave at the event, with some added information that I didn’t have time to include on the night.

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Is it possible to make a living as a foreign fighter in Thailand?

There are people who do, so I can’t say that it’s impossible. However, I would never have done it. For a female fighter, it’s particularly difficult because big money fights are much harder to come by for us than they are for male fighters, and even when we get them, we’re often not paid as much as they are.

Even the most active foreign female fighters in Thailand use other means to support themselves. Some work full-time, part-time or seasonal jobs, and some are supported by spouses who work. Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu, who has the highest fight rate of any foreign Muay Thai fighter, supplements her income with the sale of online content via Patreon.

While I was fighting, I was also working full-time as an English teacher. I was fortunate that I didn’t have to rely on income from fights, so whatever was left after paying my cornermen, if anything, was extra pocket money.  There are lots of other women who are juggling fighting with teaching English, and some have told me that it’s been difficult to find a balance. There are definitely more women staying in Thailand and fighting long-term than ever before, so it’s becoming more and more accessible.

Why do women have to go under the ropes?

Traditionally, the ring is seen as a sacred place that’s protected by spirits or magic. This same magic applies to the mongkol, and this is why it’s worn on the highest point of the body, must be kept in a high place, and must always pass over the top rope.

Female bodies are seen as polluting that sacred space and disturbing the protective spirits. This is rooted in the belief that menstruation is unclean or impure, which is present in various cultures and religions. As a result, they must pass under the bottom rope. I always found it quite striking that not only could men go over the top ropes, but that this privilege was extended to certain objects over women. This is why we always have to put our mongkol on after we enter the ring, while men put theirs on before. Championship belts are usually passed over the top rope, too.

Sylvie has written extensively about this topic. Read her article, ‘The Story As To Why Women Are A Danger to Lumpinee Ring Protection‘.

Have any Thai women spoken out about sexual assault in Muay Thai?

There is only one account that I know of, which I found during my research for my piece on my own case. Lois Ann Dort reported that Salita Nakasem, a fighter at the Rangsit Stadium Muay Thai Institute, accused founder and president Amnuay Keitbumroong of sexual misconduct in 2001. However, I haven’t been able to find any further information about this case, despite searches in Thai and in English. It’s certainly something I’ll be looking into more.

Did you still have to see your trainer after he assaulted you? What happened after that?

He was removed from the gym after I told the manager the following day, but continued to harass me for some time. He would repeatedly knock on my door at night time asking me to speak to him, to be his girlfriend and to let him take care of me. Years later, when I started to see the way rape was talked about in Thai and depicted in Thai media, I began to understand why.

In Thai language, there are two different words to describe rape:

Bplum (ปล้ำ) – This word is used for wrestling and clinching, as well as forced sex. It’s also used to describe scenes in soap operas, in which male protagonists rape their female love interests. These scenes are often used in romantic storylines that see these couples entering into relationships and even getting married afterwards.

Khom kheuun (ข่มขืน) – This word is used to describe rape as a crime.

A Google image search for bplum ปล้ำ brings up pictures of soap opera scenes, while khom kheuun ข่มขืน mostly shows images of victims, perpetrators and police officers from news reports. I wrote more about this in my article on rape culture in Thailand.

What’s the difference between fighting at an amateur and professional level in Thailand?

This is a difficult distinction to make because Thai fighters often start so young, and without protective gear. You’ll rarely see bouts with shin guards, head guards, elbow pads and body protectors in Thailand, unless it’s at a tournament like IFMA or the annual pro-am championships.

If your definition of fighting professionally is getting paid for it, you’re probably a professional fighter the first time you step into the ring in Thailand.

Is it safe for young children to fight Muay Thai?

This is a subject of debate that arises periodically.

Dr. Jiraporn Laothamatas claims that child fighters are at risk of memory loss, neurological disorders, and even a lowered IQ. Her study, which is said to have involved MRI scans of fighters aged 15 and under, is often mentioned in articles that claim Muay Thai is ‘destroying children for sport‘ or ‘akin to child abuse‘. However, these articles never seem to include links to the study itself.

