‘Muay Thai Feminist’ – My Interview with The People

I was recently interviewed by Thai news outlet The People about my experience as a female fighter and a feminist in Muay Thai.

The article is in Thai language, and you can see the original in full on The People’s website, or in the Facebook post below. It was captioned with a Thai translation of a quote of mine from the interview. It reads, “I love Muay Thai…but sometimes I think that Muay thai doesn’t love me back because I’m a woman”.

Here is an English version of the article:

Emma Thomas: A Muay Thai fighter who calls for equality in the ring.

The path of female fighters in 2020, when Thai society is still under patriarchy: We Talk to Emma Thomas, Muay Thai fighter and creator of the Under The Ropes blog.

“Are women physically weaker than men? No, you can’t generalize like that. You can find very strong women and very weak men everywhere. We see a variety of shapes and strengths in every gender, so we can’t simply say that women are inherently weaker than men. It’s far more complex than that”.

In 2019, UN Women honored Thailand as the first country in Asia to host the #HeForSheUniversityTour. As part of this campaign to end sexual violence, one of the speakers invited to speak at the event was Emma Thomas, a young English woman who began chasing her dream of becoming a professional fighter to Thailand in 2011. After spending several years training full-time and fighting professionally, she has now slowed down her pace of life. In 2018, she stopped fighting (although she still trains regularly) and began working with Decathlon Thailand to help create their Muay Thai brand, Waikru. 

On the HeForShe stage, this tough female fighter shared her experience of being sexually assaulted at a Muay Thai gym. She talked about her feelings and the reactions of those around her. In almost 10 years of living in Thailand, Emma has seen both dark and light corners. She wrote a viral article on #RapeCultureInThailand, in which she analyzes the culture of victim blaming in Thai society.

The People met her at Attachai Boxing Gym in Onnut. After traversing through the green canal walkway to the open air camp beside a small lake, we find Emma waiting for us.

When Emma first came to train Muay Thai in Thailand, she was often the only woman in the gym, or one of very few. She found that many other women would come and go, but it was difficult to find women with whom to make long-lasting connections. So, she created her blog, UnderTheRopes.com to meet and chat with other female boxers.

“The name ‘Under the Ropes’ comes from the rituals of how we enter the ring. Men will wear a mongkol before they get into the ring, have the top rope pulled down, and hop over the top. Women, on the other hand, have to crawl under the bottom rope. After that, their trainers will put the mongkol, which passes over the top rope, on their head”.

Photo: จุลดิศ อ่อนละมุน

Emma remarked that one of her trainers didn’t even know that she had to go under the bottom rope when he took her to fight. “His whole life was Muay Thai. He knew the sport inside and out, but even he didn’t know about this. He’d never had to consider it from a woman’s perspective before”, she said. Emma has always respected the culture and traditions of Muay Thai. In all of her fights, she passed under the ropes according to this tradition (even when, on occasion, presented with the opportunity not to). However, she thinks that if possible, we should have the right to question this culture and have open and honest conversations about it.

“If I could choose, of course I’d like for women to have equal status with men, but in Muay Thai, we don’t have a choice to even discuss the possibility without being labelled as disrespectful to the traditions of the sport.”

There are a number of issues which many female fighters feel unable to discuss with their male trainers or training partners, such as the effects of contraception and the menstrual cycle on training. Sexual harassment and assault in Muay Thai gyms is a problem that is swept under the rug and rarely talked about. Emma has spoken publicly about her own experience of this. Sometimes, women can feel excluded from certain training activities, too.

“I’ve been excluded from clinching many times. Some men and boys have been uncomfortable clinching with me, or refused to do so. I’ve often been told to get out of the ring during sparring and stay on the mats, which has made me feel like an outsider. Sparring with men can be frustrating at times, too. Some will refuse to hit me because I’m a woman, and some will go extra hard just to prove a point. It’s like they are going the extra mile to make sure they don’t get beaten by a woman and lose face”.

In the last five years, Emma has noticed more and more women and LGBTQI + becoming visible in Muay Thai. We are seeing more transgender fighters, and efforts are being made by some promotions to make the sport more inclusive. However, one of the main problems that prevents women from becoming Muay Thai fighters is the lack of opportunity. Women have fewer opportunities to fight and are not paid equally to male fighters. 

The biggest Muay Thai stadiums, like Lumpini and Rajadamnern, don’t allow women to fight. Even when it comes to smaller shows, women often have to work harder and longer to prove themselves before they get better-paid opportunities. Meanwhile, it’s very easy for an average, unknown male fighter to walk onto a televised show and earn 10,000 baht. There are shows like these every weekend.

