1.1 Sport as an Element of Culture
Sport, as an element of culture, has been a topic developed mainly by sociologist in the late 20th century. Studies have primarily focused on Western societies and revolved around a discourse about the role of sport in society. More recently feminist scholars have explored sport and its effect on gender relationships, female empowerment, and equality.
The body of Thai Studies literature rarely refers to sport in the context of cultural studies. Sport, in western academic literature, is clearly defined as a representation of national identity and has been analyzed accordingly. National sports are typically used to define the national character by members of the general population and serve as an indicator of cultural values. While, Muay Thai is recognized as the national sport of Thailand, it has not been included in the discourse on Thai culture by academia.
Gender studies is a major topic in the Thai Studies pantheon. Much of the coverage of gender focuses on development policies, read economics and social status. Female empowerment is the catch phrase of feminist scholars, NGOs, and international agencies working with and studying the problems of women in Thailand and South East Asia in general. No other area shows the power, potential and impediments faced by women more succinctly than sport, yet it is an undeveloped discourse.
The importance of sport based gender studies is best described by the sociologist John Horne,” Sport and the physicality embodied in sport render it a major source for the reaffirmation of gender relations…sometimes a challenge to dominant male assumptions concerning the place of sport and women’s relationship to traditional forms of sport” (1999, p.111). In what has been commonly referred to as the gender wars, sport has become a site of cultural struggle and a means of cultural resistance for women.
It is the purpose of this thesis to investigate the area of sport and its propagation from a traditional martial art form and the participation of women in sport in Thailand. For the purpose of this study I have chosen to examine the state of women in the recognized national sport of Thailand, Muay Thai. Muay Thai is a source of national pride and identity and the presence or absence of women in this fundamentally Thai activity is a telling measure of gender parity.
My exploration of Thai women in Muay Thai has lead to a literature search in the areas of socialization, religion, cultural constructions of the body, and the pollution theory proposed by the anthropologist Mary Douglas. The transition of Muay Thai from traditional martial art form to that of national sport was analyzed by the use of literature on the development of Muay Thai, international relations between Thailand and imperial powers, and the impact of globalization and modernization on the sport and Thailand in general.
1.2 Muay Thai
Muay Thai is the Thai form of martial art. It is a means of self-defense that uses all parts of the body as weapons. The history of Muay Thai is not clear but it was present during the Kingdom of Ayutthaya and the King Phra Sanphetch VIII is said to have participated in the sport. The fall of Ayutthaya in 1767 led to the export of the sport to Burma. Thai captives who were trained in Muay Thai fought at the pleasure of the Burmese monarch Mangra and were rewarded for their skill. An early textbook on Muay Thai was made during the reign of Rama III (1824-1851). After WWII more foreigners were exposed to Muay Thai and the sport became internationally known.
Muay Thai is now considered the national sport of Thailand. Some changes have been made, such as the adoption of western style boxing gloves to replace the former cotton hand bandages, now that Muay Thai is on the world stage. Muay Thai is a rite of passage for many Thai men and may be compared to entrance into the monkhood in this respect. It is the proving ground for men and boys throughout the kingdom and as one book on Muay Thai says, "…a game for the man who is proud to be a real man" ( Panya, 1999, p.244). This same text says Muay Thai is, "…a form of combat practiced by people everywhere-by children and adults, male and female" (Panya, 1999, p.15). Other then this mention of women in the sport of Muay Thai, it is clear that women are not frequently associated with the sport. In this thesis I will outline the case of Muay Thai and Thai women as actors within the ring.
1.3 Modernization in Thailand
The process of modernization in Thailand began under the the first of two well-known modernizing monarchs, King Mongkut (1851-68) and King Chuklalongkorn (1868-1910). King Mongkut is heralded as the `Father of Modern Thailand' who secured Siam's independence from Western colonialism and laid the foundations of the nation-state (Stockwell, 2000). He did so by embarking upon a policy of interaction with the western powers which included free trade treaties, land concessions, and the apppointment of foreign advisors. This strategy sought to appease the west and sponsored the selective adoption of western ideas, policies and institutions in Siam in accordance with Thai sensibilities rather than the enforcement of change by foreign rulers.
King Chulalongkorn continued in the tradition of his father and furthered the development of modernization in Thailand. He conceded territory and appointed foreign advisored, as his father had done but he took the process to another level by introducing social reforms such as the abolishment of slavery, and the wider introduction of western style education beyond the walls and blood of court and royalty. Throughout his reign, Siam was governed very much as a colony although by the soveirgn leader of the country, and was led in business and foreign relations by a western (mainly British) elite.
Thailand is ever keen to assert the historical fact that they were never colonized during the age of western imperialism in Southeast Asia. However, the country was a de facto colony administered by their own monarchs. The policies adopted by the monarchs to preserve the official sovereignty of Siam in this era led to the modernization of the kingdom. Siam was geographically situated to act as a buffer between British and French colonial interest and this as well as the rulers ability to ‘bend before the wind’ in regards to foreign policy resulted in changes in Thai society.
1.4 Gender Roles
Throughout modern history men and women have been categorized separately emphasizing the differences between the sexes to such an extent that one wonders if they are the same species. Biological differences are only the beginning. True, men and women have different physiological components but the assumptions made about the male/female dichotomy go far beyond this scientific truth. The main constructs of male/female differences are culturally fabricated. The discussion of differences between men and women is shifted from the biological sex-based differences to the sociological gender-based differences.
Boys and girls are socialized by their parents, community and school to fulfill expected gender roles. The socialization process begins at birth when a female child is wrapped in a pink blanket and the male child is wrapped in a blue one. The case in Thailand is no different than any other country in the world except instead of pink and blue blankets children are assigned gender roles in infancy by the placing of a sewing kit or writing pad and pencil respectively within the cradle (Suwadee, 2001). From the earliest time of life a Thai female is expected to play a domestic role and take care of the house and the family.
Stereotypical gender roles in Thailand have gained official sanction by the government by the promotion of slogans such as, "Men are the gates of the nation and women are the flowers" (Suwadee, 2001, p.29). The Thai government under the first reign of Prime Minister, Field Marshall Pibulsongkram in 1938 promoted this slogan. This maxim reinforced the idea that men were strong, defenders of the nation and that women were delicate, beautiful, weak and in need of protection. It became the duty of every Thai woman to look her best to help relieve the tension her strong husband endured while defending her and the country.
There is a Thai saying that men are the front legs of the elephant and women are the hind legs. Clearly this suggest the patriarchal hierarchy present in Thai society. Women are necessary to support the men but they are undervalued and unappreciated getting stuck in a most unenviable position. Where does women's Muay Thai fit into this gender stereotypical and patriarchal network? The answer is that it doesn't but women are seeking to make space for themselves in this male dominated and defined world.
1.5 Thesis Objectives
1 provide a history of the development of Muay Thai.
2 analyze the factors promoting the modernization and globalization of Muay Thai
3 lay the theoretical groundwork, which illustrates the condition of Thai women in society
4 illustrate the suppression of women in Muay Thai.
5 explore the ways and means by which society seeks to limit women's competition in the sport.
6 outline why these restrictions exist
7 discuss the motivation of women in the ring
1.6 Research Questions
1 What are the historical factors that caused the transformation of Muay Thai from a traditional Martial form to a sport?
2 How and why are women under represented in Muay Thai competition?
3 What has lead to an increase in women’s participation in competitive Muay Thai in recent years?
1.7 Research Methods
The research for this thesis was done at several locations in Thailand: Chiang Mai, Ubon Ratchathani, and Bangkok. I have pursued the strategy of participant observation in order to gain evidence to support and formulate my hypothesis. I conducted both formal and informal interviews with female and male fighters, Muay Thai coaches and Muay Thai referees.
The formal interviews were conducted with the aid of a questionnaire translated into Thai. The questionnaire posed open-ended questions, which allowed the informants to speak freely. The questionnaires were only administered to female informants and were facilitated by another female Thai informant who was a trusted member of the Muay Thai community but not herself a fighter. The questionnaire and a table of the formal interview participants’ vital statistics will be included in the appendix of the thesis.
Informal interviews were conducted at Muay Thai camps, stadiums, and competitions. I participated in camp life both as an observer and a fellow student of Muay Thai in Ubon Ratchathani and Chiang Mai respectively. I formed personal relationships with referees and coaches.
I located my female informants by conducting a telephone survey of approximately 70 Muay Thai camps through out Thailand. I had limited success in locating fighters and then resorted to a snowball sampling technique; located key individuals and asked them to name others who would be candidates for my research.
The historical review and detailed description of Muay Thais’ transformation from martial art form to sport was accomplished by reviewing documents pertaining to the history of Muay Thai and the history of Thailand in the 20th century. The process of modernization in the early part of the century and the influence of the west on Thailand is reviewed and analyzed. Research into the westernisation of sport in non-western countries was beneficial as it showed the general trend of adoption of western sport practice, ideals and games in those countries
1.8 Review of literature and Background Information
This researcher acquired data from source documents, magazines, periodicals, textbooks, web pages, newspapers, videos, television programs, and CD ROMs. The main categories examined in the review of literature are sociological and anthropological theories, history of Muay Thai, modernization inThailand, globalization of sport, Thai women, and current trends in Muay Thai.
1 The transition of Muay Thai from martial art to sport is a direct result of the modernization process in Thailand from the late 1800’s to the mid-1950’s.
2 Women are dissuaded from participating in Muay Thai competition by traditional gender roles and superstitions about bodily contamination of the Muay Thai ring and boxers based in traditional culture and popular Buddhism.
3 Women’s increased participation in Muay Thai at present is fueled by the globalization of the sport and was historically a product of the industrialization process in combination with the women’s liberation movement.
1.10 Scope of Study
1 The history of Muay Thai
Modernization and globalization of the sport
2 Current female participation in Muay Thai
I limited the scope of the work to Muay Thai competitors excluding women who studied Muay Thai for self-defense or fitness purposes
3 Sociological factors inhibiting women’s participation in Muay Thai
socialization, gender roles, religion, pollution theory
4 Fieldwork conducted in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Ubon Ratchathani
1.11 Definition of Terms
a broad process in which markets, trade , labour relations and culture itself have attained global dimensions, that is , the forms of organizations that connect them have a global character. In the field of sport it has been the combination of the emergence of a world media system and an international sport system that has given the sports business its global character (Horne, 1999, p. 276-277).
Martial art - form of self defense using the body only as a weapon.
Muay Thai - the Thai form of martial art using all four limbs and accompanied by traditional elements such as the wai Khru and the traditional costume including the mong kon and the exclusion of any foot ware.
Popular religion - religious beliefs that do not ascribe to the canonical teachings of any given religion. May incorporate aspects of other belief systems.
Proxemics - the study of the perception and use of space by humans
Sport- Sport is an institutionalized system of competitive, delimited, codifies and conventionally governed physical practices which have the avowed aim of selecting the best competitor ( Brohm as quoted in Sleap, 1998, p. 2).
Sports are the institutionalized competitive activities that involve vigorous physical exertion or the use of relatively complex physical skills by individuals whose participation is motivated by a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic factors ( Coakley as quoted in Sleap, 1998, p. 2).
Sport is a physical activity that is fair, competitive, nondeviant, and that is guided by rules, organization, and/or tradition (Curry and Jiobu as quoted in Sleap, 1998, p.2).
Notes on word usage- reference to women in Muay Thai is always to be understood as Thai women unless otherwise stated.
1.12 Limitations of Study
This researcher faced limitations in both the literature review and participant observer components of the study. Language was a key limitation in both areas. Media commentary on Muay Thai in English is limited. There are several books authored or translated into English on the sport but these do not give a clear picture of Muay Thai history and rarely mention women in Muay Thai. Reference documents sited by these works are typically from Thai sources, which makes authentication difficult. Likewise television interviews and commentary on Muay Thai competitions are conducted in Thai and had to be translated or summarized in English.
Fieldwork was conducted in the Thai language with the aid of an interpreter or a taped translation following an interview. This may have caused a loss of information and a loss of other potentially profitable lines of questioning.
The limited number of women active in Muay Thai competition resulted in a paucity of research subjects. The total number of women competing in Muay Thai is difficult to ascertain and my sample of informants formed a small circle of associates. The limited size of the sample may have skewered the results of the study.
1.13 Theoretical Framework
The first part of the thesis will examine historical and traditional perspectives of Muay Thai, the path to modernization and the effects of globalization. Next I will examine the socio-cultural factors affecting women in Thailand and hence their place in Muay Thai. I’ll apply theories on socialization, gender roles, and use the body pollution theory of Mary Douglas to deconstruct the superstition that surrounds the taboo of women in the ring. Finally, I’ll examine the arrival of women in the ring and the challenges to that activity. I will examine the lives of the actual fighters, the challenges they face, their expectations and reasons for fighting etc.
1.14 Goals of Study
1Develop the academic discourse on a highly visible cultural performance in Thai society.
2 Contribute to gender studies in the Thai Studies field beyond the usual economic and development concerns.
2.1 What Is Muay Thai
Muay Thai, most simply put, is the martial art form of Thailand. According to Thai practitioners it is called the science of the eight limbs - hands, feet, elbows and knees (Panya, 1988). Outside of Thailand it is most commonly known as Thai Boxing and often the misnomer kickboxing.
Muay Thai is a method of self-defense. It uses the body as the only weapon in the art of combat. Muay Thai weapons are parts of the body, which correspond to various ancient weapons of warfare. The shinbone is likened to the staff of the pike used to both block and strike an opponent. Arms function as twin swords. Fists resemble the tip of the spear used to jab at the adversary. The elbows and knees both act as battle-axes. Finally, the feet simulate the actions of the pike, arrow, and the knife.
Muay Thai is based in an old tradition, which has been inherited from Thai ancestors. It is, in its purest form, a philosophy, science and art. Practitioners of Muay Thai undergo both physical and mental training resulting in self-discipline and self-awareness. According to Master Kimseng Taveesith, a renown teacher of Muay Thai in the reign of King Rama VI, a Muay Thai boxer should, "…behave with integrity according to the Darma, namely, to be honest, to speak only the truth, to be reliable, to behave in a moderate way by refraining from committing sins or vices”(Panya, 1999, p.C).
Muay Thai, in its current manifestation, has been described as many things not least of which is the national sport of Thailand. It is oft touted as the best system of self-defense in the world as well as being an energetic sport. Negative reactions to the frequency of blood spilling in the ring has seen it characterized as a barbarous game that should be illegal. The incessant gambling found at Muay Thai matches has lead to the sport being cited as a den of corruption. The popularity of the sport has created big business opportunities and a major tourism attraction. Finally, Thais recognize Muay Thai as a significant part of their cultural past, present and future.
2.1.1 Muay Thai History
Muay Thai has been in the process of development since time immemorial according to some adherents of the art. However, evidence for the development of Muay Thai has its earliest date in the Sukothai period from 1238 - 1377(Kat, 2001). Never static, the Thai art of unarmed combat has been refined over the centuries into the Muay Thai tradition.
The origins of Muay Thai are unclear but within the historical period it appears that its progenitor was Krabi Krabong. Krabi Krabong is the Thai method of armed combat. These two Thai martial arts were combined to create the art of Thai warfare. Muay Thai was used in turn with Krabi Krabong while in battle and used exclusively when a soldier had been disarmed during combat.
In the Sukothai period (1238 - 1377) Muay Thai was reportedly practiced at court by royalty and used to select the palace guards. It was used in combat and no special accouterments were worn, fighting was done bare-fisted. The art more fully developed in the Ayutthaya period from 1350 - 1767. During this era several of the mythic heroes of Muay Thai gained their places in Thai history including the so-called father of Muay Thai, Nai Kanom Thom. Due to the sacking of the capital city of Ayutthaya in 1767, most of the historical records about the Thai for this era come from foreign sources including the Burmese who were responsible for the destruction of the Thai capital.
According to the Chiang Mai annals in 1411 Muay Thai was used to decide the future ruler upon the death of King Sen Muang Ma. The king had two sons, Yi Kumkan and Fang Ken, who were both in contention for the thrown. After successive military battles for the crown had proved inconclusive the two brothers decided to stake their claims for the kingdom on a single Muay Thai competition. Each brother selected his own champion and it was agreed that the fighter to show first blood would be the loser. The fight was reported to have lasted several hours with both opponents appearing equally matched. Finally, Fang Ken's fighter sustained a cut on his foot and shed blood; the throne went to Yi Kumkan according to the agreement.
In the reign of King Ramathibodi II from 1491- 1529 the Thai military was restructured. In the course of this restructuring a military manual was developed, entitled The Chuppasart. The manual combined instruction on both armed and unarmed combat and influenced the development of Muay Thai.
King Naresuan the Great reigned in Ayutthaya from 1590 - 1605 and required that Muay Thai be a part of military training(“History of Muay Thai” Available From www.muaythai.com/history/index.shtml). The Burmese had taken Naresuan hostage in 1569 when he was just a boy of nine. He gained his freedom and returned to Ayutthaya in 1574 after defeating a Burmese boxer with his Muay Thai skills. Thus strengthening the future kings' loyalty to the art and the beginning of foreign exposure to the Thai art of unarmed combat.
The most famous royal supporter and participant of Muay Thai was Phra Sanpetch VIII, also more commonly known as Phra Chao Sua (The Tiger King), who ruled from 1703 -1709. During his reign all members of the military trained in Muay Thai and he himself fought in bouts. Due to the conventions of royalty at the time, touching the king was an offense punishable by execution, the king was forced to seek out fights incognito throughout his kingdom. He is known to have fought and beaten the best Muay Thai fighters the kingdom had to offer.
Next up on the historical roster of notable Muay Thai fighters is Nai Kanom Thom who later became known as the father of Muay Thai. In 1767 the Burmese took prisoner Nai Kanom Thom, a commoner, when they razed the city of Ayutthaya. Three years later in 1770 King Mangra of Burma attended a temple fair in Rangoon where many festive activities were held including Thai boxing. The King proposed a fight matching a boxer in the Thai style with one in the Burmese, which is known as Parma. Unlike Muay Thai, Parma relies mainly on the fist as its weapons. The best fighters were called upon and of the Thai prisoners Nai Kanom Tom was chosen due to his renowned skills in Muay Thai.
