Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Fighting for equality

In 2012, women’s boxing will be added to the Summer Olympic games in London. While women have managed to make their way into numerous professional sports, they have been met with more resistance when it comes to boxing. Nonetheless, women have recently begun to make a space for themselves in the decidedly male-dominated world of boxing. Today, women around the world are not only participating competitively in boxing, they are changing the world with it. The ability to participate in the physically demanding sport of boxing, and to break through one of the last male-dominated sporting events, signals that women are breaking new ground, challenging gender roles, and literally fighting for equality.

While women’s boxing is only now making its way to the Olympic games, women have a surprisingly long history in boxing which dates back to the 1720’s, when various exhibitions were staged around London. In step with the Women’s Liberation Movement, women’s boxing reemerged in the United States in the 1970’s with states lifting bans on women in boxing, issuing boxing licenses to women, and sanctioning women’s boxing matches. But it wasn’t until nearly twenty years later that USA Boxing officially recognized female boxers, and even then only after losing a landmark court case to the ACLU. In 1999, Muhammad Ali’s daughter Laila Ali made her professional boxing debut, and later faced Jacqui Frazier (daughter of legend Joe Frazier) in front of 8,000 fans; this silenced lingering critics as to the presence of women in competitive boxing.

Yet, the most inspiring advancements in women’s boxing are happening abroad. At the Ghazi Olympic Stadium in Kabul, Afghanistan, small groups of women are training for the upcoming Olympic trials. The stadium is perhaps an ironic site for such training, as it is better known for its history of Taliban executions, including the decapitations and stonings of Afghan women accused of adultery. Today, young women head to the stadium to step out of the repression that surrounds them in the streets, and to slip into tracksuits and boxing gloves.

The sight of young women boxing and sparring, many in head scarves, is an extraordinary scene in a country where women are routinely harassed for taking part in sports and where Islamic clerics have spoken out against females performing in public as athletes or entertainers. By training to box, Afghan women are not only building confidence, they are challenging their prescribed roles and directly confronting established societal rules; indeed, boxing has become social change in action.

In a country with so much violence and prejudice towards women, the young female boxers are experiencing many freedoms for the first time, yet their short time spent in the gym is not a true reflection of their new station in society. Each of them has been given permission to participate by their fathers, many of whom objected and view their participation as an affront to Islam. Others are unsure as to how long their involvement can last; once a woman is married, her participation will depend on her husband's approval. For the women who have been training for years, the addition of women’s boxing to the Olympic games has served to embolden their determination to make it as a boxer. Some of the top boxers have gotten the rare opportunity to travel the world, and the allure of what an Olympic medal might bring to Afghan women is an almost unimaginable possibility.

Like the women training in Afghanistan, it seems that women in the United States also feel that they are boxing their way towards equality. Disenfranchised women of color have taken to boxing in disproportionate numbers. African-American and Latino women from working-class backgrounds have dominated women’s amateur boxing with more than half of the women’s flyweight division being comprised of Latinas, and African-American women largely dominating the other weight classes. Marlen Esparza, a Mexican-American and front-runner for the US Olympic team, said, "We fight all our lives to get ahead. Some of us even grow up in the streets fighting with our fists.” Perhaps there is a parallel between marginalization and the appeal of boxing - the empowerment one feels from physical strength that may make up for the disempowerment they feel in their everyday lives.

Perhaps women from some of the most disempowered demographics are finding their strength in a sport that mimics what they have grown up having to do: fight. On the surface, the introduction of women’s boxing to the Olympic games marks the end of men-only events at the Summer games (ski jumping is the only other male-only event), but a closer look reveals how this seemingly small change may be facilitating a global change for women’s empowerment that will leave an impact long after the Olympic torch is snuffed out.


Megan said...