After the death of a 13-year-old Muay Thai fighter in 2018, it became a hot topic once again. Some suggested that children under 12 should be banned from fighting, or that protective gear should be enforced up until a certain age. Others argued that young children aren’t able to do serious damage and that fatalities only occur when regulations aren’t properly fulfilled by officials, referees or ringside doctors.

It’s a complex and controversial subject, and one that’s all too easy to sensationalize — especially by reporters who know little to nothing about the sport itself, let alone the underlying factors that come into play. In Thailand, some children train Muay Thai in the same way that children in the West play American football or soccer. Serious and even fatal injuries also occur in these sports, as well as many others. Muay Thai isn’t just a source of national pride, but also income, and many young fighters compete to provide financial support for their families.

Did you stop fighting because of your sexual assault?

No. It happened before I’d even had my first fight. I never considered giving up Muay Thai because of that, and didn’t even leave that gym at first. I didn’t want that man to stop me from doing what I was there to do.

There isn’t a singular reason why I stopped fighting. I left my gym, things changed and sometimes I feel like my life just doesn’t have space for it anymore. Sometimes I do think about fighting again, but right now I’m focused more on my work and on initiatives like this one. If I’m being honest with myself, the self-doubt I mentioned does factor into it, too. I have moments where I crave fighting again, and others where I’m glad that I’m not doing that anymore.

Does the lack of opportunities for female fighters mean that there are a lot of mismatches? ⠀

I think it can. I certainly experienced more size disparities than the male fighters in my gym. I had 29 fights against 23 different opponents, and I’ve seen other female fighters face the same people over and over again. This doesn’t seem to be due to demands for rematches, but because of a difficulty in finding suitable matches.

It can be harder for women to find fights, and for that reason, we don’t have the luxury of being able to pick and choose which ones we take. Many will accept just about any bout they can get, regardless of who their opponent is, because they’re so desperate to fight.

In Phuket in particular, it’s not out of the ordinary to see matches with significant size disparities. This is often ‘balanced out’ by an experience advantage for the smaller-bodied Thai fighter, who has almost always been fighting for longer than their foreign opponent. You’ll see these kinds of matches across all genders, but they seem to be more common for women, at least from what I’m seeing online.

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After being sexually assaulted in your gym, what did you need? What services or support do you wish you’d had at that time?

Making a report wasn’t a priority of mine, but I definitely knew that I couldn’t expect much help from the Thai police. Perhaps if I could have, my thought process would have been different. The main thing that was lacking for me was empathy, because I didn’t get a shred of that from anyone around me at the gym. I really felt that there was no one I could talk to who would listen to me without judgment. That’s why I kept it to myself and let it weigh so heavily on me for so long. Now, I try my best to be what I needed back then.

Have you noticed a difference in the way people treat or talk to you since you’ve become an activist?

Not especially, but there are occasionally people who’ll say that they feel they need to be careful what they say around me because of my feminism, which always prompts an eye roll. Of course, they assume that the problem is with me, rather than what they might say.

What can we do to stop toxic masculinity and rape culture?

I wish I had a simple answer to this. The best advice I can offer is to question your own biases and behaviours, because you have to start there. Do your own research, listen openly, and call out toxic comments and actions when you see them, if it’s safe to do so. Events like this one are great for getting important conversations going, but they’re probably only attracting audiences that are already interested and willing. There’s so much work to be done outside of that.

human library bangkok un

With some of the other books, as well as UN Women and French Embassy representatives who helped to make the Human Library happen. Books received UN goodie bags.

 

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With Sophia Loibl, who told her incredible story of survival after being trafficked from the age of just 3.

For more information on the event and other books who spoke that night, read UN Women’s article, ‘Turning the Page on Stereotypes at the Human Library‘ and ‘Gender-Violence Survivors Gather to Open Up, Fight Stigma in Bangkok‘ by Coconuts.

 See also:

The UN Women HeForShe University Tour

Using My Sexual Assault Story to Train Thai Police

Talking Sexism, Rape Culture and Muay Thai at the UN

 

 

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