Nai Kanom Tom handily defeated ten of the Burmese best fighters. It must be said that as well as a different fighting style focusing mainly on the actions of the fists the Burmese were also at a disadvantage due to their attire. The Burmese fighters wore the traditional Burmese sarong, which was ankle length while the Thais wore a type of loincloth. The Thai fighter had much greater freedom of movement and a wider repertoire of movements.
King Mangra was impressed by the Thai fighter and did not spare his compliments or his royal benevolence. The King reportedly said, " Every part of this man is blessed with venom. Even empty - handed, he could defeat nine or ten opponents"(Kat, 2001, p.51). Nai Kanom Tom was granted his freedom and returned home to a heroes welcome. The legendary fight of Nai Kanom Tom was recorded in Burmese texts and is a fundamental example of the long held Thai belief that nothing can defeat Muay Thai. Muay Thai stadiums across the nation dedicate every March 17th, known as "boxer's night", to Nai Kanom Tom.
The Ayutthaya period was besotted with war and conflict. The art of Muay Thai was inevitably affected by the constant need for military training. It was during this time that the Kaad cheuk, a type of fist binding, was adopted for use in Muay Thai contest. The Kaad cheuk was made of hemp thread and was a length of about twenty meters. It was wrapped around the fighters' fist in much the same way as fighters use hand wraps today. The story of Nai Kanom Tom highlights the manner of dress of Muay Thai fighters at that time. A statue depicting the legendary "Father of Muay Thai" has the fighter wearing both the mongkon (headband) and prajied (armband). It is unknown if there is factual evidence for such a depiction of a Muay Thai fighter from this period but the mongkon is clearly part of the Muay Thai costume in the illustrations of Muay Thai fighters in the unarmed combat manual compiled under the reign of Rama III, which will be discussed below. The development of Muay Thai as a spectacle also occurred during this time as well as the practice of fighting for a purse and the custom of gambling on the outcomes of matches all of which are components of the more in depth story of the Tiger King.
The Burmese destruction of Ayutthaya in 1767 ends the Ayutthaya period and begins the Ton Buri period from 1767 - 1782 and the reign of King Taksin. In the days before King Taksin established the kingdom of Ton Buri he was Lord or Praya of Tak. While in the capacity of Praya Tak he arranged for Muay Thai competitions and was awed by a contender by the name of Tong Dee. He was so pleased by this young fighter that he conveyed upon him the lordship of a neighboring town, Kampaeng-phet. Shortly thereafter the two men went into battle against the invading Burmese. Praya Kampaeng-phet, as Tong Dee was now known, was pitted against a Burmese general when his sword broke. Despite being unarmed he killed the general using his Muay Thai skills. In the days that followed Praya Tak became King Taksin and rewarded Praya Kampaeng-phet with the lordship of his hometown, Pi-chai (Kat, 2001). From then on he was known as Praya Pi-chai Dab Hak (Lord of Pi-chai with the Broken Sword).
The last of the legendary Muay Thai heroes is Muen Plaan a royal guard in the court of Phra Phuttha Yotfa (Rama I) during the early Rattanakosin period (1782 - 1868). In 1788, two French brothers were traveling throughout Indo-China in search of prizefights. They had already defeated many opponents when they arrived to challenge the Thais. The fight purse offered by the king was set at 4000 baht and the king chose Muen Plaan to defend the honor of Siam.
The match took place on palace grounds with the king in attendance. The younger of the two French brothers was the first challenger to face Muen Plaan. He opened the fight with a powerful attack but was foiled at every assault by Muen Plaan's defensive ability. Eventually the older brother joined in the fight in an attempt to end the Muen Plaan defensive strategy. This breach of etiquette created a melee of royal guards entering the fight to aid their comrade. The Frenchmen were soon carried off and treated for their injuries by order of the king. Shortly thereafter, Muen Plaan was given that honorary rank and name by King Rama I, which means, "Knight of Destruction".
The reign of Rama III (1824 - 1851) saw the compilation of another manual of instruction in the martial art of Muay Thai. The text written on Khoi paper has many illustrations of Muay Thai techniques and poses. The fighters depicted are wearing the traditional pannung and the mongkon.
The history of Muay Thai, prior to the reign of King Chulalongkorn is difficult to authenticate. This is true for most of pre-modern Thai history. Few texts exists that can verify the numerous myths and legends associated with Muay Thai. Like many facets of Thai history, the history of Muay Thai is based on fact embroidered by oral tradition.
The reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V, 1868-1910) and his successor King Vajiravudh (Rama VI, 1910-1925) spanning the years 1868 - 1925 has been called both the golden age of Muay Thai and the Muay Thai renaissance and in accordance with the time divisions made thus far; the Mid-Rattanakosin period (“History of Muay Thai” Available From www.wmtc.nu). The Ton Buri and early Rattanakosin periods saw stagnation in Muay Thai innovation. The only point of interest is that, as mentioned previously, the mongkon is clearly in use.
Rama V had a great interest in Muay Thai and sponsored his subjects' participation in the art by means of Royal Command fights. Winning fighters at these events were often given military titles by the king. These titles, such as Pra Chai Choke Shok Channa (Lord Lucky-Fight-and Win), were highly respected and were a means for personal advancement in Thai society.
Rama VI was a strong promoter of the Thai martial arts in his campaign to militarize the youth of Thailand. He founded the Boy Scouts and the Wild Tigers, both of which trained in Muay Thai. In 1921, he sponsored the construction of the first boxing stadium at Suan Kularb in Bangkok. In this time of peace, Muay Thai was promoted as a means of: fitness, self-defense, recreation, martial training, and national pride. The apparel of the Muay Thai fighter is little changed during this period but the prajied is now definitely present.
I have given a brief historical account of the heroes, royal patrons, costume, and functions of Muay Thai throughout the Sukothai period down to the Mid-Rattanakosin period and here I end the historical discussion. From the 1920's onward Muay Thai, as well as Thailand in general, has been subjected to the forces of modernization. I will discuss the developments in Muay Thai from this time on under that rubric in the section of this thesis entitled Muay Thai Development in the Modern Era.
2.1.2 Muay Thai Traditions
In the art of Muay Thai aspects of traditional Thai literature and religion are found. Traditional Thai literature is mainly based on religious narratives including the ancient Indian epic the Ramayana, known in its Thai form as the Ramakian. The Ramayana, attributed to the Indian poet Valmiki, is the story of the epic struggle of Prince Rama against the demons that inhabit the domain of Langka. The abduction of the prince's wife, Sita, leads him on a voyage of conquest aided by the great monkey warrior Hanuman. The story is based in the world of Hindu gods and has been the basis of Thai traditional dance, drama, and puppetry. The influence of this story can be seen throughout Thai culture including the very title of kings; Rama.
The Ramayana epic has acquired a distinctly Thai flavor over the millennia since its creation, approximately 2000 years ago. The Ramakian version of the story has been modified to reflect Thai culture. In 1807 King Rama I wrote an account of the Ramakian that was not a translation of original Indian epic but a unequivocally Thai rendition of the tale (Hoskins, Available from http://www.mahidol.ac.th/Thailand/art/ramakian.html). The story is also represent in bas-relief at Bangkok's oldest and largest Temple complex; Wat Po next to the Grand Palace. The Ramakian is also portrayed in mural paintings in Wat Phra Keo within the grounds of the Grand Palace. These paintings were rendered in the reign of Rama III (1824 - 1851).
Characters and actions from the Ramakian are an intricate part of Muay Thai. Many of the traditional names for Muay Thai techniques are derived from the epic tale. Pra Rama Tam Gwang (Rama follows the deer), Hak Kor Erawan (breaking Erawan's neck), Mon Yan Lek (Mon supports the pillar), Bid Hang Naga (twisting the Naga's tail) and Hanuman Tawai Waen (Hanuman presents the rings) are all parts of the Muay Thai fighters repertoire of moves whose names come from scenes of the Ramakian (Panya, 1988). In addition to fight techniques, the Ramakian is reflected in the Ram Muay, the pre-fight dance ritual that will be discussed more fully in the segment detailing the rituals of Muay Thai.
The Javanese classic, Inao, has also been adapted and adopted into the Thai literary tradition. It is a romance story of a Javanese hero prince that has been known to the Thai peoples since the Ayutthaya period. The story was rewritten by Rama II in the early Rattanakosin period and has been used as a source in Thai dramas. In Muay Thai it is used, like the Ramakian, in the naming of boxing forms. Inao Taeng Kris (Inao stabs his dagger) is a term describing a defensive move used to avoid a straight punch to the face in addition to a counter measure which results in landing the fist below the opponents ribs.
Buddhism, Hinduism and Animism coalesce to form the Thai religious tradition. All three traditions are currently manifested in Muay Thai traditions, practice, and beliefs. As previously noted the influence of Thai religion can be seen in the names of the Muay Thai fighting techniques. In addition to the boxing forms related to traditional literature there is also a move called Tel Kwad Larn (Monk Follower sweeps the floor) indicating the presence of Buddhism in the Thai belief system (Panya, 1988).
Traditional religious aspects of Muay Thai are more obviously visible in the practices of body tattooing, the wearing of charms and the recitation of prayers and incantations. The belief in magic is a powerful aspect of Thai culture and a significant part of Muay Thai. Body tattoos incorporating symbols of Buddhism and written prayers were once common among Muay Thai competitors. The tattoos were inscribed by monks within Buddhist temples and offered protection to the fighter. The incantation, Gam Ban Nak Muen (Clenched fist weighing 1,000 kilograms), was frequently tattooed on the back of fighters' hands. In the present day, tattoos are rarely seen on the bodies of Muay Thai combatants.
Muay Thai fighters integrate numerous charms into their attire. These charms are believed to hold magical properties that will both protect the fighter from evil and help ensure a victorious outcome to the match. The mongkon, as noted earlier, is the headband worn by all Muay Thai fighters. At present the mongkon is removed after the Ram Muay ritual but this was not the case in the past when fights were disrupted by the need to replace a dislodged mongkon to the head of fighter(Kat, 2001, p. 70).
The mongkon is composed of either a narrow band of cloth or strands of thread woven into an oval coil about the thickness of a thumb that will fit on the head of the fighter. Within the weave of the mongkon magical letters, symbols, waahn (a type of herb) and pra-krueng (amulets) are placed. The mongkon is the property of the Muay Thai teacher and is given to the fighter for use while under his tutelage. Unsubstantiated legend also reports the use of a dried poisonous snake as the inner component of the mongkon.
The prajied is a band of woven cloth that is worn around the upper arm between the deltoid and bicep muscles. Like the mongkon, it is used to ward off danger, protect the fighter from harm and produce strength. It too contains elements believed to bring good luck and protection. The fighter may incorporate more personal items into this talisman such as his fathers' hair and /or a piece of his mothers' paa-tung (sarong) as well as pra-krueng, waahn, paa-yan (cloth with magical inscriptions) and dhagrut (bronze sheet with magical inscriptions).
The pirod is also worn around the upper arm although never worn on the same arm as the prajied. This armband made of rattan is typically worn on the less dexterous arm of the fighter. The woven rattan band is narrow and not always worn.
Small Buddhist amulets or pra-krueng are commonly used by Muay Thai fighters. They are placed within both the mongkon and the prajied. Belief in the magical powers of these Buddhist images are an intricate part of Thai culture and many Thais, other than Muay Thai fighters, incorporate them into their daily attire usually in the form of a necklace. However, it is up to discretion of the individual fighter whether or not to use pra-krueng in his accouterments whereas the mongkon and prajied must be worn. Accordingly, Thai Muslim Muay Thai fighters do not use these Buddhist accessories nor do they acquire tattoos, such as mentioned above, which is forbidden by Islamic law.(informal interview in Krabi province: Muslim Muay Thai coach)
The dhagrut is a small piece of beaten bronze or silver on which are written magical words and symbols. The metal sheet is tightly rolled while incantations are recited. A thread is placed through the scroll and tied about the waist of the fighter or within the prajied. A variant of this is the pitsamorn, which is made of palm leaf rather than metal. Again, the magic inherent in these amulets is thought to protect the fighter.
Waahn is an herb that is used by the Muay Thai fighter either within the confines of the mongkon or prajied or physically internalized through chewing the herb or drinking an infusion made from it. A fighter may also wash their bodies with the same infusion. The herbs' powers are enhanced by incantations. It is believed to increase virility and endurance.
A small piece of cloth inscribed with magical symbols is called the paa-yan. Incantations are recited while performing the process of inscription. The cloth is later incorporated into the prajied. As with all other amulets mentioned above it provides protection for the fighter and is worn during the match.
Incantations, both spoken and written, used to protect the Muay Thai fighter are based on the various religious traditions of Thailand. Buddhist incantations are used to instill magic into many of the amulets listed above as well as at the moment in the pre-fight ritual when the Muay Thai teacher removes the mongkon from the fighters' head. During the Ram Muay ritual fighters' may recite incantations invoking the name of Hanuman, the great monkey warrior from the epic Ramakian. Furthermore, some fighters may recite prayers before walking up the steps leading to the ring. As mention previously, incantations may also be tattooed on the body of the fighter.
The traditions of Muay Thai are implicitly linked to the religious life of the Thais. Muay Thai techniques derive their names from traditional Thai literature, which is based on religious narratives. The magical charms used by fighters for protection and success in the ring are imbued with magic through the use of mystical incantations based in the traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism. Believe in the magical properties of such items as the hair of one's father is rooted in animism. Tattooing, a practice now gone out of fashion for most fighters, is performed by Buddhist monks who are versed in the Brahmin tradition. Religious practices, such as these, are an essential part of the Muay Thai tradition.
2.1.3 Muay Thai Rituals
The many rituals of Muay Thai are based around a display of respect to the teacher or Khru Muay. The main category of these rituals falls under the general heading of Wai Khru of which there are four types: Yok Khru (trainee initiation), Wai Khru Prajam Pee (yearly homage), Krob Khru (teacher initiation), and Wai Khru Ram Muay (dance of homage). Wai Khru is an ancient tradition of the Thai culture, which embodies the concept that all teachers should be treated with great respect.
The Yok Khru ritual is when a teacher has accepted a prospective student. The students may have already undergone an apprenticeship period lasting a period of several months to several years in order to convince the teacher that they are a worthy student. This practice of long apprenticeship before fighter initiation has mostly vanished in the era of modernization.
The Yok Khru ritual consists of a formal request made by the student to the teacher seeking permission to become his pupil. The ritual is generally held on a Thursday, which is traditionally considered teachers' day or Wan Khru. The student offers symbols of respect to the teacher, which may include flowers, incense, candles, and money. The teacher then officially accepts the student into his care and the student pledges his duty towards the teacher in the following speech:
We have come today to worship the teacher and solemnly promise the teacher to be your honest disciples. We respect you and have complete trust in you. We will treasure all traditions, rules and everything we will learn from you. We will make your style and techniques our own. We will never think, say, or do anything that could harm the reputation of the teacher, our camp, and our mates. We swear that our words are honest and to be kept forever. Earth, heaven, and the four directions are our witnesses. We beg you to protect us always. With our bodies, our souls, and our words, we surrender to you and obey you as your disciples with the highest respect. Thus, we beg you to teach everything you know, to help us succeed, to protect us from dangers and to bless us with love and happiness, forever (Stockmann, 1979, p.22).
The students are now officially part of a Muay Thai family. They regard their teachers as their parent and the other fighters in the camp as their siblings. Life revolves around the camp and the fighter acquires a new identity including a new name assigned by the Khru Muay.
Wai Khru Prajam Pee is a traditional ceremony observed yearly throughout Thailand wherever learning occurs. According to the traditions of Muay Thai, this annual homage paying usually takes place on March 17th. A gathering of teachers and students is held and an offering of tradition symbols of respect is given to teachers of the past. Then students honor the teachers who are present and receive a sacred mark on their foreheads inscribed by the teachers with powder. Finally, all students perform a dance of homage and sacred vows are taken by all those in attendance.
The teacher initiation ceremony or Krob Khru occurs when students have acquired the necessary knowledge to become teachers themselves; the existing Khru Muay assesses this. The incoming teachers offer the traditional symbols of respect to their teachers and then are officially proclaimed Khru Muay in the following manner. The Khru Muay recites this speech while the fighters kneel before them in a position of respect known as the panom mue wai (hands in prayer positioned at chest, bent at waist:
Today is a propitious day, and this hour of good omen. You have proved yourself to be a person of virtue and knowledge, skilled in the art of Nuay Thai, to the extent that you are now worthy of becoming a teacher yourself. I therefore appoint you a newly-created Muay Thai teacher at this Krob Khru ceremony, capable of instructing others in this noble art. Always remember your duty to preserve the traditions and the art of Muay Thai. Be a person of good conduct and apply your knowledge and abilities in such a way as to benefit both yourself and the community(Kat, 2001, p.84).
Upon completion of this recital the fighters respond with their own speeches pledging to uphold the legacy of Muay Thai, the obligations to ones' teacher and the honor of their new position as Khru Muay. A mongkon is then placed upon the supplicants' head and the tradition dance of homage is performed. In the final step of the ceremony, the teacher gives the student the mongkon after the student has once more performed the panom mue wai and prostrated three times at the feet of their teacher.
The Wai Khru Ram Muay is part of all Muay Thai fighters' pre-fight rituals. The intention of this ritual is to honor ones' teacher, opponent and fight spectators. In addition to these purposes, the Ram Muay also helps the fighter concentrate on Muay Thai skills, serves as a warm up exercise, and demonstrates the graceful control of body and mind inherent in the traditions of both Muay Thai and the national religion Buddhism. In the past, the Ram Muay was used to indicate the origins of the boxer as each Muay Thai camp had its' own distinct style.
