Fight Like a Girl: The Role of Women in Muay Thai Boxing

Anne Lieberman has always been interested in how gender and culture intersect—she studied African American Studies and Women’s Studies in college, and now works for a human rights organization on issues of gender and sexuality in Thailand. She’s also always been interested in martial arts, which she has studied since she was 7.

And in 2010, she got the opportunity to combine those interests, after being awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to research the role of women in Muay Thai boxing , Thailand’s national sport (and train in it, too!).

I first met Anne at a reception at the U.S. Consulate in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and was fascinated by her work. Her practice of Muay Thai and her research on how women practice it challenged so many traditional notions of gender in Thailand and around the world, and I had to learn more. I recently caught up with Anne to discuss what she’s learned from the sport and her research—and what you can learn, too.

How did you get started in Muay Thai fighting? What made you stick with it over the years?

I grew up doing martial arts. My mom tried to get me to do ballet starting from age 5, but she realized very quickly I only made it through class because I wanted the candy we were given at the end.

I started doing Tang So Doo —a Korean martial art similar to Tae Kwon Do and Karate—when I was 7 or so. I only started doing Muay Thai when I was awarded the Fulbright, but I continue to practice because I fell in love with it. It’s beautiful and expressive. The community is fantastic. And it’s so much fun.

Can you give us some Muay Thai basics? How is a winner determined, and what techniques are used? What makes this martial art unique?

Muay Thai is traditionally called “The Science of Eight Limbs” because you use eight limbs to strike—both hands, elbows, feet, and knees. Muay Thai is, of course, from Thailand, and there’s a lot of folklore linking Muay Thai to Thai autonomy (Thailand was the only nation in Southeast Asia never to be formally colonized by a foreign power the way Burma or Vietnam were, for example).

Since the 70s, Muay Thai has become increasingly global, and international participation in the sport has grown exponentially each year. One of my favorite moments was when I went to watch the World Muay Thai Championships in Thailand and saw teams from everywhere—Iran, Azerbaijan, Morocco, Belarus, Sweden, the United States, South Africa—the list goes on and on. I hadn’t realized just how global Muay Thai was until that moment.

The breakdown of scoring is too complicated to get into here, but my friend and fighter Syvlie Von-Duuglus-Ittu wrote a great piece on her blog about scoring Muay Thai fights, illuminating some of the differences between the way fights can be scored in the U.S. vs. Thailand.

What was it like to train as a farang [a Thai word for someone of European ancestry] woman? What was the biggest lesson you learned from your experience?

Training as a farang woman (and I’m glad you added that extra “farang” layer in this question because it is very different than training as a Thai woman or a Japanese woman or a woman of color period in Thailand) is drastically different depending on the gym and where you’re training in the country. To be taken seriously, I trained really hard every day and came ready to learn. When people saw how dedicated I was, they were more open to helping me—giving me extra rounds on the pads, walking me through different bag work exercises one-on-one. Also, because I speak some Thai, we were able to develop a different kind of relationship. I became more of like a little sister to them.

But there’s another layer to training as a woman in Thailand—one that is more controversial—and that’s about the sexual politics at play, especially between male trainers and female fighters. Few farang female fighters come and live in Thailand for extended periods of time. I had the opportunity to interview several of them, as I felt that their experience was integral to how female fighters are viewed in Thailand and how they constantly negotiate their place in a male-dominated sport.

Many of them expressed that they felt some kind of sexual pressure from their trainers. The intensity varied: One woman I interviewed was almost raped, another was verbally harassed and made uncomfortable by a trainer’s advances; several ended up dating their trainers. In some cases, if a woman wouldn’t sleep with her trainer, this affected the kind of training she received.

This is not unique to Thailand, though—these kinds of sexual dynamics take place everywhere. (The story of the woman raped by her Jiu-Jitsu instructors in Maryland is a prime example of this.) But what was unique to Thailand is that there seemed to be this perception that farang women were promiscuous partiers and that white women would (and wanted to) sleep with almost anyone. This is one of the many ways the fraught relationship between tourism and sex and sexuality in Thailand bubbles over into the Muay Thai world.