Emma talked to us about her fight experience. She said that in her entire fighting career, which lasted over 5 years, there was only one match for which she was paid 10,000 baht, a King’s Birthday promotion at Sanam Luang. At Rangsit Stadium, she was paid 50% of what the male fighters from her gym got paid for fighting on the same night. After another fight in Ratchaburi, she had the same experience. When her trainer handed over her earnings, he told her “sorry, Emma. It’s because you’re a woman”. Emma noted that her experience as a foreigner may be different to that of Thai women, and that some may be paid even less, despite Thai women being among the best fighters in the world. 

Today, televised Muay Thai promotions are showcasing more female fighters. However, some still report being paid less than their male counterparts. Emma says she heard from one woman on such a show who fought as the main event, but still got paid less than a male fighter on the undercard. As a career, it’s very difficult for female fighters to earn enough to support themselves and their families. Emma also says that it’s not as easy for women to stay in Muay Thai after they retire from fighting. “You see male Thai fighters become trainers when they stop fighting, but you don’t see that many Thai women doing the same. So, I think it’s harder for them to find a path after they retire from fighting. I think they have a shorter lifetime in the sport, since fewer fight opportunities and less money means they can’t always keep going for as long as men”.

Some promoters say that women’s fights aren’t entertaining, and that spectators only want to see big guys fighting and getting knocked out. But from Emma’s personal experience, she says that many people have told her that they prefer watching women’s fights to men’s. She also says that women have to be mentally stronger than men because they cannot show weakness. “I’ve seen a lot more mental toughness and ‘fighting heart’ in female fighters over the years I’ve been in Muay Thai” she says. “That may be because we’re so conscious of being viewed as physically inferior in some way, that we feel the need to work extra hard to prove ourselves. We don’t want to show any weakness”.

Photo: จุลดิศ อ่อนละมุน

We asked Emma for her opinion on whether Muay Thai is LGBT-friendly. Emma observes that there are many fighters who identify as ‘tom’, but she’s never known any openly-gay male fighters in the sport. She said that Lumpini and Rajadamnern, stadiums previously reserved for men, have allowed transgender women to fight in recent years. However, they must only fight cis-male opponents, and they enter the ring by going over the top rope. She wonders if this means that trans women who fight are effectively being treated as men. 

From Emma’s point of view, Thai society has made many developments, particularly in recent years. She says that there is now discussion of many topics that could never be raised before, including gender equality, consent, rape culture. She adds that some people might think that women should be happy with how far things have progressed already, but she disagrees. We shouldn’t stop there. 

We asked Emma how she thinks Thai society could communicate the ideas of feminism more effectively. “We need to move beyond just vague messages of ‘women’s empowerment’, which are often given by those in positions of privilege, but don’t result in any real change for anyone else. So often, the voices of marginalised groups are left out”, she says. She noted that it’s particularly difficult to make a change because there are so many ‘dinosaurs’ in positions of power in Thailand. “It’s easy for the general public to ignore violence against women when the prime minister is telling women that they shouldn’t dress sexy if they don’t want to be raped, and police officers and teachers are victim blaming and sometimes even comitting violence themselves”. There dinosaurs are in Muay Thai, too. For example, Lumpini Stadium is owned by the military. So, making change is a challenge. 

Emma remarked that while progress has been made for women in Muay Thai, it’s not enough. “Some people would call me uptight or cynical because I’m not happy enough with the changes that have been made so far, but we’re still so far from equality”, she says. “You might say that the sport is a lot more ‘female-friendly’ than it used to be, but that’s not enough. We have to keep pushing. ‘Female-friendly’ and equality are not the same thing”.

As Emma began to wrap her hands in preparation for her training, we posed one last question. Since the first day she started Muay Thai almost 10 years ago, many things have happened to her, both good and bad. We asked her, “do you still love Muay Thai the way you did when you first started fighting?”

Emma listened and smiled.

“Muay Thai has given me so much. It isn’t something that I do just for fun, or because I want to win. It’s driven me to grow as a person and to consistently push my boundaries. It’s also given me some of the most valuable friendships in my life”.

“I love Muay Thai so much, I can’t imagine my life without it. But sometimes I feel like Muay Thai doesn’t love me back, because I’m a woman”.

Photo: จุลดิศ อ่อนละมุน

Read more about the sexual harassment that Emma has experienced in Muay Thai on her blog at:

https://undertheropes.com/2017/01/18/sexual-assault-in-gyms/

Follow Emma on Facebook at UndertheRopes and Instagram at @under_the_ropes

Interview location: Attachai Muay Thai Gym

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