Prior to the commencement of the Ram Muay, the mongkon is placed on the head of the boxer by the teacher and then the fighter proceeds to the center of the ring where both opponents kneel and prostrate themselves three times. These prostrations or Kraab are in dedication to the popular nationalistic triad of country, king and religion. According to earlier texts, the Kraab was dedicated to the Lord Buddha, Dhamma, and teachers including parents, Kru Muay and the Kings of Thailand.
The Ram Muay or dance of homage has many variations and styles. The many movements and positions incorporated into the dance are named according to literary and cultural traditions of Thailand. The Wai Khru in the Pra Ram Gwang (Rama follows the deer) style is based on the Ramakian epic. The fighter portrays the god Rama in his hunt for Ma Reet, a fictitious deer. Yet another form of the Wai Khru is the Hong Hern (swans' flight) movement, which mimics the graceful motion of a soaring swan. There is also the Wai Khru in the Royal Salute movement, which may include positions attributed to the unfurling of a peacock tail, Narai throwing a disc and homage to mother earth.
2.2 Development In The Modern Era
Muay Thai has been in a constant state of development since the earliest days of unarmed combat. It was not until the middle of the last millenium that Muay Thai was a recognizable art form. Changes to the art of Muay Thai have been the most dramatic in the last century, which constitutes the modern era in Thailand.
The physical transformation of Muay Thai affects the equipment a fighter uses both in matches and training, the rules and regulations of the bouts, the area in which a fight is staged, and the training methods at Muay Thai camps. The modern Muay Thai fighter wears satin shorts (often emblazoned with the camp name or a sponsoring company such as M-150), boxing gloves, inner hand wraps, mouth guard, groin protector, ankle supports (worn at personal discretion), mongkon, and the prajied. In addition to this there is also the costume of the amateur Muay Thai fighter, a category of boxer which didn't exist prior to the modern period. The amateur fighter wears, in addition to all of the above accoutrements, a head guard, vest, elbow guards, shin guards, and a heavily padded body protector. Of all of these, the only recognizable portion of the traditional Muay Thai outfit is the mongkon and prajied. In the past these plus the kaad cheuk, paa nung and a groin guard fashioned from a sea shell or tree bark made up the attire of the Muay Thai fighter.
Changes to the Muay Thai attire, like most of the transformations of Muay Thai in the modern era, occurred in the inter war period during the 1920's and 1930's. In 1926 the ring death of Jia Kaengkhmen at Suan Muay Gularb provoked the introduction of boxing gloves in Muay Thai competitions(Kat, 2001). The shift from kaad cheuk to gloves was not instantaneous and took more than a decade to completely implement. It should be noted that in Britain gloves were first used in the mid-1700s but not officially mentioned in British boxing rules until 1865 in what is known as the ‘Queensbury rules’ thus demonstrating the long process of modernization of the sport of boxing in the west (Dunning, 1999).
In 1929 a metal groin guard replaced the traditional groin protection offered by sea shells and tree bark (Kat, 2001, p. 42). The gra-jap, as it is known in Thai, was imported from Singapore. Muay Thai fighters readily adopted the gra-jap due to its' safety.
By the 1930's Muay Thai fighters' were wearing western style boxing trunks during competitions. In 1937 the Department of Physical Education promulgated the official rules of Muay Thai, which included the dress code of fighters. Boxing shorts, boxing gloves, and groin protectors are included within the dress regulations as well as the traditional mongkon.
Prior to the 1920's there were few official rules governing Muay Thai. Muay Thai matches had no time limits, no weight classes, no rings, and no professional and amateur designations. When Muay Thai changed from a martial arts exercise to a contest held before a crowd of spectators, presumably during the reign of the Tiger King according to historical accounts, competitions were held in the open on the bare earth. The first permanent Muay Thai arena was opened at the Suan Gularb School in 1920, which later housed the first elevated and roped Muay Thai ring.
In the 1930's at the Suan Sanuk Muay Thai arena the modern boxing ring was created. Cloth covered the floor of the ring whereas the floor of the Suan Gularb ring was made of wooden boards covered by bamboo mats. Three parallel ropes surrounded the ring and the corner colors were standardized to red and blue.
Rudimentary time limits were placed on Muay Thai matches prior to the modern era. Fights were divided into rounds but the number of rounds was not predetermined. The length of a round was determined by an ingenious time keeping method utilizing a coconut. A coconut, with a puncture in the bottom, was placed in a jar of water. The water entered the coconut and the round was over when the coconut was submerged. Obviously, the time of rounds would vary from fight to fight due to the inability to standardize both the coconut size and the puncture dimensions. In the 1930's, when Muay Thai competitions began to employ standards, modern timepieces did the time keeping.
Weight divisions were first introduced to Muay Thai in 1928. It was not until 1950 that a fully developed ranking system with eight weight divisions was implemented. This system of divisions was developed with the assistance of an American GI stationed in the Philippines, one Major General Sullivan (Stockmann, 1979). Currently there are nineteen weight divisions ranging from mini fly weight at 47.62 Kg. (105 pounds.) to super heavy weight at 95 Kg. (209 pounds.) and upwards. Thai fighters are mainly confined within the first eight of these divisions.
These specifications as well as the addition of an official timekeeper, score keeper, and fight penalties met the international standards of western boxing according to Queensbury rules. Many older Muay Thai devotees cite the adherence to international boxing standards as the death of the traditional Thai martial art form. In the past a fighter had to face all opponents no matter the size and they trained accordingly. The addition of timed rounds is also blamed for weakening the skills and endurance of the fighter. According to international rules, many of the tactics used by Muay Thai fighters were banned. Old style Muay Thai is reported to have 108 basic techniques, more modern accounts convey a total of 60 major attack moves, yet another modern source refers to only five punches, four elbow attacks, three knee kicks, and five foot techniques (Stockmann, 1979).
The training methods used to produce Muay Thai fighters have changed over the last century due to the introduction of western products, technology, and terminology. In the years before modernization influenced Thailand and the martial art of her people one of the key pieces of Muay Thai training equipment was the banana tree. This abundant natural resource was the precursor of the punching bag. Fighters forged their kicking and punching skills against the banana stalk. Lemons were hung from trees so the fighter could practice hitting and kicking a small moving target. Small logs were rolled across the shins to increase their strength. Jumping in and out of pits enhanced leg muscles and cardiac endurance. Coconuts floating in water were used for punching practice increasing the fighters' ability to hit a moving target. In the presence of modern training equipment, these techniques have gone out of use.
The 1920's and '30's was witness to the death of the training techniques listed above. Muay Thai gyms developed training methods based on the western form of exercise using weights, punch bags and balls. At present, most Muay Thai gyms are equipt with skipping ropes, boxing gloves, punching bags, speed balls, weight-lifting equipment, and mirrors to practice shadow boxing.
Western technology and terminology has replaced the old techniques and vocabulary in Muay Thai training. As previously mentioned, fight rounds became standardized with the use of clocks. In modern training sessions stopwatches are used to time bouts and exercise routines. The nomenclature of Muay Thai techniques based in traditional Thai literature and religion has been replaced by terms adopted from international boxing.
On the social front, Muay Thai has been transformed from the sport of kings to the domain of the poor peasant. Throughout the history of Muay Thai, it was an activity that was both participated in and observed by kings. Heroes and kingdoms were made by prowess in the art of Muay Thai. The accomplished fighter could obtain noble titles and promotion within the court. Fighters could use their abilities to gain social status in the hierarchical social structure of Thai culture. In the modern era the background of the participants changed and the social status of the Muay Thai fighter fell drastically. Muay Thai is no longer actively practiced by kings or members of royalty. Generally speaking, most modern day Muay Thai fighters come from poor rural families at the bottom of the social ladder. The process of modernization has changed Thai peoples' attitude towards work i.e.: physical labor. Many Thais feel that to accomplish work by means of mental rather than physical exertion is preferable and worthy of increased social status. The Muay Thai fighter is the embodiment of physical labor; a life ruled by a rigorous physical training schedule and pay for physical combat. Thus, the combination of family background and current perceptions about physical labor in Thai society has reduced the social standing of Muay Thai fighters. Again it should be noted that this is very similar to the British experience where boxing was once the practice of the educated elite of Oxford and aristocratic gentlemen in general and now is the domain of the lower classes (Dunning, 1999).
In addition to social and physical changes to Muay Thai in the modern era, the art was further transformed into a sport by the process of commercialization. The opening of Ratchadamnoen Stadium in 1945 was the first phase of Muay Thai commercialization. The stadium could house large numbers of paying spectators, which increased the drive for ticket sales. Large crowds meant bigger fight purses and an increase in the business of fight promotions. In 1955 the stadium hosted the first televised Muay Thai bout. In subsequent years marketing of consumer products within the stadium, in the ring and on the fighters has become common place. Thai television stations carry broadcasts from Ratchadamnoen and Lumpini (opened in 1956) Stadiums. Big companies such as Caltex and the M-150 sports drink manufacturer currently sponsor these weekly programs. Food vendors, fight program hawkers, and various other economic activities surround and are supported by the stadiums.
When Muay Thai entered the big stadiums of Bangkok another traditional Thai pastime followed: gambling. The economic spin-offs of major Muay Thai competitions were further fueled by the prevalence of gamblers at the matches. Gambling has helped shape the sport of Muay Thai due to the practice of betting not only on the outcome of a match but also on the ability of a fighter to perform certain moves. The fighter is often offered a stake in the winnings for executing specified techniques during a fight. Muay Thai traditionalists cite gambling as having a negative impact on Muay Thai that reduces fighters' skills and discredits the sport due to accusations of corruption.
In the 1970's there was a resurgence of interest in Muay Thai throughout Thailand and the world. The Tourism Organization of Thailand and some independent Muay Thai associations began a drive to promote Muay Thai overseas. They distributed films and sent demonstration teams to countries in Asia, Europe and the United States. Thais petitioned to have Muay Thai as an exhibition sport at the 1976 Olympic games in Montreal, Canada but they were refused. Exhibition bouts between Muay Thai and other martial art styles such as Karate and Kung Fu were popular and helped raise the profile of Muay Thai internationally. The overwhelming popularity of Bruce Lee Kung Fu movies in the West increased the interest of westerners in all forms of Asian martial arts including Muay Thai. Finally, the presence of American service men in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War was an impetus to the increase in popularity of Muay Thai in the United States.
The U.S. policy of containment of the communist threat through out the cold war created a co-dependant relationship with Thailand, which resulted in the U.S. having strong influence over Thailand’s’ defense policy and resources. The Indochinese conflict resulting in the Vietnam War brought thousand of U.S. servicemen to Thailand in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. These servicemen were accompanied by U.S. dollars smoothing the way for U.S. troop deployment, establishment of bases and the designation of certain areas of Thailand as R&R destination for U.S. forces. In 1969 there were 48,000 American troops in Thailand (Corrine, 1984, p.36).
Stockmann (1979) gives several examples of American serviceman’s involvement and interest in Muay Thai. Servicemen were keen spectators at Muay Thai matches. They also took up the challenge to learn the art and some such as Dale Kvalheim, became well known and had great success in the ring. The sport became popular enough to sponsor the establishment of the USA Kickboxing Association in 1971 (Stockmann, 1979, p.13).
At the time of writing, there appears to be another Muay Thai renaissance. Muay Thai fights are broadcast several nights a week from Lumpini and Ratchadamnoen stadiums on local television stations as well as on cable sports channels. The cable broadcast includes English as well as Thai color commentary. There are thousands of Muay Thai training facilities in the country that forge tens of thousands of fighters. According to a recent survey there are 20,000 Muay Thai training camps in 98 countries across the globe (Nation 2/08/01). The World Wide Web is rife with sites dedicated to Muay Thai from camps and aficionados around the world. It has even reached my small home village in an isolated region of eastern Canada via satellite television.
In the push to gain global recognition and participation Muay Thai has embraced standardization and international competition. Foreign-trained Muay Thai fighters often travel to Thailand to train in the homeland of the sport and experience the Muay Thai tradition first hand. Although foreign fighters may excel in the skills and grace required in Muay Thai, it is more difficult for them to learn and accept the magic and religious aspects that are inherent in the Muay Thai tradition.
2.2.1 Modernization and Globalization
Muay Thai has undergone significant changes in the modern era. These changes are due to the influences of modernization and globalization, which have transformed Muay Thai from a traditional martial art to a sport. This vocabulary, modern, traditional, modernization and globalization, is frequently used but often misunderstood in regards to its' actual meaning and impact on society. Following is a brief definition of these terms as I use them in this instance.
The modern era in Thailand began under Kings Mongkut and Chulalongkorn. They are both well known and widely recognized as the modernizing monarchs of Thailand. Modernization as defined by C.E. Black is,"…the process by which historically evolved institutions are adopted to the rapidly changing functions that reflect the unprecedented increase in man's knowledge , permitting control over his environment, that accompanied the scientific revolution" ( Black, 1966, p.7). The scientific revolution and subsequent modernization was initially a European phenomenon that was exported to the rest of the world through colonialism. The sportization of many folk games in Europe occurred with the rise of industrialization. Thailand, though never colonized, pursued modernization and industrialization of its' own accord and sport developed in much the same way it had in Europe under similar industrial conditions.
The traditional is often only defined in contrast to the modern. It is frequently used in a negative manner indicating, static, unimaginative, rigid, and backwards thinking. In truth traditional societies are as dynamic as modern societies, the difference lies in the technology available. However, the pejorative reputation of traditionalists is due to their own incognizance of transformations inherent in the ancient practices that they claim to uphold.
Globalization is a process of economic integration on a worldwide scale that has implications for political and social aspects of life. Ever since Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase "The Global Village" in the 1960's, the implications of integrated markets and global communications have come under increased scrutiny. In recent years there have been large scale anti-globalization protests at various world trade meetings and it has been invariably blamed for events such as the 1997 economic crisis in Thailand. The globalization trend is also responsible for bringing cultures into contact. This leads to cultural exchange and development on a scale unprecedented in human history.
The terms globalization and modernization have both been additionally defined as westernization, americanization, and neo-liberalism. These expressions are politically loaded and I choose not to use them in this discussion. Thailand has been influenced by America and the West but it has also been shaped by its' Asian neighbors and regional powers such as Japan and China.
The modernization of Muay Thai occurred in the inter war period during the 1920's and 1930's. New technologies were introduced to the art which aided in its' transformation into a sport. More important than the technologies introduced was the introduction of the scientific principle of standardization. Muay Thai standards did not exist prior to this period and they were imported from abroad as a pre-existing set of rules and regulations used by western style boxing.
The standardization of Muay Thai created changes in the techniques and training styles of fighters. The Thai government, in accordance with international codes, promulgated these changes in an effort to establish Thailand's reputation as a modern country. The brutalities of traditional Muay Thai fighting as well as other Thai customs such as the practice of chewing betel nut were deemed unpalatable to western cultures. In the late 1800's and early 1900's modern was equated with western and was unquestionably desirable. The modernization process had its' greatest impact on the transformation of Muay Thai from tradition to sport in this early period of the modern era.
Muay Thai has undergone two phases of globalization, the first during the 1970's and the second from the late 1990's to the present. The first phase of globalization was due in large part to the cold war and the resulting hot war in Vietnam, which engaged U.S. troops who were stationed here in Thailand during the conflict. Many American servicemen became interested in Muay Thai while living in Thailand. Some of them trained in the country and subsequently brought the sport home to the U.S.
The 1970's witnessed an increased interest in martial arts in light of the immensely popular kung fu films of Bruce Lee. Muay Thai was promoted throughout Asia and the West in order to take advantage of this global cultural exchange. Fighters from the martial arts traditions of China, Korea and Japan all took part in matches against Muay Thai fighters. These "Battle of the Styles" were popular spectator events that generally supported the claim of Thais that no other martial art could triumph over Muay Thai.
Thais sought to popularize Muay Thai internationally in order to capture foreign currency, increase the international standing, popularity, and renown of Thailand. The globalization of economies influenced the commercialization of Muay Thai. The overseas promotion of the sport was expected to bring in foreign tourist and boost the profile of Thailand on the world stage. As noted by Hargreaves .” political elites in the constituent states of the new world order have, for some considerable time, tended to intervene in and to promote sport as an important instrument for the creation of a sense of national identity and as a way of enhancing their state-nation’s prestige and influence internationally” (2002, p.32).
The local resurgence of Muay Thai popularity during the 1970's may also be linked to a feature of globalization. The process of globalization includes the opening of boarders and may result in undermining national sovereignty. Some Thais viewed the presence of American troops in Thailand as an assault on the sovereignty of the nation. The renewed interest in Muay Thai may have been a reaction to this feeling of disenfranchisement. Once again Hargreaves notes that it is,”…clear that the transformation of nation-based sport into globalised sport may help strimulate national sentiment and provide a rallying point around which it can be reinforced and reconstructed… (2002, p.33). National pride in the sport of kings, which could not be beaten, may have been the bandage over the wounded Thai self-esteem.
In the late 1990's the term globalization took on a negative connotation and was viewed as a disastrous process, which destroyed economies and cultures. The sport of Muay Thai has a schizophrenic point of view concerning the effects of globalization; some people criticize the loss of Muay Thai traditions due to global influences on the sport while others actively promote Muay Thai in overseas markets. In many minds the cultural exchange has become a battle to maintain Thai supremacy in the national sport. It is exported as a cultural industry of Thailand and is an important source of tourism revenue.
2.2.2 Consequences of Modernization and Globalization
The shift in Muay Thai from tradition to sport was a result of the processes of modernization and globalization. The effects of this shift has changed Muay Thai into an economic activity for all those involved in the sport, spectators, promoters, teachers and fighters. It has become a means of escape from the gripping poverty in rural areas, which is itself, a symptom of the modernization process.
The drive towards modernization in the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s led to the standardization of Muay Thai during the inter war years. The standards introduced changed Muay Thai into a sport with rules and regulations instead of a martial art, which conformed only to the needs of the combat situation. Standardization and modern technology resulted n the loss of many techniques and training methods that were traditionally used in the art of Muay Thai.
According to Sage, sporting practices that have long existed in national cultures and communities are no longer isolated from global changes. They, too, have become an integral part of the globalised economic and cultural world, and widening global interdependency is profoundly influencing traditional sports practices and values” (2002, p. 226). The process of globalization opened Thailand to the world and spread Muay Thai overseas. Muay Thai became part of the new cultural industry, which commercialized Thai culture in an effort to capture foreign capital and recognition. The sport was promoted as a tourist attraction and was modified to suit western taste.
Muay Thai grew locally, within Thailand, partly as a nationalistic backlash against the forces of globalization. Local interest increased the commercial benefits of the sport resulting in corporate sponsorship of matches, increased purse prizes, and gambling. At present, Muay Thai is marketed as a cultural product in the global marketplace, promoted abroad as the only unbeatable martial art form, and cherished at home as the sport of kings.
3.1 Body, Buddhism and Socialization
Body, Buddhism and the process of socialization of Thai women are the key themes of this chapter. Theories of the body are highly relevant to Thai society, which is so noticeably concerned with the physical bodies of its citizens. Body theorems are currently en vogue among the sociological and anthropological set of scholars, which has created a plethora of theories that one may apply to any and all cultures. In this chapter I will give a brief summary of key theories of the body that help to illustrate the Thai construct of the social body.
Popular Thai Buddhism in general, maps the body and the Thai worldview. I use this term 'popular' to indicate that the Thai practice of Buddhism is intertwined with other spiritual traditions linked to Brahmanism and animism. Buddhism is a religious tradition that is greatly influenced by thoughts on and about the body. This chapter will examine the Buddhist worldview of the body and the view of the female body in particular.
The aim of this survey of body theorems and popular Thai Buddhism is twofold: to apply the fundamental elements of the bodily pollution theory promulgated by anthropologist Mary Douglas and to assess the implications the consequent worldview has on women in the sport of Muay Thai, otherwise known as Thai boxing. It is my contention that the Buddhist preoccupation with the body and its fear of bodily contamination relates directly to the restrictions placed on female Muay Thai competitors.
The issue of gender and Thai women has become of particular interest in the area of Thai studies in recent years. Books, seminars and numerous papers have been written on the position and role of Thai women in the areas of economy, politics and the family but what has come to light is that the issue of gender is the overriding factor that determines women’s access and treatment in these various spheres. In the latter half of this chapter I discuss the agents of socialization for Thai women and furthermore to postulate that in the move towards modernization the focus of socialization has shifted from the family onto the peer group.
It is here that I wish to define the key terms in the above paragraph: Socialization and Gender. Socialization is the learning process that transmits cultural content to the individual, which facilitates their successful interaction within the society. It is a process that starts at birth and continues until death. However, the most important years within the process occur during childhood and early adolescence. The agents of socialization include parents, peers, teachers, institutions such as organized religion, media and popular culture including games, folktales and literature. Gender is more ambiguously defined as many people do not make the distinction between it and biological sex. In the past, phenomenon that are now ascribed to gender were called sex-roles. At present there is a consensus among scholars on gender that it connotes the psychological aspects of behavior exhibited by the sexes. For the purpose of this thesis I define gender as a cultural construct related to biological sex representing a dichotomy of social and psychological behaviors.
3.2 Body and Buddhism
Thai society has high levels of awareness about the body and it's relation to other bodies within the society. Embodied displays of submission support societal norms of hierarchy and patriarchy. Social restraints on the body apply to men and women but there are many more restrictions placed on females. The over regulation of female bodies, the space they occupy, and the actions they perform contribute to sustaining the status quo of male dominance.
The wai is the standard greeting of the Thais. It should not be equated to the western custom of the handshake as there are rules governing the initiation, position, and return of this gesture. These rules relate to the social status of the actors. Following the rules of the wai reinforces the social structure by means of a purely physical act, which ritualizes submission to the hierarchy.
The Thais emphasize the significance of the head and feet as polar opposites of the body. The head is the top of the body and the residence of the khwan or spiritual essence. It is taboo among the Thais to touch the head of another. The khwan concept is superimposed upon other entities such as houses and villages. I believe it is also linked to the Muay Thai ring, which leads to the restriction placed on women by which they must enter the ring under the ropes rather than over them as men do (to be discussed more fully in the section dealing directly with Muay Thai).
The feet, as opposed to the head, are the least sacred part of the body. Use of the feet for a purpose other than walking is frowned upon. Feet should not be used to point at an object or person. They should not be used to push or hold objects such as doors. People must be conscious of the position of their feet while sitting so as not to unintentionally point them towards another person or sacred image such as the Buddha image or King. This brief litany on the feet exposes the body awareness necessary to all Thais in order to conform to societal precepts.
In addition to the previously mentioned bodily sanctions, women must conform to other proscriptions governing their bodies. There are restrictions on the physical space that women may occupy. Women must avoid contact with monks. While both monks and women act to uphold this precept the system of hierarchy places the burden more fully on women, as they should make way for the monks. This has implications for women whenever they leave their own homes, as they must be conscious of a monk's presence and proximity.
The study of proxemics suggests that power, status and physical space are entwined. The amount of space allocated to individuals designates who is important and who has privilege. In the Thais social context it is clear that women have less power as it is mens' territory not womens' territory that is respected. In addition to the proximity of monks, women are also restricted from some areas within the temple grounds due to the presence of Buddhist relics. This restriction is based on the argument that women may pollute and detract from the mystical power of the artifacts. The concept of body pollution will be further discussed below; at this point it is noted as the underlying cause restricting the space that a womens' body may occupy.
3.2.1 Theories of the Body
"I think therefore I am" is the quintessential phrase that expressed early theories about the body. Rene Descartes, to whom these words are attributed, believed that his mind and not his body defined him. Cartesian thought separated the mind and body implying that the body was just the house of the mind. The body, according to this idea did not influence the development of the mind. In the following centuries since Descartes espoused this idea there has been such a paradigm shift that some suggest that the body constitutes the self. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. New analysis of the body has shown that the physical self affects the mental self as well as vice versa. In the following paragraphs, I will detail some theories of the body which relate to Thai society in general and the situation of women in Muay Thai in particular.
The naturalistic concept purports that the body is the biological base on which the superstructure of society is organized. The capabilities and constraints of the body define the individual and generate the social, political, and economic relations between members of society. This view justifies the inequalities that are found within societies, which are often based on biological sex, race, and class. Such conceptions of the body are often used to justify the exclusion of women from various realms of activity including education, politics and sports. Gender inequality is cited as a direct result of females' weak and unstable bodies.
The implied weakness of the female body relates to early models of the human body, which were based on the male form. When bodies were first studied female anatomy corresponded with male anatomy and was described as a gradient of the male form. An example of this was the likening of the female clitoris to an underdeveloped penis. By the 19th century the female body became a polar opposite to the male body. Differences were emphasized and similarities not discussed. The female body was open to penetration and great expulsions either during childbirth or monthly menstruation. The weakness of such an open system with unprotected boarders seemed self-evident to many scholars of the time (Shilling, 1993). Menstruation was dubbed the eternal wound, which corresponded well with the weak women discourse.
The physical inferiority of the female body constructed by the naturalistic conception of the body was strengthened by the actions of women themselves. Many women who limited their actions according to what society deemed appropriate internalized the message of the weak woman discourse. This reaction was generally confined to the upper levels of society where women were at their leisure. The "physically inferior woman" in lower levels of society was too busy performing manual labor in industry and agriculture to be concerned with such social constructs.
Women may have helped promulgate this idea of the weaker sex in order to escape certain duties and obligations. Cases of the weaker sex argument are used to this day as any physical education teacher can attest; female students often use their menstruation as a ticket out of class. With this in mind, one must begin to question if it is the biology that creates this so-called weakness or is it actually the societies' compliance to the idea of weakness that shapes the physical body of the sex. Such questioning is answered by the social construction theory of the body.
Social constructionists conceptualize the body as the outcome of social forces, which act on and form the incomplete body. From the first breathe of life, and now with pre-natal sex determination even before, the body is culturally mapped according to gender, race, and class. Bodies are developed in ways that are seen to have value in social fields (Shilling, 1993). In Thailand this is clearly defined in terms of the male/female polarity cultivating boxers and beauty queens respectively.
The body is at the center of the nature/culture, biology/society debate. The two previous body theories are representative of these opposing views. A middle path between these two concepts is more comprehensive. The body is formed both by it's natural biological state and transformed and molded as it grows by the social forces exerted on it.
The gendered body concept promulgated by R. Connell, is useful in understanding the development of current male and female body forms and actions. He emphasizes that societies exaggerate the differences between male and female bodies. Furthermore, men and women are scripted by socialization to fulfill these bodily expectations. The idea of gender difference is embodied and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Gender training creates women who are weaker and less capable in the sporting arena.
The concept of the commoditized body in the age of capitalism and modernization explain the overwhelming concern of modern people with body image. In Thailand the shift from an agrarian based economy to that of a market-based economy has led to a shift in ideal body image. The influence of the capitalist economy has created new bodily norms often shaped by marketing. The ideal shape for the male body has become increasingly muscular and that of the female body has become increasingly thin. The new economy and the progression of women into important roles within the public sphere has led men to redefine themselves in terms of their physical appearance. The hyper-musculature that can be achieved by men is rarely physically attainable by women (due to lack of time for physical development caused by the double burden of women in regards to work inside and outside of the home). Furthermore, muscle in women is socially undesirable and few women challenge the social norm.
The body has become a source of physical capital. The body can be used to transform physical shape, size and ability into economic gain. For men there are more opportunities to translate physical capital into other forms. Men may participate in many forms of manual labour and a wide range of sporting activities for which they receive direct payment or generate social networks, which can later be translated into economic gains. Women's physical capital is less likely to be transformed into other sources of capital and is often controlled by their male relatives.
In Thailand male physical capital can be translated into great economic gain in the area of sports in particular Muay Thai. Thai women frequently translate their physical capital into economic gain through beauty contest and prostitution. The difference being that men actively work to develop their bodies and women passively keep their bodies and add to their marketability by applying work to the body's surface rather than transforming it internally.
Thai society is highly conscious of the body and how it interacts and interprets social values, hence these theories of the body have great relevance to the discourse on Thai culture. All of these ideas go some way towards deconstructing the superstitions and traditions, which limit women's participation in competitive Muay Thai. I will discuss these points further after a brief discussion of the popular religion in Thailand, which also factors into the limitations equation.
3.2.2 Popular Religion in Thailand
According to government statistics, over 95% of Thai citizens are Buddhist. However, Buddhism is supplemented by elements of Hinduism and animism, which constitute the popular religion of the country. These three religious traditions fill different roles in the spiritual lives of Thai people. Buddhism serves the social formation through the Sangha and the mutual dependence of the monks and the laity. Animism has a therapeutic function for the people's day to day lives rooted in this earthly realm. Brahminism is used in court rituals creating a supernatural aura around the King. Many Thai Buddhist incorporate these religious traditions into their spiritual lives as Buddhist temples themselves often do. Some temples contain urns of holy water, fortune telling, and monks who perform tattooing in the Brahmanistic tradition none of which are part of canonical Buddhism.
Buddhism is a philosophy that was promulgated as a reaction to Hinduism in ancient India. It has since been adopted as a religion in many regions of Asia although its' popularity in the area of its' inception is notably the lowest in the area. The Thai people adopted the Theravada tradition of Buddhism, which is also known as the way of the elders. It is distinguished from the Mahayana tradition or that of "the great vehicle" by its' use of Pali rather then Sanskrit language and it's focus on the original teachings of the Buddha as handed down from the first elders. It is also more focused on the individuals responsibility towards the ascertainment of spiritual enlightenment rather than the more altruistic goals of Mahayana Buddhism. Both traditions are based on the doctrine of the four noble truths:
All life is suffering (Dukkha)
Suffering is caused by desire (Tanha)
The cessation of dukkha
The way leading to cessation of dukkha is the Noble Eightfold Path, which consist of:
Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration (Titmuss, 1999).
3.2.3 Buddhism and the Body
The Buddhist tradition is strongly focused on the body. Therevada Buddhism, which is the form practiced in Thailand, focuses on individual detachment from worldly concerns. The physical body is often the focus of this detachment and a common source of revulsion in the Buddhist world view as evidenced by this quote from the Therigatha, a text that is part of the Pali canonical scriptures attributed to female followers of the Dhamma, verses 466-471:
Why should I cling to this foul body, impure, smelling of urine, a frightful water bag of corpses, always flowing, full of impure substances? The body is soon carried out to the cemetery, devoid of consciousness; it is thrown away like a log by disgusted relatives. If anyone were dissecting it, were to make the inside outside, even one's own mother would be disgusted, being unable to bear the smell (Hanegraaff & Kloppenborg, 1995, 168).
One must learn that the body is impermanent and that desire is linked to the body of oneself and others. According to a translation from Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu of the Kayagata-sati Sutta in the Majjhima Nikaya subsection of the Tipitaka (Pali language text that forms the doctrine of Theravada Buddhism) a monk develops mindfulness immersed in the body in the following manner:
"…if he were to see a corpse cast away in a charnel ground, picked at by crows, vultures, & hawks, by dogs, hyenas, & various other creatures... a skeleton smeared with flesh & blood, connected with tendons... a fleshless skeleton smeared with blood, connected with tendons... a skeleton without flesh or blood, connected with tendons... bones detached from their tendons, scattered in all directions -- here a hand bone, there a foot bone, here a shin bone, there a thigh bone, here a hip bone, there a back bone, here a rib, there a chest bone, here a shoulder bone, there a neck bone, here a jaw bone, there a tooth, here a skull... the bones whitened, somewhat like the color of shells... piled up, more than a year old... decomposed into a powder: He applies it to this very body, 'This body, too: Such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate."(Tipitaka text available from
Desire is the cause of all suffering and it is the goal of Buddhism to eliminate this suffering. One of the greatest bodily desires is sexual and hence the physical bodies of women are considered dangerous to men and vice versa. Both of the following verses are attributed to the Buddha in the Pariyadana Sutta of the Anguttara Nikaya subsection of the Tipitaka regarding this problem:
"Monks, I do not see any other single form that invades the mind of a man and remains like the form of a woman. Monks, the form of a woman invades the mind of a man and remains.
Monks, I do not see any other single form that invades the mind of a woman and remains like the form of a man. Monks, the form of a man invades the mind of a woman and remains" (Tipitaka text available from www.quangduc.net/English/canon/sutta/angutarra/an01.html).
However, the negative influence of mens' bodies over women has long been overshadowed by the concern about the influence of womens' bodies on men in popular Buddhism.
3.2.4 Buddhism and Women
Buddhism is often charged with being gender biased and a force contributing to continued gender inequality in the countries where it is practiced. Eminent Thai Buddhist scholar Chatsumarn Kabilsingh argues that Buddhism dealing directly with the spiritual path is free from gender bias but other teachings have been affected by the social context of both the Buddhas' time and the current period (Chatsumarn, 1991, p.24). In addition, their male interpreters may further bias the Buddhist text.
The debate over gender equality and/or discrimination has roots in the earliest period of Buddhism, during the lifetime of the Buddha himself. When the Buddha first organized the society of monks, or Sangha, no female followers of the Buddha were admitted into the monastic order. After three attempts Ananda, the Buddha's preeminent adherent, convinced the Buddha to allow females entrance into the Sangha. The female monks, or Bhikkhunis, were treated differently from their male counterparts, or Bhikkhu, from the outset of the order. The Bhikkhunis had more precepts to follow, were restricted from activities such as climbing mountains and reclusive forest meditative retreats, and were subject to the male hierarchy in which they were lower in rank than the newest ordained Bhikkku despite their own seniority within the Sangha. In fact, the admittance of women into the Sangha was said to shorten the longevity of the tradition by five hundred years. Despite these instances of discriminatory practices in early Buddhism it was, at the time, the most liberal and equal relationship in existence between men and women. It was even admitted at this time that men and women were equally capable of achieving enlightenment, a spiritual equality not present in other religious traditions of the day.
Many restrictions placed on the Bhikkhunis served to protect the women from harm or the Bhikkhu from desire. Oft cited as an example of gender bias in Buddhism is the following discussion between Ananda and the Buddha with regards to how one should behave towards women:
The Buddha: 'Do not see them, Ananda'.
'But if we have to see them, what are we to do?'
'Do not talk to them, Ananda'.
'But if we are spoken to, Lord, what are we to do?'
'Remain established in mindfulness' (Hanegraaff & Kloppenborg, 1995, p.152).
Some scholars interpret this passage as a general belief in Buddhism that all women are seductresses who would revel in the destruction of a monk's piety. Alternately, the passage may be interpreted as concern for the monk's vow of celibacy and how he may maintain it in the face of his own unbidden desire for women. Whichever interpretation, women are construed as dangerous to monks by their bodily presence alone. The danger of the female body is further extrapolated to pertain to all things and places deemed sacred. In the following paragraphs, I shall delineate some instances of the body-based restrictions and taboos placed on Thai Buddhist men and women as well as illustrate the negative image of women in popular Thai Buddhism, which reinforces the perception of female bodily pollution.
3.2.5 Thai Buddhist Tradition and Women
Women in Thailand are restricted from entry into the Sangha. As aforementioned, a female order was established during the time of the Buddha but Thai Therevada Buddhist did not adopt the Bhikkhuni tradition. The main roll of female Buddhist is to provide sons for the monkhood and alms for monks. These duties are rooted in worldly attachments based on bodily and material functions such as motherhood and economic activities, which serve to further alienate female Buddhist from the goal of spiritual enlightenment achieved by cessation of desire.
3.2.6 Popular Thai Buddhist Worldview of Women
The Trai Phum Phra Ruang, written approximately in the year 1345 AD by Phya Lithai an heir to the Sukhothai-Srisachanalai throne and later to become King, is a sermon based on the Theravada Tradition with sources from various holy texts. It was composed with the intention of making the Dhamma more accessible to the laity. The text was composed in the Thai language rather than the canonical language of Pali. Furthermore, the text was frequently used as a source of monk's sermons to the people and often the inspiration for mural paintings in Thai temples. To this day the text is studied as a pillar of classical Thai literature and is well known by the general population.
The Trai Phum Phra Ruang, which translates to Three Worlds According to King Ruang is based on the cosmological order of Buddhism. The three worlds can be loosely equated with the western conception of heaven, earth and hell or the underworld. In one section of the text entitled Female spirits a woman's punishment for various evil deeds during earthly life are detailed.
"One kind of female spirit is always naked and their bodies smell from every pore….These female spirits eat the flesh of their own children because they cannot stand the gnawing hunger. As human beings, they gave medicine to pregnant women to abort their babies….The next of the female spirits are ugly and naked. They are always hungry. When they see food and water before them and they pick out what they want to eat, the food and water turns into feces, blood clots, and pus. When they see a piece of cloth, they wish to wear it; but the cloth turns into burning-hot iron sheets when they try to cover their bodies. These departed spirits, when being human, were angry with their husbands when their husbands gave food, water and cloth to the monks and they cursed them…" (National Identity Board, 1992, p. 23-25).
The Thrai Phum is a central text in popular Buddhism in Thailand in which the major theme is the hierarchical structure of the cosmos and the position of women below men within that system. The above quotation elucidates the negative attitude toward women that is inherent in the Thai Buddhist worldview. The popular teaching of this text leads to the acceptance of this negative stereotype by both men and women. It illustrates women's evil in their propensity to kill the unborn, begrudge charity towards monks and, finally, to curse the embodiment of Buddhism, the monks themselves.
The Jataka tales are pre-Buddhist Indian folktales that were adapted to illustrate the doctrine of karma in the years following the Buddha's death. By the fifth century AD most of the Jataka stories dealt with the previous lives of the Buddha. The most famous Jataka tale is the Vessantara Jataka, which is the story of the last incarnation of the Buddha before his rebirth into the life in which he became the Buddha. In this tale, Vessantara gained great merit by giving away all his possessions including his children and wife. It demonstrates his commitment to detachment from this world by his willingness to give up his most beloved family. While however noble this action may be on the part of Vessantara it also illustrates the position of women and children as possessions of men who can not act with freewill. It is an example of the submissive image of the female, which is conceived as the ideal female in the Buddhist worldview. Vessantara's wife Maddi is quoted as saying: "From maidenhood I was his wife, he is my master still. Let him to whom so he desire or give, or sell, or kill.." (Kornvipa, 1989, p.37).
The Jatakas often operate to reinforce gender stereotypes and support the hierarchical structure of Thai society. The Gahapati Jataka portrays women as spiritually weak and intentionally seeking to disrupt a man on his path to spiritual enlightenment. This is also the theme in the Takka Jataka. The stories are depicted in popular drama, mural paintings and Buddhist sermons. The negative portrayals of women in the Jataka Tales helps to justify the restrictions placed on women by the society which are supported by both male and female Buddhist. The popularity of these stories effects the consciousness of Thai women and their self-image. They are socialized to accept subordination and oppression in return their moral goodness is visibly rewarded by outer beauty.
Apart from the popular Buddhist text that form the Buddhist worldview of women, general wisdom proclaims that birth as a female is the result of bad karma. This is never specifically written in the Buddhist canonical texts but it is assumed due to the inability of Thai women to gain merit through entrance into the Sangha and the belief that one of the highest spiritual attainments, that of a Boddhisatva, is only possible for males.
3.2.7 Women's Bodies and Popular Thai Buddhism
According to the evidence provided above, women in the Thai Buddhist worldview are often portrayed as weak, subservient, worldly and dangerous if not outright evil. The dangerous aspect of women is often manifest in their bodies either by the female forms' ability to seduce men or the polluting quality of female bodily fluids. The fear of menstruating women is not derived from canonical Buddhist text but may be related to animistic and Brahmanistic traditions incorporated into Thai Buddhism. Moreover the fear of pollution by menstrual blood is by no means restricted to Thai culture but is frequently observed in tribal cultures throughout the world (Douglas, 1966). Strictly speaking, it is the fear that menstrual blood will pollute and negate the magical powers of charms and sacred people, places and/or things that facilitates societies need to place restrictions on women. As it is impossible to know when a woman may be in this dangerous situation the result is a permanent ban on all women at all times from areas where they might cause pollution. It is through this reasoning that women are forbidden to enter some temple compounds for fear of defiling sacred relics kept within.
The order of pollution attributed to females extends to their entire bodies in the case of female interactions with members of the Sangha. Women are forbidden from touching a monk for to do so would contaminate the monk. According to John Van Esterik in his article, Women Meditation Teachers In Thailand, “Women are doctrinally polluting in their effect on monks, since any slight, even accidental physical contact between a monk and a woman must be ritually expiated" (Van Esterik, John, 1996, p.36).
Monks are restricted in their behavior towards women mainly due to fear of pollution from bodily contact with females. A monk must not sit next to or sleep under the same roof as a woman. He may not give a robe to a woman or communicate with a woman after sundown without the permission of other members of the Sangha. They must not go on a journey with women or teach more than five or six lines of the Dhamma to a woman at one time due to the supposed lack of female intellect. Many of these restrictions function to limit the power of women and sustain the patriarchal hierarchy in which men are the vessels of knowledge and spirituality and women are the material base for this worldly existence.
In the previous pages I have summarized the relationship between Buddhism, popular Buddhism and women as it pertains to the worldview of the Thais and their perception of women. I have endeavored to provide this overview to set the stage for the psychological background that frames the restrictions and limitations placed on women in the Muay Thai arena. First, I shall more thoroughly explain the overriding theory of bodily pollution that pertains to this subject matter by way of eminent anthropologist Mary Douglas's thesis on purity and danger.
3.3 Mary Douglas: Purity and Danger
According to the anthropologist Mary Douglas it is in human nature to classify people, places and things. Typically these classifications are often expressed in opposing categories such as right/left, male/female, and sacred/profane. There is a perceived danger when these categories overlap or the lines between the discrete categories become blurred. It is most often the function of ritual to maintain the separation and demarcation between these polarities.
The dichotomy of the sacred and the profane pertains to the bodily pollution fears expressed by Buddhism regarding women. Many societies have ritual behaviour concerning menstruation. Often this entails physical and or social isolation of the female during this time. The danger may be explained by the uncertain state of the female during this process. Women during menstruation may not be categorized in either of the typical female bodily states; pregnant or capable of conception. It is this blurring of the boundaries of womanhood, the danger of the transitional state, as well as the fear of bodily discharges in general that creates the perception of pollution. Pollution, or more simply put dirt, is an object out of place be it toilet paper in the kitchen, shoes on the table, or blood out of the body.
At a more basic level, all bodily discharges both of women and men are considered polluting, potentially dangerous, and dangerous to both the polluter and others that may come in contact with the offending item(s). The body should be a perfect container with no physical emissions that may weaken it. The protective power of the tattoo used throughout Thailand to ward off bad spirits is vulnerable during urination and ejaculation, both are times when a man is unleashing part of his inner strength into the world outside his body. Bodily discharges or pairings hold strong magic that can be used in black magic such as Thai love potions that may contain menstrual fluid, corpse oil, and feces. The more polluted, dirty or disgusting the substances used in black magic the stronger the spell.
Ritual is a symbolic action that relates to the sacred and sustains societal relationships and roles. Focusing on a ritual creates a framework for experience and provides a means of focus as well as an expectation of the ensuing events. An individual is construed as polluting by disregarding ritual actions and etiquette. Such anomalous behaviour threatens to collapse the structure of the society.
A parallel danger can be drawn between female members of the Sangha and women in Muay Thai. Women in these positions cause bodily pollution as a result of menstruation and threaten the patriarchal hierarchy of Thai society by crossing the ritualistic lines that divide the sexes. It is in part the spiritual basis of the Muay Thai tradition that embeds the modern sport with a worldview that restricts women's actions due to both the perception of female physical weakness and their psychological power over men. In the following pages, I will explore the implications of the Thai Buddhist worldview towards women on the sport while seeking to explain the restrictions placed on women in Muay Thai using the above pollution theory.
3.3.1 Pollution Theory and Muay Thai
Over the years superstition has developed around Muay Thai and the presence of women in or near the ring. Women are forbidden to enter the Muay Thai ring or function as coaches on the outer ring during a male fight. Nor are they allowed to touch the sacred item, the mongkon or headband, used by the fighter during a contest. The reason for such restrictions appears to be fear of contaminating the magic in the ring as well as stories of bad luck linked to a female presence in the ring prior to fight time. Similarly, women are not allowed to train in the same ring as male fighters, again due to the perception of women's strong magic endangering the magic of the male fighter. Informants have directly stated that female menstruation was the source of the perception of pollution linked to these restrictions.
Women are also required to enter the ring between rather than over the top of the ropes as their male counterparts do. This is linked to the khwan concept of spiritual essence, which is located at the top of the body, or in this case, structure. The khwan is the magic of the ring and may be defiled by females placing themselves above it. This is a metaphorical allusion to the hierarchy, which is part of the Thai social structure. Generally speaking, the Thai hierarchical structure places women below men and sacred objects such as Buddhist relics and in this case the Muay Thai ring.
Female Muay Thai practitioners are an anomaly in Thailand. This creates the state of pollution caused by marginal people who do not subscribe to societal norms. The power of their pollution, which is defined as matter out of place, has the ability to challenge the existing social structure. It creates danger in Thai society where the lines of structure in ritual are clearly defined as explained previously in the description Thai Buddhism. Women in a position of power threaten the patriarchal basis of Thai society.
3.4.1 Group Socialization Theory
General theories on the process of socialization contend that it is facilitated by the primary social institutions of family, school and religion with parents cited as the prime socializing agents. Recently, the work of Judith Rich Harris and other psychologist has called this perspective into question. Harris, in her article entitled,” Where is the child’s environment? A group socialization theory of development”, posits that peer groups are more influential in the socialization process of children and adolescents (1995). The group socialization theory, henceforth referred to as GS, asserts that peer groups filter the input of all other socializing agents such as parents, teachers, and the mass media and then transmit what is deemed typical or approved behavior to their members. GS further details the process by describing the parent not as an individual agent but also as a peer group member of that age cohort.
GS theory is particularly applicable to the new social realities of Thailand in this age of modernization. The process of modernization in Thailand has entailed mass migrations from rural to urban areas facilitating the break up of the traditional family unit. Many rural migrants leave home in their early adolescence to work in urban areas often surrounded by hundreds of people in the same situation. The source of social support and approval is transposed from the family to the peer group.
3.4.2 Gender Socialization
The process of socialization begins at birth and now, with technologies such as ultra sound and genetic testing, during fetal development in the womb. The first question about any baby usually is: boy or girl? In the West this biological fact is symbolically infused with gender stereotypes that initially include the colour dichotomy of pink/blue respectively for girls and boys. The situation in Thailand is different not in the presence of this gendered dichotomy but in it’s material manifestation which is a notebook in the cradle for boys and a sewing kit in the cradle for girls representing societies expectations for the sexes regarding family and education.
Children recognize gender constancy; the fact that ones own gender and the gender of others will not change, at three years of age. From this time onwards they may socialize their peers in gender roles. Children learn gender roles mainly by imitation and internalization through identification with role models of the same sex. The role models may be parents, siblings and/or peers. Children generally are not directly instructed in how to conform to gender expectations but they are frequently discouraged from displaying behaviours that are culturally considered inappropriate.
3.4.3 Women in Thailand
Thai women have become one of the main commodities of Thai cultural capital. But what is it that they are selling? Picture books marketed to foreign tourist include such titles as the “Women of Thailand” along side other depictions of Thai cultural treasures such as Buddhism, architecture, and world heritage sites. In this context, Thai women are depicted as the epitome of beauty and grace, two key components of the traditionally “good” Thai woman.
The stereotypical “good’ women is easily recognized in Thai culture whether presented in drama, literature, art, the media, Buddhism, government social policy, or school texts. A list of “good” attributes for Thai women includes beauty, grace, neat, sweet smelling, polite, virginal, pure, ornamental, nurturing, dutiful, sexually faithful, self-controlled, self-sacrificing, subservient, obedient, respectful of authority, physically weak, and motherhood. Such is the standard that Thai women are expected to uphold in order to be respected members of society. Often these expectations are at odds with the social reality of ordinary woman who often have to forego the surface manifestations of this stereotype due to economic necessities. Nevertheless, Thai women are regarded as both …flowers for the bees to suck honey from and …flowers of the nation indicative of the high value placed on feminine beauty.
3.4.4 Culturally Ascribed Gender Roles
In The making of a Thai Woman, Panit Boonyavatana suggest that most Thai women would agree that the typical characteristics of a Thai woman were sweet, motherly, well-mannered, pleasing, loving (1999, p.1). This description may well encompass the characteristics of women the world over but in Thailand the role and station of mother is of utmost importance. The life of women as mothers has confined them to the private sphere of the home until recently when the industrialization process of Thailand created the need for labourers and Thai women answered the call. Still it may be seen that many of the preferred attributes of women are linked to this domestic past. The transition of Thailand into a highly materialistic culture has left a void between traditional attitudes and lifestyles and the new, often urban, reality. The new gender roles and reported equality between the sexes are much like the westernized appearance of many Thais, only an application of surface display with a traditional Thai worldview underneath.
Sila Khomchai depicts an example of this duality, between traditional and modern women, in the short story Choice of Life. The main character chooses between a woman who represented the ideal characteristics of a lady in traditional society and a modern professional woman in the capital city of Bangkok. The country girl, Wipha, is thus described,”…sweet and well-mannered…she was good at house work and administering to others’ needs. She was cool and calm…” (Suvanna 1992, p.146). The qualties of a good wife in Thai society were also discussed,” A lady-like manner, proper behaviour, and obedience were still qualities men were searching for” (Suvanna, 1992, p.146). In the end, the main character choose the city girl due to her ability to help him in the increasingly difficult modern world that is Bangkok.
3.5 Female Gender Socialization in Thailand
Family is the initial and traditional location for socialization in Thailand, but as discussed previously this is changing although it’s still an important agent of the process in the preschool years. Children are clearly gendered within the Thai family institution. Gender roles and associated behaviours are drastically different for boys and girls. Family work is segregated with girls expected to stay at home acting as mothers’ helper while boys work in the fields, care for buffaloes and play. The girls are kept close to home and are not allowed the freedom of movement that boys posses. Due to girls proximity to, or within, the house they are under constant observation and scrutiny reducing their proclivity for independence and increasing the burden of responsibility. Boys’ activities, which take them far afield, allow for independence and fewer interactions with authority figures, which reduces their accountability.
3.5.2 Peer Group
Peer group interactions occur at school age or prior to that depending on the size of the village or social network of any given family. Children’s play is a key tool and reflection of the peer group socialization process. In a study of children’s games in a village community in Thailand, Anderson noted the boy/girl split in activities especially after the children were of school age ( 1980). Girls played games such as house, dolls, and store whereas boys played games that were more physically active and competitive as well as a game role playing ordination into the monkhood, a male only activity. She also noted that there were no games that pitted the boys against the girls although they often played similar, or the same games, side by side in the playground. Finally, in a mixed group game similar to leapfrog, the boys of school age insisted that when the girls jumped over them they mustn’t leap over their heads but across their backs. This stipulation is a reflection of the cultural constructions of taboos against females due to fears of menstrual pollution, hierarchy of males, and the sacredness of the head.
In the school environment, children and teachers actively inculcate gender roles. The children typically divide the class seating arrangement boys vs. girls. Many teachers encourage them to do so and according to GS theory the peer group assess this sanction, based on gender, finds it acceptable and therefore adopts it as their own. Consequently, teachers who counter this trend face strong opposition from the students.
Teachers frequently choose activities for students based on their gender and the expectations Thai society places on children according to their gender. They typically assign tasks requiring responsibility to girls and those requiring strength to boys. They also reinforce the “good” woman stereotypes common in Thailand emphasizing the domesticity, obedience and beauty aspects of the myth.
Thai schools indoctrinate children in gender roles by the very clothes they wear to class. All students from pre-school up to university level are required to wear uniforms to school. Girls wear skirts and boys wear shorts or pants. Girls are taught how to move properly in this attire in order to conform to social standards of proper conduct. This often limits the activities that girls can participate in without risking the revelation of their underpants and incurring social censure.
A survey of Thai school textbooks found them to uphold and perpetuate prevalent gender stereotypes. The study, published in 1983, found that more male characters than female characters were portrayed. Male characters occupied more professional fields, 72 compared with females in 23, and with greater frequency, 813 characters compared with 242 female characters (Thanitthar, 1983, p.44-43). The school text portrayed females most frequently as mothers, this being the main social function of women in Thai society. The occupational category of “father” is not even present in the list of male occupations but the category “monk”, a position unavailable to women, is cited as the most frequently held occupation for men. This is a clear demonstration of gender role stereotyping that is taught within schools that socializes women to limit their occupational aspirations and accept their role within the family as mothers.
Finally, extracurricular activities are often divided along the lines of gender. Girls are encouraged to learn various handicrafts that accentuate her feminine gentility such as fruit carving, paper folding, and needlepoint. All of these activities are related to the future domesticity of women and have no practical application. Furthermore, these activities are done without reference to others as a solitary activity. Boys activities usually involve sports such as football and takraw which facilitates group interaction, leadership, team work, competition and development of physical strength.
In sum, the Thai school system is a toxic environment for Thai women as it perpetuates gender role stereotypes that are used to reduce the opportunities available to them in life. The insidiousness of the socialization process is such that inequalities are proliferated to the detriment of the very people promoting them albeit often unconsciously.
According to popular Buddhist thought, beauty is a physical sign of merit. This is true for both men and women but whereas men are considered to have greater merit based on the fact of their sex alone a woman’s beauty can never be equivocated with the merit presumed inherent in the male sex. The prevalent belief of Thai women is that to be born a woman is a sign of bad karma, which requires them to make merit sufficient for three lives if they wish to be born as a man in the future.
As mentioned previously, women can not gain entrance in to the monkhood, the formal power structure of Buddhism. Although they are excluded from power, women are generally the most active in religious activities such as the giving of alms. They are expected to support the religion materially by providing food, money and their sons to perpetuate the Sangha. This exclusion of women is qualified by negative stereotypes of women in Buddhism. According to Kloppenborg in the article “Female Stereotypes in Early Buddhism” these stereotypes include:
A woman is stupid; a beautiful woman has no brains.
A girl should be a devoted daughter, and agree to the arrangements made for her by her parents and in-laws.
A woman is only concerned with her body, her clothes and her jewelry.
A woman is sensual and seductive, and should therefore be under male
Children and relatives are a central concern in a woman’s life. Female reproduction is painful and having children binds women to the world of matter.
Women who are old are ugly and useless. A women’s body as an example of
impermanence and decay (Hanegraaff and Kloppenborg, 1995, p.153-154).
The character Maddi, in the popular Jataka tale Vessantara, portrays woman as property. This Jataka is the story of the last incarnation of the Buddha before his birth as Prince Sidhartha. It is touted as the Thai national Jataka and as such is key to the Thai understanding of what it is to be Buddhist (Suwanna, 1997, p.244). Vessantara practices detachment from worldly concerns by giving freely of all he has including his wife and two children. The wife, Maddi, dutifully obeys as first her children and then herself is given away like so much chattel. The tale clearly shows the authority of man over woman, the position of woman as property and the duty of women to obey their lord and master, the husband or father.
3.5.5 Popular Culture
Popular culture influences the socialization process of Thai women as it reflects both old and new gender roles on a daily basis. In this category of popular culture I include proverbs, media, fine arts, and literature. The popular culture of today’s Thailand is a pastiche of ancient legends and folklore, sexist add campaigns, stereotypical villains, and a trivialization of women in
most arenas of public display.
The most frequently quoted Thai proverb stating the relationship between the sexes is that women are the hind legs of the elephant and men are the front. This is popularly believed to indicate both the fundamental supporting role of women and their place in the social hierarchy as well as their subservience to men. Several other proverbs illustrate gender stereotypes including women’s inferiority, lack of intelligence, dependency on men for security and their duplicity. Women are buffalo and men are their masters has a clear enough meaning except perhaps to elaborate that buffalo are considered very stupid and it is a great insult to be called one. At beauty’s finish a women must turn to the charm at the tip of the ladle to maintain his interest. The fickleness and duplicity of women is depicted in the proverb three days absence and your wife is another’s.
Television is a pervasive socialization agent throughout Thailand. Even the poorest villages have access to television and the gendered lives and lifestyles they display. One key component of the Thai television experience is the consumption of locally produced soap operas. Men and women alike are addicted to watching their soaps and follow the lives of the characters religiously. The soaps depict stereotypical, one-dimensional characters with female characters falling into two main roles either the “good girl” or “the bitch”.
A Bangkok Post article entitled,”The Bitch is Back” highlights the stereotypical behaviour of the ‘bad” and “good” girl role models for Thai women in television soap operas (Bangkok Post, 11/07/99). The bitch is characterized as self-centered, short tempered, and sexy. She shamelessly pursues the male hero while tormenting the “good” girl. She wears low-cut, revealing clothes and dental-floss bikinis. According to actresses, the bitch is a much more rewarding character to play due to the fact that the “good “girl is only characterized by her grace and beauty leaving little scope for the actress. This duality of women is not a recent construct. In The Defense of Polygamy written in 1867 by Chaophraya Thiphakorawong, two contrasting yet stereotypical images of women are described. “ Women are passive and submissive; the woman yields to the mans’ sexual relations…women are jealously possessive, ambitious, and ruthless, capable of murdering their own husbands in pursuit of ambition” (Reynolds, 1977, p. 25). It dovetails well with the good woman/ bad (bitch) woman dichotomy currently represented in the Thai media.
Commercials, both on television and in print, often perpetuate gender stereotypes. Due to their highly condensed format and frequent repetition, commercials penetrate the belief system of the viewer more directly than numerous different episode containing similar but not the exact same message. Adds in the Thai media often portray women as sexual objects such as the instance where a telephone company advertised it’s sales pitch on the almost naked butt cheek of a desirable woman. Other adds depict cultural norms that demoralize women an example being a commercial where a man is beset by his wife and his mistress insisting that he choose between them.
Newspapers have gender biased reporting and frequently depict women as victims. In the case of sports reporting gender bias is prevalent the world over. In Thailand, sports in general and in particular the sport of Muay Thai, which is a rite of passage for many Thai men, is reported with a strong gender bias against women. A male reporter writing on the first Asian Women’s Amateur Boxing Championship described the Thai women in negative terms and said little regarding the actual action of the fights. A female reporter for the same paper writing about the 5th Amateur Muay Thai World Championship described the fights in terms of the action indicating the boxers tactics and punches as well as describing the female competitor as lion-hearted. The style of reporting is notably different according to the gender of the reporter with a heavy bias shown by the male writer and obviously not objectionable to the editorial staff.
Newspapers in Thailand are well known for their sensationalization of violent crime and the excessive reporting thereof. Newspapers constantly have pictures of the most recent rape or murder victim plastered over the front page with a black rectangle over the eyes of the victim intended to hide her identity. I use the pronoun her in the previous sentence as almost all of these front-page spectacles are women. This type of reporting constantly bombards the public with the message that women are victims, weak and unable to defend themselves. The message oft repeated becomes self-fulfilling and a culture of learned helplessness and violence against women is perpetuated.
In the fine arts, paintings depict women as sexual objects subject to the force of men. This is a theme in ancient paintings as well as modern works of art. The mural painting at Wat KhongKharam has scenes of the following events: women taken prisoner by men, rape of said prisoners and finally punishment of the female prisoners for their sexual indiscretion by the very men who raped them. Another scene from Wat KhonKharam in Ratchaburi province represents men giving attentions to near naked women with extraordinarily large and stylized breast while the male characters remain fully clothed. Thus the paintings in this Wat illustrates that the inequality of Thai women is a continuation of social norms from a bygone era. Furthermore, this display of gender inequality is shown in a sacred place and imbedded with the authority of that place.
Thai literature is a rich hunting ground for examples of gender role constructs. Literary portrayals of women are limited to several stylized versions, which are as follows with corresponding text as illustrative examples:
The good woman- Si Phaendin, Trai Phum Phra Ruang, A Maxim for Ladies
The helpless woman- Ramakien
The duplicitous woman- Khun Chang Khun Phaen, Phra Law, Kaoe-The Horse Face Girl
Literature from all eras incorporates these idealized visions of women. Female characters who were, “ passive and subservient were considered the ideal types in Ayutthaya periods’ literature” (National Identity Board, 1992, p.53). They were considered the property of men and expected to be obedient, loyal, and dutiful to their husbands. The story of Chanthakhorop written in the early Rattanakosin Period is a didactic text, which cautions men against the stereotypical bad or fickle woman. The tale begins, “ Here goes the tale of a wicked, treacherous woman that all noble young men should be advised against” (National Identity Board, 1992, p.81). In literature of the early 1900’s a perfect woman was described as having, “…all the good qualities of a mother in looking after her husband in times of sickness; a younger sister in time of play and joy; a wife for sexual pleasure and reproduction; a servant for her service” (Panit, 1999, p.3).
Thai literature also provides many examples of the sexual double standard regarding selection of mates and promiscuity. The following list of stories gives examples:
Si Phaendin, Khun Chang Khun Phaen, Sangtong, Kaoe-The Horse Face Girl, and the Ramakien.
The poet Sunthorn Phu best describes ideal female behavior. His advice for women, written in 1844, continues to be part of the school curriculum and is as follows:
Walk slowly. While walking, do not swing your arms too much…do not sway your breasts, do not run your fingers through your hair, and don’t talk…
Do not stare at anything, particularly a man, to the point where he can tell what’s going on in your mind…Do not run after men.
…Love and be faithful to your husband
…Be humble in front of your husband
…When your husband goes to bed, wai him at his feet every night without fail. When he has aches and pains, massage him, then you may go to sleep
…Get up before your husband and prepare water for him to wash…
While your husband is eating, sit and watch him nearby so that when he needs something he does not have to raise his voice. Wait until he finishes before you eat (Cooper, 1982, p.30).
Although many of these stories were written before the turn of the 20th century, with the exception of Si Phaendin, they have a current place as socialization agents of modern Thai women due to their ongoing popularity. These Thai literary classics are taught at all levels of education from primary to post-secondary and are often parlayed into films, television series and dramas.
3.6 Implications for Thai Women
The body is a very important sociological construct in the Thai worldview. It both forms and is formed by the culture. It is used to physically display the important concept of hierarchy and is restricted by the rule of patriarchy in Thai society. Of Thai bodies, the female body is the most restricted especially in the areas traditionally dominated by men: the Sangha and Muay Thai. Restrictions on the female body are justified by the popular Thai Buddhist worldview, which depicts women as lesser spiritual entities then men and also a danger to them.
The danger of womankind lies in the possibility of bodily pollution via menstruation and the anomalous behaviour that threatens the distinct constructions of dichotomies that support the social structure. The Buddhist canonical text as well as folk beliefs based in older religious traditions clearly display a fear of pollution by women. It is this well documented phenomenon of the embodied female menace to Buddhism that is applicable to the practice of Muay Thai and the restrictions placed on women in and out of the ring.
The process of gender socialization in Thai culture appears to be facilitated by all aspects of the females’ life. At every turn a young girl is faced with societal expectations that force her to reduce and restrict her activities, as well as her chances in life for education, career opportunities and religious fulfillment. From earliest childhood, when a cradle is adorned with a sewing kit to the viewing in adulthood of sexually exploitive television commercials and serialization of Thai literary classics like Si Phaendin epitomizing the ideal Thai woman, the gender socialization process is occurring. The world is a gendered minefield through which Thai women must gracefully navigate.
In this new era of modernity, gender stereotypes prevail but are frequently in conflict with new ideas and social situations. In the thesis entitled, “We are not our Mothers”, Mills described the conflict between tradition and modernity for female migrant workers in the Bangkok area (Mills, 1993). The disintegration of the traditional family and the substitution of peer group support systems has changed the dynamics of the socialization process among Thai youth and young adults particularly women who in the past were kept close to home under parental supervision.
Group Socialization theory is applicable to the new social realities in Thailand especially the new Thai woman who confronts modernity and its conflict with traditional Thai values and norms. Many material expressions of modernity directly contrast with the stereotypical “good” girl image and may be directly associated with the “bad “girl or bitch role model portrayed in Thai soap operas. Peer group socialization can filter and transcend these discrepancies in ways that the institutions of family, school and religion can not. Acceptance among peers is more important than within families that are geographically distant.
4.1 Overview of Women in Competitive Muay Thai
The first impression of Thai culture that Muay Thai provides is the existence of a male dominated hierarchy. Patriarchy is a well documented aspect of almost all extant societies therefore I was interested in the individuals who not only lived outside this system but who engaged in open opposition to it: in this case female Muay Thai fighters. In the following chapter I explore my recent fieldwork in Thailand on the topic of Thai women in Muay Thai and the historical and literary depictions of woman as warrior. I also examine the political and economic forces that occurred in tandem with the entrance of women in Muay Thai. Following is an overview of women in competitive Muay Thai.
Prior to conducting fieldwork I reviewed the available literature on the subject area. This review helped me formulate the specific questions I wanted to answer with my fieldwork. I found that women were under represented in the sport of Muay Thai due to taboos that kept them out of Muay Thai rings which had a great impact on their ability to find both training and fighting venues. However, according to recent newspaper reporting there was a new push to generate first rate female Muay Thai fighters to compete internationally where the sport of Muay Thai has recently acquired great acclaim. This has lead to the creation of a small cohort of female Muay Thai fighters who were in direct conflict with a traditionally male dominated culture. This conflict has often brought the issue of gender appropriate behavior into the equation, which serves to question the legitimacy of these fighters as female members of their society.
A review of the historical and literary text provides examples of women who defy the cultural expectations and culturally ascribed gender roles for women. These historical and literary models provide fighters with legitimacy for their place as women in Thai society.
In order to focus my research I sought out social science theories that would be applicable to the situation of Thai women in Muay Thai as presented in the current literature on the subject. I identified two main areas of research: pollution taboos and gender roles. The pollution theory of British anthropologist Mary Douglas provided a clear explanation of the formation and function of taboos against women in Muay Thai. I found no one theory to clarify the capacity of gender roles in restricting women from participation in Muay Thai except a generalization by many authors that gender roles were ascribed by those in power, namely men, to maintain the status quo of male dominance.
The process of industrialization in the 1960’s and 70’s and the impact of globalization in the 1990’s to the present have facilitated the involvement of women in the sport of Muay Thai and in many other public sheres of Thai society. Analysis of the impact of these forces on society gives an explanation as to why Thai women had previously not been interested or involved in Muay Thai and how the changes wrought by these processes enabled them to enter the ring competitively.
4.1.1 History of Women in Muay Thai
Most Thai people, male and female alike, have little knowledge of women in Muay Thai, in fact most people do not even know that female Muay Thai fighters exist. This is due to the low profile that women in the sport have nationally. Recently female boxers have been sought out due to the desire to field a Thai female boxing contingent in the Olympics and the recent Asian Women's boxing tournament held in Bangkok. Thai women have been in the ring for a much longer period of time than the most recent batch of women striking out for the gold.
Women Muay Thai fighters followed their boxing brethren in the rings of Lumpini Stadium forty years ago (Sawadee Magazine, 1998). Women's fights were held at Lumpini until the spectator turn out became too low to be profitable. The women's fights were cancelled and it wasn't until the late 1990's that women came back to the ring enforce. In the intervening years women's Muay Thai was still practiced but mainly in small local venues such as temple fairs.
Over the years superstition has developed around Muay Thai and the presence of women in or near the ring. Women are forbidden to enter the Muay Thai ring or function as coaches on the outer ring during a male fight. The reason for such restriction appears to be fear of contamination. Women's bodies are considered impure due to their monthly periods and it is thought that they could pollute the atmosphere of the ring. This explanation doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, as blood is likely to be spilt in the ring during the fight. I speculate that this rationale has been adopted to hide a deeper purpose, which is to secure the male dominance over women and defend male supremacy. This fallacious belief in the harmful effect of women in the ring has required two rings at any venue where women practice Muay Thai.
The international interest in Muay Thai lead to an increased need for female fighters in the 1990's. Western women became interested in the sport of Muay Thai and were anxious to try their skills out in the home country of the sport. Foreign female fighters who came to Thailand had to be provided with worthy competitors as a matter of national pride. Young Thai women now entered the sport to compete internationally. From the late 1990's onward Thai females entered the Amateur Muay Thai World Championships.
To supply the upsurge in demand for female Muay Thai fighters, the Muay Thai Association in Rangsit opened a special woman's training camp. The camp was home to approximately 10 women fighters in the year 2000. They lived and trained at the camp many having left home villages throughout the kingdom to attend. The Rangsit stadium held women's Muay Thai fights two times a week surpassing the number of male fights they sponsored (Bangkok Post, 27/03/00) .
In 2001, a sex abuse scandal rocked the women's Muay Thai program at Rangsit Stadium. Some of the female fighters in residence there left the camp and found a new training camp at Sasiprapah Gymnasium, also in Bangkok. The defection of the fighters put an end to the promotional women's fights at Rangsit. The women's school is effectively defunct with few women remaining at the camp.
Later in 2001, ABAT (Amateur Boxing Association of Thailand) was looking for female boxers to compete in the Olympics and the Asian Women's Boxing Tournament held in August 2001 in Bangkok. Women who had a background in Muay Thai were actively recruited and sent to a training camp to hone their boxing skills. The tournament in August did not yield good results for the Thai competitors but in the future, with more time to develop, the odds will improve.
4.1.2 Challenges to Women's Muay Thai
Superstition about women in the ring creates many challenges for those women who want to participate in Muay Thai. There is an insufficient supply of Muay Thai venues for women. When women are scheduled to fight at any Muay Thai event two rings must be provided: one for each sex. Limited space and funds for a second ring may preclude any women's fight. The same conditions apply to training venues for women's Muay Thai. Furthermore, training venues are geared toward male use and rarely have separate facilities for women. The lack of female changing and bathroom facilities dissuades women from participating in the sport, hence reinforcing the exclusion of women.
Muay Thai coaches are generally men. Few women have the opportunity to become Muay Thai coaches. This phenomenon is typical throughout the female sporting world. Male coaches hold the power in the sport. Gender roles are reinforced by this situation due to the fact that even though women are training in a power sport they continue to be subordinate to the male coach.
Male coaching becomes a larger issue when the problem of sexual misconduct arises. The female fighters at Rangsit stadium were under the control of their male coach and benefactor. The coach/athlete relationship of subordination mirrors the Thai patron/client relationship, which reduces the ability of the client/athlete to refuse the patron/coach's commands. The female fighter, Salita Nakasem, at the Rangsit camp respected her coach/patron and was indebted to him for the life chances she received. In March of 2001she left the Rangsit camp and accused the camp owner of sexual harassment. The charges of sexual harassment against the coach, Amnuay Keitbumroong, a respected figure in Muay Thai circles is likely to damage her own career more than his. The coach has made counter charges against Salita and the other fighters that left the camp with her, stating that they stole from the camp and took drugs. Her new coach, Chanai Pongsupah owner of Sasiprapah Gymnasium, said "Now that she has been selected for the national team she should grow up and stop sulking about little things", making light of the incident (Bangkok Post 25/03/01). This event illustrates how female Muay Thai fighters are disadvantaged in their relationships with their male coaches. Women may choose to opt out of the sport instead of facing the possibility of being sexually exploited by their coaches.
Nationally, women's Muay Thai is virtually unknown. The profile of female Muay Thai fighters is very low and when they do get media exposure it is not taken seriously. The first coverage of women's Muay Thai I ever encountered was a photo in a local English language daily newspaper labeled "Chick Boxing". The media frequently reinforce gender stereotypes with the quantity and quality of women's sports coverage. Women's sport is given less airtime in the media and often only gender appropriate sports are covered. In the Thai sporting world the most famous and well-covered female athlete is the tennis star Tamarine Tanasugarn. Tennis is a sport that has long been accepted as a woman's game, while Muay Thai is not.
Media coverage of women in sport focuses on gender accepted roles and stereotypes. Female athletes are often described in terms of aesthetics such as graceful and artful. Women in sport are often characterize using terminology that has no reference to their athletic lives instead describing them in their roles as mothers and wives. Muay Thai is a sport that is described in terms of power, aggression, and competition; adjectives not in keeping with the accepted virtues of Thai women. In order to render this threat to traditional views less menacing they trivialize and degrade the female Muay Thai athlete by using language like Chick which alters the issue from one of sport to one of sexuality. Media coverage of female Muay Thai is skewed due the gender imbalance in the world of the media. In a newspaper report featuring a the female Muay Thai athlete Boopa Posen, the author, a woman named Yvonne Bohwongprasert, described the 16-year-old boxer as "lion-hearted" ( Bangkok Post, 17/03/01). The article also described elements of the fight;"…fierce kicks…lethal elbow strikes…old fashioned uppercuts…" ( Bangkok Post, 17/03/01). A male reporter in the Bangkok Post described female boxing in these terms:"…lacks action and grace…weaker physique…regarded as more genteel…not suitable" ( Bangkok Post. 29/08/01).
The gender bias inherent in the different styles and components of reports is clearly displayed in the two previous examples. The female reporter does not disparage, trivialize or question the appropriateness of women in Muay Thai while the male reporter does just that. The media plays a major role in forming public opinion therefore the acceptance of female Muay Thai athletes hinges on the creation of a bias free press.
Yet another challenge to women in Muay Thai is paucity of monetary rewards. Women's roles in society are diverse and they are often responsible for a variety of household and work related chores on a daily basis. The ability of women to partake in sport activities relates directly to her ability to perform all her roles and still have time to function as an athlete. Women in Thailand are significant wage earners and contribute to the family's economic welfare. Women who wish to pursue Muay Thai must benefit monetarily from the sport in order to sustain their interest. Currently female fighters receive much less money to fight in competition than men do. Accomplished female fighters receive between 3,000-20,000 baht per fight and their male counterparts several times that. Equal pay for equal work has long been the feminist mantra and applies to this situation especially as one fight is the result of hours of unpaid training.
Finally, women must overcome the lack of acceptance of female Muay Thai athletes. As I have already mentioned most people have never heard of female Muay Thai athletes, when they do they are often surprised and doubt that women can or should participate in what is acknowledged as a violent sport. As one report noted,"…female boxers seem not to have the physical strength or the skills needed for boxing. …women are still widely regard as more genteel” (Bangkok Post, 29/08/01).
Strength and skills can both be attained through training and therefore not a genuine but frequent argument against women in the sport. Gender stereotypes frequently arise to challenge the participation of women in Muay Thai. Unless women in Muay Thai gain more unbiased media exposure, conquer decades of superstition and seize coaching opportunities; acceptance of the female component in the sport will be difficult to achieve.
4.1.3 Why Fight It?
With so many roadblocks, why do women persevere and continue to train in the sport of Muay Thai? The reasons why women participate may differ from case to case but generally they have one thing in common: their socio-economic situation. Women in sport, particularly women in sports that are considered not appropriate to their gender, often have a background that does not subscribe to the status quo. Due to the fact that they already live outside accepted social boundaries, their sporting lives don't conflict with their existing social identity. Throughout the sporting world women who participate in activities that are considered consistent with male and not female attributes generally come from poor, uneducated backgrounds. Many women in Muay Thai fit this profile.
Most female boxers I interviewed were from rural farming families or self-employed urban workers in smaller centers such as Ubon Ratchathani and Khorat. All respondents had education up to grade 9 (M3) or were currently enrolled in school progressing toward this end. Many state their only occupation as Muay Thai but some had moved onto other jobs in the food service industry and given up Muay Thai as an economic activity. The above results support the economic hypothesis for participation in Muay Thai. Several informants were using Muay Thai to pursue and finance their education out side the ring indicating that Muay Thai was a means to an ends not an end in itself.
Most interview subjects are physically large compared to the Thai norm (fight weight from 60-55 Kilos) and describe themselves as fat. I posit that they don’t fit the physical description of the ideal Thai women and therefore can opt out Thai gender role expectations of female weakness and passivity. Furthermore their own life expectations often do not concur with their definition of an ideal woman which included mothers, good at house keeping, talented, modest and beautiful. Although, most of the younger informants, aged 16 and under, listed strength as a quality of the ideal woman indicating a change in gender role expectations.
4.2 History of Fighting Women
Changing time honored ideas and traditions is not easy, the best way to facilitate such a change is not to diverge radically from the past but to highlight examples from history that illustrate the current concern. Women in Muay Thai are not accepted in the traditional view of the quintessential Thai woman who is graceful, beautiful, and meek. Women who fight are not in accordance with the Thai ideal, or are they?
During the Sukhothai period there are several examples or legends of female warriors. The Queen mother and King Thammaracha III are said to have gone into battle together. Another northern women gave birth while leading an army in the stead of her husband, who was battling on another front (National Identity Board, 1992, p.11).
In the Royal Chronicles of Ayutthaya there is reference made of female soldiers. In the corvee system that operated at this time subjects of the king could be called upon to serve him as warriors, farmers, labourers etc. It is generally accepted that men would be called upon to perform military service but it appears so too were some women.
Beyond this mere mention of female soldiers there are several well-known legends of Thai women who fought against the kingdoms enemies. Most recently the legend of Queen Suriyothai has gained new popularity. This legendary Queen is remembered in a major motion picture production, popular song and a monumental statue. Suriyothai was the wife of the King of Ayutthaya in 1548 when the kingdom was under threat from the Burmese. Legend has it that she went out into battle with her husband and died while protecting the king from an oncoming attacker.
The island of Phuket in Southern Thailand is home to the legendary sisters Khunying Chand and Khun Mook. In 1785 they are said to have led Thai troops against Burmese troops attacking the island. The women fought disguised as men and repelled the Burmese forces. The king bestowed upon them the honorific titles of Toa Tep Ksatri and Tao Sri Suntorn in recognition of their valor.
A female of fighting fame is also the renowned heroine of the town of Khorat in Northeastern Thailand. Khunying Mo, later known by her honorific title given by King Rama III as Tao Suranaree, fought against Laotian forces in 1826. The Laos attacked Khorat and she was captured and taken prisoner but she escaped and went back to Khorat to lead the Thai forces. Tao Suranaree is portrayed in a monumental statue in the town of Khorat and is the subject of an upcoming feature film.
The women described above are the legendary instances of fighting Thai women. The resurrection and popularity of these stories could help redefine the role of women in Thailand. At the very least, they could serve to illustrate that women can fight as well as men and are not weak, defenseless flowers.
4.3 Female Warriors in Thai Literature
The story of Phra Aphai Mani written by Sunthon Phu in the early Rattanakosin Period provides examples of strong female characters in roles of leadership and consul. The work has been touted as an interesting commentary on the role and abilities of women in society. However, despite the forward looking attitude of casting women in the roles of soldier, ruler, military strategist and advisor the writer clearly shows that these are not socially accepted roles for the “good woman”. The following excerpts will elucidate this point.
The character Suwannamali offers to help in the war effort:
“ It is true that I am a woman, but I am quite well versed in war strategies.
She then bound her breast and donned a suit of diamond armor to disguise herself as a man with a sword and a dagger attached to her belt…” (National Identity Board, 1992, p.123-124).
Later in the story Suwannamali once again finds it necessary to fight in order to save the kingdom and the man she loves, Phra Aphai Mani:
“ …she assumed the guise of a man equipped with bow and arrows. Her five
hundreds-odd maids, allwearing soldier-like turbans, highly skilled in the use of the crossbows, went to pay respects to their queen before setting off for battle” (National Identity Board, 1992, p.126).
Both of these instances the women must be disguised as men before performing their martial task strongly indicating that the practice of using female soldiers was not common. In another verse it becomes clear that female participation in physical warfare was not acceptable; “ The court officials told Wali not to volunteer because fighting was not a woman’s job” (National Identity Board, 1992, p. 128).
The character of Wali, further challenges the conventional wisdom of the value of women, chiefly that value ascribed to beauty, in her appeal to king:
“ I have not a bit of doubt about my ugly appearance, but knowledge, like an unblemished diamond, is my spiritual beauty. Among your host of beautiful concubines, you can never find as learned a one as I. The reason I am humbling myself before you is that I want your fame to spread far and wide so that learned men in all disciplines would seek to come under your patronage. Should you take pleasure only in beauty and care not for the wise and learned, you would be going against traditions. I fear that the good men would never pay their allegiance to you. Pray ponder upon it if you were to be the pillar of three realms. A woman’s beauty, however delectable, is only the fuel for the flames of passion and desires” (National Identity Board, 1992, p.128).
Although challenging, Wali still adheres to some of the well-worn cliches of traditional Thai women in that she offers her abilities for the use of the king rather than use them independently. She also appeals to the kings desire to be the leader of other learned and good men, not women, indicating the low esteem that women are held in intellectually and socially.
These fictional female characters do not depict equality between the sexes, but they do exhibit the ability of women to rise above their stereotypical roles all be it against the male dominated status quo. And this, the ability to challenge prevailing norms and attitudes, is the real contribution of this story to the empowerment of Thai women.
4.4 Pollution Taboos’ Impact on Women in Muay Thai
The seminal work, Purity and Danger: an analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo, by Mary Douglas postulates that dirt is matter out of place. This dirt may be something as inconsequential as books on the floor or, rather more distressing, blood outside the body. The second form of dirt has proven to be the foundation of power, ritual and pollution.
The body is promulgated as a model of all other systems. Marginal aspects of the body such as bodily fluids and body parings may be construed to contain power due to their polluting quality inherent in the fact that they are of the body but no longer part of it. Many cultures have created taboos against such marginal substances and people as a means of danger avoidance. Women have typically been the focus of these taboos due to their monthly menstruation. Menstrual blood is deemed a dangerous polluting substance and since it is impossible for a man to know when a woman is menstruating the solution is to restrict women from any arena where they might unconsciously create a threat. In the case of Muay Thai, women are exempt from male rings, as they are believed to negate the magical protective properties of the site and all other magic paraphernalia accompanying the male fighter.
4.5 The Socio-Economic Context
The process of industrialization that took place in Thailand in the 1960’s was the impetus for great social change. Panit points out that major changes in job opportunities brought about by industrialization in the 1960’s brought women out of their homes and farms and onto the factory floor to work as unskilled labour (1999, p.3). Female workers were cheaper than men and were in great demand. Formerly a woman’s place had been at home. They were described as “… highly respected mothers. They were proficient in domestic arts and were expected to rear children, remain faithful to the husband and devoted to the care of the home” (Padilla, 1974, p.2).
By the mid-1970’s Padilla observed that the “…impact of western civilization and education and economic opportunities has radically changed the social and economic situation in Bangkok and the commercialized regions of the country” (1974, p.3). As indicated here, the adoption of industrialization also meant the importation of western ideas. One of these ideas was women’s liberation.
The 1970’s saw the rise of the feminist movement in Thailand especially in the years of democracy from 1973-1976. Women’s liberation movement in Thailand was directly influenced by the west as explicitly depicted by the reference to western feminist such as Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret Mead, and Betty Frieden in the 1976 publication, Thai Women, by the National Council of Women of Thailand. (Mattani, 1988, p.119) The poem, I am a Human Being, by Kanlaya in that publication expressed the view of some Thai women that the time for equality was come.
I am a human being
I am not a flower.
I am a human being
With a fighting spirit
As strong as yours.
I am a human being
Because I can see,
I feel pain,
I have a soul.
I am not a flower.
Tell every one,
I will tell you
When you fight, I fight.
When you fall, I will lift you up.
When you run, I will lead with the flag.
You will prove that
I am a leader
Equal to you, walking shoulder to shoulder with you. ( Mattani 1988: 119)
The sportization of many folk games in Europe occurred with the rise of industrialization, and though it would be unwise to directly correlate the two events, it is of relevance to suggest that industrialization among other factors contributed to the phenomenon of sportization (Dunning, 1999). The push for industrialization in Thailand during the 1960’s and 70’s affected Muay Thai and those who sought to participate in the sport; namely women.
Women, due to modernization and industrialization, moved out of the home sphere and became more active in economic pursuits. Muay Thai, in it’s transformed state of sport was yet another opportunity for economic gain. Women were often forced to use their physical capital in the new materialism that gripped Thailand, to provide for their families in rural areas where cash was infrequently at hand and dependant upon the cyclical nature of agricultural life. Women were often sent by their families to work as prostitutes in the urban centers particularly Bangkok. Muay Thai could provide another means of using the body to obtain cash. In the words of one Muay Thai promoter in the 1970’s, making an honourable living in the ring was preferable to becoming a prostitute (Stockmann, 1979, p.20). According to the short story, The Fifth Train Trip, previously discussed in the section on literature and socialization, many Thai women entered prostitution during this period knowingly to provide the material wealth their families expected in the new industrial era (Suvanna, 1992).
Not long after women entered the ring in the late 1960’s, they disappeared again. During the period of democracy from 1973-1976, women’s Muay Thai was a phenomena that was known to Thai society. A female fight was nationally televised in 1973 for the first time after a international fight between Ali and Norton (Stockmann, 1979, p.20). Millions of Thai viewers saw female Muay Thai practicioners in action. However as the democratic period came to an end, Thai society shifted to the right and this included a backlash against the west particularly the U.S.A. a continuing reaction to the involvement of U.S. troops in the Vietnam War since period prior to the democratic era. Thailand rejected what it saw as western values including the more extreme versions of feminism. Part and parcel of this was the strenghtening of the female physical body. The audience, which had included U.S. servicemen, and interest in female Muay Thai waned and women’s Muay Thai continued on in small venues throughout the country unnoticed for several decades until the recent revival in the late 1990’s.
Since the 1990’s, the phenomena of globalization, much maligned and ill defined, has received significant attention in the media, academia, and society(s) at large. Globalization according to Horne, “…denotes a broad process in which markets, trade , labour relations and culture itself have attained global dimensions, that is , the forms of organizations that connect them have a global character”(1999, p.276). Said phenomena was blamed for both the economic crash in Thailand in 1997 and the following meltdown of the Asian tigers. A globalized economy, however, affects more than just the stock market of any given country. The integration of economies and participation in global makets and trade affects cultures in many areas; it’s much more than the availability of CoCa Cola and other multi national name brands in local markets. Sage notes that, “Sporting practices that have long existed in national cultures and communities are no longer isolated from global changes. They, too, have become an integral part of the globalised economic and cultural world, and widening global interdependency is profoundly influencing traditional sports practices and values “ (2002, p.226).
Muay Thai is a growing international sport. There are Muay Thai training facilities in over 100 countries. The number of web sites on the topic of Muay Thai is stagering, hosted from nations around the world but predominatly from western countries such as Britain, America, Canada, Australia, and Finland(a country that has unprecedented success with its’ female Muay Thai team). The WMTC’s (World Muaythai Council), located in Bangkok, slogan is ‘One World, One Muaythai’. The annual World Amateur Muay Thai Tournament hosted as many as 54 competeing nations in 1997 ( “MB Story” Available from
http://www.muaythai.fi/english/mbstory.htm). In western countries, women participate in Muay Thai as they would in any other sport, a result of the women’s liberation movement promoting equal access and opportunity in all areas of society.
The globalization of Muay Thai has brought new challenges to the local, home grown variety of the sport. Hargreaves explains that, “ … the transformation of nation-based sport into globalised sport may help stimulate national sentiment and provide a rallying point around which it can be reinforced and reconstructed… however … globalized sport…is de-territorialised, making it more problematic for people to identify with it as an expression of their nation” (2002, p.33-34). The Thai construction of female gender roles precludes the involvement of women in such an aggressive, physical sport such as Muay Thai. Due to the international involvement of western and also many Japanese women in competitive Muay Thai, it has become a matter of honour to field Thai women in Muay Thai competitions. The desire to defend Thai supremacy in their national sport has transcended the taboos and cultural constructs which limit the opportunities of women in Muay Thai.
The impact of globalization on women’s Muay Thai is supported by the information obtained in my research. Media reports that women are being recruited to contend with the increasing number of foreign females that come to Thailand to practice and learn the sport in its’ homeland. Interview subjects had fought with foreign opponents and had traveled overseas to compete. I observed many mixed, Thai versus foreigner, female matches at the World Amateur Muay Thai Tournament in August of 2002. And a rule was promulgated at the time of that tournament that from then on, all World Amateur Muay Thai Tournaments would have a female contingent. The 2002 tournament was also the first to sponsor the use of female referees.
The increase in demand for female Muay Thai fighters has resulted in a break down of the taboos that have restricted womens’ participation in the sport over the last 30 years. In my field work, all informants reported training with men and in the same ring. One informant even fought competitively with a man. This change in attitudes towards women in Muay Thai is not universal; the major stadiums in Bangkok and many Muay Thai training facilities continue to ban women from entering a ring used by men. Therefore it seems that the persistence of the taboo against women in the ring is a matter of preference in individual cases, institutions and camps.
4.6 Impacts on Women’s’ Muay Thai
Taboos restricting women seem only to be upheld by conservative elements, people who wish to retain the traditional aspects of Muay Thai which includes the exclusion of women from the ring, within Muay Thai. Taboos are ignored in international Muay Thai competitions an example being the recent World Amateur Muay Thai Competition held in Bangkok this past August 2002. During this event female fights were held in a ring which was later the venue for male competitors on the same day.
The taboos themselves are a historical relic of the early days of modernization in Thailand. Although the restriction of women in the Muay Thai ring is often cited as a traditional practice this is a fallacy as the ring itself has only been in use since the 1930’s, therefore, if it is a tradition, it is a new one. According to the theory of Mary Douglas, I posit that the pollution taboo restricting women from the Muay Thai ring was a reaction to modernization, which created an attack on form that has been shown by Douglas as a source of pollution danger. The form being attacked is that of a male dominated and hierarchical social structure. Furthermore, women have been seen as a source of pollution danger in other Thai social arenas such as the Sangha (community of Buddhist monks) hence the concept of the polluting female was already an established paradigm before it was applied to the Muay Thai ring.
Women made forays into the ring in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s for the first time. The socio-economic context of this era lead women to pursue economic activities that they had previously been unable to participate in. Industrialization in Thailand created the need for a large unskilled work force that tapped into the female population. It soon became the norm for women to expand their interest beyond the home and into the cash economy. As industrialization spread in Thailand it was accompanied by other western ideas such as the womens’ liberation movement. The empowerment of women, the call for gender equality, and the need for women to use their bodies as physical capital resulted in some women entering Muay Thai at this time. However, under the rule of military dictatorships in Thailand from 1976 onward, the profile and proliferation of womens’ Muay Thai floundered and was removed from the public domain continuing only in small remote pockets until the recent resurgence beginning in the mid 1990’s.
According to Hargreaves, “ political elites in the constituent states of the new world order have, for some considerable time, tended to intervene in and to promote sport as an important instrument for the creation of a sense of national identity and as a way of enhancing their state-nation’s prestige and influence internationally (2002, p.32). This can be applied to the sport of Muay Thai in Thailand which is often promoted as the only unbeatable martial art form. This claim is supported by matches commonly called ‘Battle of the Styles’ in which a practitioner of another form of martial art is pitted against a student of Muay Thai.
In the 1990’s the globalization of Muay Thai brought about the need to find, train, and support female Muay Thai competitors in Thailand due to the many foreign women who were partcipating in the sport both internationally and within Thailand. The authorities promoting Muay Thai as an international sport eschewed the taboos and cultural traditions against women in Muay Thai in order to secure Thai prestige in this their national sport. The increase in the participation of Thai women in Muay Thai is clearly linked to the promotion of Muay Thai globally and the resulting nescessity to field female opponents internationally.
Now that Muay Thai has become an option for women, the question their motivation for entering the sport had to be examined. According to my reserch, women enter Muay Thai mainly as an economic activity. This point is clearly illustrated by the fact that one informant left the sport after deciding she could make more money as a food vendor. In addition to this, the demands of Muay Thai training limit the possibility of pursuing any other occupation at the same time.
Finally, female fighters largely ignore Thai gender roles to the extent that one of the female fighters interviewed was a “Tom” in an openly lesbian relationship. Many informants also described themselves as fat and none of them included beauty in their physical self-description. Beauty and motherhood are both key factors of the Thai female gender stereotype. The informants did not include in their future plans marriage or children but instead the opening of their own Muay Thai gyms, bids for the Olympics, and international boxing fame.
I have endeavored to show in this thesis that sport is an important area of study in the field of Thai Studies. Sociological and anthropological interpretation of sport can give insight to cultural values, identity, and worldview. Muay Thai, long recognized as the national sport of Thailand, provides a good case study by which to study Thai culture in relation to the effect modernization and industrialization on the cultural performance of Muay Thai and the impact religion and the process of socialization have on gender roles and the involvement of Thai women in Muay Thai.
It was the purpose of this thesis to investigate the transition of Muay Thai from a traditional martial art form to a sport and study the small number of female Muay Thai competitors and formulate answers to the questions as to why there are so few and why those few choose to enter the sport. Exploration of these questions has lead this researcher in several directions which as a whole explain the reality of the female fighter in Thailand.
In this concluding chapter I give a brief overview the modernizaation of Muay Thai and the socio-cultural events that lead to the participation of women in Muay Thai. I examine the factors that limit the access of women to Muay Thai and explain why women participate in the sport. And I look at the most recent developments in the sport, which may be attributed to the trend of globalization in sport. Finally, I end this chapter by suggesting areas for further study.
5.1 Collective Analysis
In the late 19th and early 20th century Thailand entered into the modern era. King Chulalongkorn and his successors sought to create a more level playing field between the western world and Thailand. These efforts, including sending Thais overseas for study and war, (in WWI Thailand sent troops in support of the allies to Europe), exposed Thais to western ideals and practice. Similarly the exposure of westerners to Thai culture also increased and as in many cases where the West compared themselves to the rest they deemed their own ways superior.
In order to legitimize their country and gain acceptance of western powers the Thai kings, and later civil governments, implemented measures to modernize the Thai state. The national martial art form, Muay Thai, was one such area that was deemed in need of improvement.
Muay Thai was seen by westerners as a blood sport; uncivilized and barbaric. During the inter-war years, Muay Thai underwent major changes. The fights became regulated by time of rounds, number of rounds, use of a ring, introduction of boxing apparel, weight classifications, and the introduction of western boxing training techniques and terminology. These transformations changed many of the Muay Thai traditions and can be said to have created a new sport out of an old art form.
5.1.2 Industrialization and American Influence
The industrialization of Thailand in the late 1960’s created a need for plentiful, cheap labour. That need was met by the untapped potential of the female labourer. When women entered the industrial economy they became more aware of their potential outside of the sphere of the home, where they had previously focused their life energies. The use of female labour often resulted in changing social environments; many young women moved away from home to live and work in factories. There they learned to fight for equal rights in the face of gender inequality and exploitation. The socio-economic reality of these working women promoted the adoption of ideas from the womens liberation movement from the west. Included in these feminist ideals, was the practice of breaking down and breaking into male dominated domains.
In the modern era sport has become a battleground for the war of the sexes. As a sport, Muay Thai became subject to womens’ interest and participation. On the grounds of equality, women in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s began to enter previously unavailable sports. This western phenomenon of women transcending the boundaries of sport influenced Muay Thai as it sought to gain attention on the world stage and in the general preoccupation of Thai authorities to appear in sink with western norms and values.
Thai women have been actively competing in Muay Thai for over forty years. They were very active in Muay Thai during the years of the Indo-Chinese conflict in Vietnam. The sport as a whole was greatly promoted internationally at that time with bids for an Olympic debut and trips abroad of demonstration teams of both male and female fighters. Female fights were even held in major Bangkok stadiums and televised nationally, according to Stockmann (1979, p.20). Although allowed to fight in such major venues Stockmann also noted that the women were only allowed into the ring after all the male fights were finished and the ring could be torn down after the women exited the ropes (1979, p.20). This practice ensured the sacredness of the ring for male fighters.
Gambling, a side bar to any Muay Thai match, was prevalent when women participated in Muay Thai matches. Thais bet on female fights, as did their foreign visitors of the time, American GIs. In a recent conversation with a former US serviceman stationed in Thailand in 1973, I was informed of the weekly entertainment on tap for American soldiers: female Muay Thai matches. The informant stated that every Tuesday night the local bar staged fights and the servicemen bet on the matches. The girls, they were mostly in their teens, could win 100 Baht or approximately 5 dollars US per fight. The presence of foreign troops in the area created the market for this source of entertainment and helped fuel the involvement of women in competitive Muay Thai at that time.
From 1973 onward, a backlash against American involvement and presence in Thailand developed. The student uprising of that same year was in part a result of the dissatisfaction of the students with the government involvement and cooperation with the Americans. The fall of the military government, resulted partly in the pullout of American troops. The U.S. pull out reduced the number of people gambling on female fights, and gambling not the prize purse is where the money is made in Muay Thai. In the democratic years between 1973 and 1976 women continued to compete in Muay Thai but with the re-establishment of a military regime in 1976 the interest in womens’ Muay Thai appears to have plummeted. Reduced interest in gambling on female fights produced unprofitable matches and promotion of female Muay Thai matches all but ceased. The correlation between military rule and the reduced interest in female Muay Thai may be due to a backlash on western ideaologies on womens’ liberation and a governement campaign to return to the traditional patriachial heirarchy of Thai society.
The process of globalization, integration of world economies, has created resurgence in female Muay Thai. The marketing of Thai culture as a product in the world market place has spawned a great interest in Muay Thai among women all over the world. The process of women’s liberation has spread throughout the world of sport and seen the development of professional female boxing circuits in western countries. Many of these fighters have been exposed to and enchanted by Muay Thai. In a recent World Amateur Muay Thai competition held in Bangkok women from countries such as Mexico, Finland, Britain, Australia, and The United States competed.
The promotion of Muay Thai, and the involvement of foreign women in Muay Thai, has created the need to sponsor Thai female fighters. The Thais are proud of their national sport. In their efforts to promote their sport and increase their visibility on the world stage they have encountered an interesting conundrum: can foreigners beat them at their own game and transform Muay Thai from the cultural property of Thailand to a generic sport of the world? In the field of female Muay Thai this is a more legitimate fear.
In the desire to preserve the primacy of Thailand in its’ own national sport, women are being recruited to defend the nation against foreign rivals. The impact of foreign involvement in Muay Thai has once again created the market for women to enter the ring. As Muay Thai vies for greater international exposure, the profile and number of female Muay Thai combatants in the country is sure to increase.
5.1.4 Boxing Body
Recent sociological theory has focused on the body as the location of cultural action and a place to inscribe cultural meaning. I have applied several theories, namely the body as a source of capital and the body as a source of pollution, to this study of women in Muay Thai. Thai culture is highly conscious of the body, the space that it occupies, the functions it may perform in respect to societal norms and as a demonstration of prevailing hierarchies. Therefore the application of body theorems is extremely appropriate and useful in exploring the current subject matter. First I will address the pollution theory of Mary Douglas and how it is applicable to the situation of women in Muay Thai.
Women have been active in Muay Thai for more than 40 years. Although not a long time in the history of the sport, a seemingly long enough period to suppose that their profile in the national consciousness should be more substantial. This researcher found that in casual conversations with Thais that most, except for those active in the world of Muay Thai, do not know of the existence of female Muay Thai fighters. That begs the question, Why are women so underrepresented in the sport?
5.1.5 Pollution and Taboo
Mary Douglas developed the theory that dirt is matter out of place and that pollution occurs when dirt crosses the boundaries into clean categories (1966). Pollution and fear of pollution is more highly prevalent in societies with strict hierarchies, such as Thailand although it is demonstrably present in all cultures particularly in respect to women and their monthly menstruation.
Pollution is power of a negative sort. Black magic is frequently conjured with commodities that qualify as pollutants such as nail pairings, hair, and blood. The power of these materials results from their dislocation from the body from whence they came. The body as a closed system is believed to maintain a positive sacred energy that can be punctured by such dirt.
In Thailand women are seen as a source of pollution to the most sacred objects and beings within the society: the Sangha, sacred Buddhist relics and sites and any item or person imbued with sacredness. The source of their pollution is their menstrual blood. The restrictions placed on women within the Thai Buddhist system is rarely challenged by the general population.
Acceptance of the taboos placed on women are readily transferred to the context of Muay Thai which is traditionally associated with elements of Thai popular religion including Buddhism, Brahmanism, and Animism. Women pollute the magic of the ring and the male fighters; a belief that makes the participation of women in Muay Thai more difficult due to the constraints put on the availability of practice space and fight venues.
The power of the taboo against women in the Muay Thai ring varies throughout the different regions of Thailand. In central and northern Thailand the taboo appears to be in full force whereas in the northeast, the region commonly known as Essan, the taboo is generally not given much license. In this region, where a majority of my fieldwork was conducted, women and men used the same ring, sparred together in training and even had mixed sex matches. The female fighters I met there, however, did not live at the camp where they sometimes trained and when questioned about this I was informed that formerly female fighters had lodged at the camp but the practice had been discontinued due to an outbreak of sexual relations between male and female fighters.
Although the taboo prevails in the majority of Muay Thai camps and venues there are signs that this is changing as a result of globalization. In a recent international tournament a ring was first used for the female fights and later used for B class male fighters. The female fights drew considerable interest from the crowd and could not be scheduled as an afterthought to the male fights as was formerly the case in the previous heyday of female fights in the early 1970’s. The taboo on women in the ring was superceded by the necessity of the international sporting event.
5.1.6 Physical Capital
The modern age has seen a transformation of the body into a commodity. The capital advantage that can be gained by the exploitation of the body is particularly relevant in the discussion of sport in general and Muay Thai in particular.
The body has always been a means of capital in that the work it does creates a product, which is a source of income. In the case of Muay Thai the work creates no product other than the display of the body for entertainment. The body on display must however perform, and this performance is facilitated by months of hard physical training. This form of physical capital is commonly the domain of Thai men.
Thai women are world renown for their physical capital: beauty. This is translated into the sales pitch for Thai tourism, the international recognition of Thai beauty queens, and the prostitution trade. All of these elements of female physical capital have some relevance to the previously discussed importance of globalization on Thai culture. In the era of the American GI, the prevalence of prostitution among Thai women was blamed directly on this foreign market; a claim which continues to be made today although Thai men make up the majority of the consumer base of this product.
Muay Thai, and the availability of another avenue for creating wealth from physical capital, is an important aspect in the promotion of female Muay Thai. Stockmann quotes promoter Thiemboon Intrabut as saying that, “… making an honorable living in the ring was preferable to becoming a prostitute” (1979, p.20). The implication as to the commercial options available for many Thai women could not be more succinctly stated.
The socialization of Thai women is performed by many institutions including family, school and religion. I contend that the process of globalization has had a significant impact on what agents have the most influence on the socialization of Thai women. The Group Socialization theory of Judith Rich Harris fits the new realities of Thai culture and helps explain how women in Muay Thai can partake in such a stereotype defying pursuit.
GS theory postulates that while the family is the primary institution of socialization in the earliest years of life, it is the peer group that becomes the most influential once a child enters school (1995). The evidence available in any two-child family supports the theory, where the siblings despite similar environments never become personality clones. Furthermore, everyone is aware of the phenomenon of peer pressure, which is not, as commonly misrepresented, an exerted pressure from others to conform to the group norm but a willingness of the child to fit in with those in their peer group.
In Thailand the impact of globalization has further increased the influence of the peer group on young Thai women. Many young Thai women now leave their family home in pursuit of work in bigger centers such as Bangkok. In such situations they are no longer under the influence of the family and conform to the norms of the peer group in which they socialize. Mills discusses this trend throughout her thesis, “We Are Not Our Mothers” ( 1993).
In the interviews I conducted with female Muay Thai competitors it was clear that although the family often supported the women’s choice to participate in Muay Thai, the attitude toward Muay Thai of their peers was an important factor as well. Some informants had friends in the sport before they decided to enter it and were encouraged by their friends to become active in Muay Thai. Others said that their friends thought it was cool to know a Muay Thai fighter. Furthermore, some informants stated that their own mother was against their participation in Muay Thai but this did not stop them from pursuing their interest in the sport indicating the reduced influence of parents on the decision making process of the young women. Based on this evidence I think that the GS theory is applicable to the case of women in Muay Thai and predict that the increasing dislocation of the family due to the effects of globalization on the Thai village will further increase the importance of peer group socialization.
5.1.8 Recent Developments
It has been several years since I started researching this topic and over that time there have been some developments that suggest the impact of globalization is creating more access to Muay Thai for women and reducing the taboos formerly so strongly associated with women in the ring.
As I have noted before, in recent international competition, the World Amateur Muay Thai Tournament held in August of 2002 in Bangkok, women fought in the same ring which later in the day provided the venue for male matches. In the past Stockmann noted that rings if used by women were always used after all the male matches had concluded and were then disassembled (1979, p.20). On the occasion of the same tournament, the International Federation of Muay Thai Amateur (IFMA) agreed to include female fighters in all the international Muay Thai Championships to be organized anywhere in the world including Thailand.
Prior to the tournament in 2002, female referees were recruited and trained to adjudicate female matches. This was the first time in the history of Muay Thai in Thailand that matches had been presided over by women. The implication of this suggests that women are making further inroads into the sport and there soon may be female coaches, which would create more equality within Muay Thai.
5.2 Topics for Further Study
As a continuation of this study it would be beneficial to research Thai women in other traditionally male dominated sports. Thai women have won Olympic medals in weight lifting, a power sport commonly associated with male athletes. There may be an interesting contrast between the participation of women in this, a western sport, and that of Muay Thai; a sport derived from the traditions and culture of Thailand.
Another interesting line of investigation may be a cross-cultural comparison of women in Muay Thai and the participation of other women in the national sport of their countries. This would be particularly poignant if the cultures examined were also Asian with a traditional martial art form.
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Formal Interview Questions for Female Muay Thai competitors
How old are you?
Where is your home village/town?
How many brothers and sisters do you have?
Are you the oldest or youngest in your family?
What work do your parents do?
Where did you go to school?
What grade did you complete?
How old were you when you left school?
Please describe yourself? (Physically and psychologically)
When did you become interested in Muay Thai?
Are there other people in your family who do Muay Thai?
Did you know any other women in Muay Thai when you started to train?
Are there any women in your family who are involved in Muay Thai?
What did your friends think when you chose to train in Muay Thai?
When did you start training in Muay Thai?
Did your family support your participation in Muay Thai (financial or moral)?
Who is your coach?
Have you had the same coach throughout your career?
Please describe your coach?
How many fights have you had?
What are your results?
Where were the fights located? Town/place
What have been the benefits of Muay Thai for you?
What is your Muay Thai dream?
Has anyone ever discouraged you from doing Muay Thai?
If so for what reason?
What would you do if you did not do Muay Thai?
How much money can you make in Muay Thai?
What do you do with your money?
Have you ever done any other work for pay?
Why are there separate rings for male and female fighters?
Have you ever trained in the same ring as the men?
What do you think of the need for two rings for male and female fighters?
Has this affected you in training and competition opportunities?
What do you think of the opportunities for female fighters?
Who is your role model in life?
What do you do with your free time?
What are your plans for the future?
What is the ideal woman?