I like this post because it introduces a topic that many of us know very little about--women's boxing. To be honest, I never knew women's boxing was an Olympic event. I particularly appreciate your comment that this “seemingly small change may be facilitating a global change for women’s empowerment.” It is truly amazing how sports can empower historically disenfranchised groups. The 1968 Olympics come to mind—Tommie Smith and John Carlos received their gold and bronze medals (respectively) wearing black socks, and gave a black power salute on the podium. Smith said afterwards, “If I win, I am an American, not a black American.” That is so powerful to me because of how true it is. In sports, we so often forget color and, especially in the Olympics, we can be united as one nation regardless of gender, class, race, ect.

KayZee said...

Megan, you're so right. Sports can have an incredibly powerful impact on disenfranchised groups. More specifically, I think sports can shine a spotlight on female equality. Perhaps the best examples of women's sports making huge strides was this year's FIFA Women's World Cup. Maybe it's just because Americans LOVE a winning team, but the U.S. Women's Soccer Team appeared to be truly supported in their run for the championship. Although they didn't win, the popularity of the Women's World Cup, I think, is a good sign for women's sports in general. And as women's sports become more popular, I believe, equality will only continue to grow. Certainly making these kinds of strides in the world's most popular sport can't hurt either.

S said...

I especially like this post and its topic because of the powerful sets of dynamics at play. We have the disenfranchised (and disempowered) being empowered as discussed by how sports can positively impact the lives of disenfranchised people. Interesting is how feelings of disempowerment may be a force propelling women into this sport, which ultimately facilitates a sense of empowerment. The fact barriers are being broken (i.e. women’s boxing being included in the Olympics) can only help to heightened the sense of accomplishment. Furthermore, AMA describes Afghan women in headscarves boxing. This image juxtaposes a class of people who are disenfranchised by their own culture’s male-dominated structure, with a male-dominated sport. It is an image I like very much. Lastly, we have the promise of women’s empowerment in a space that was once extraordinarily disempowering for women: a stadium where women have been executed for challenging the male-dominated structure. Most interesting is that the avenue of empowerment for these women is via a space exclusively reserved for men, boxing. These three sets of dynamics help to highlight the potential opportunities for the advancement of Afghan women, and boxing in general. Thank you AMA for sharing with us.

Brown Eyed Girl said...

Amazing post! It is true that sports can often transcend our deepest biases against culture, race, and gender. The discussions of soccer and women fighting for equality reminds me of the Afghan Women's Soccer Team. When the Taliban first fell from power, Afghan women began to organize soccer matches. In 2006, ESPN honored the women with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award [1] for daring to play a game that they love in spite of threats of violence from the Taliban. These threats have not ceased as the sport has gained national recognition. [2]

Facing down public shaming, death threats, and more, these women are battling to establish a foothold in the fight for equality. As this movement begins to take hold, they are gaining support from their families, even those who originally forbade their participation. And as the women's national team slowly begins to gather greater recognition and legitimacy within the Afghan nation, these female athletes will continue to break barriers that Americans have taken for granted. In the coming years, it will be interesting to see where the national soccer team leads Afghanistan, both in sport and domestic policy.

[1] http://soccernet.espn.go.com/news/story?id=370916&cc=5901

[2] http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7095343n

Rose Sawyer said...

I think that, both abroad and domestically, it is empowering for women to embrace strength as an ideal, rather than just "beauty." I've been weightlifting lately and it's made me aware of our collective cultural limitations on what we term "beautiful." That is, it's usually considered attractive for a woman to be thin, but not necessarily for her to be strong/muscular.

Female athletes manifest a holistic and powerful type of female beauty that is different, and arguably superior to, that put forth by fashion models. (As a ski racer, I'm thinking in particular of Lindsey Vonn [1] and Picabo Street.)

Promoting athletic, functional bodies provides a much-needed alternative measure of attractiveness to young girls who otherwise face pressure to be skinny to the point of anorexia/bulimia. [2] Sports, moreover, provide a measure of success that has nothing to do with dating or romance.

For all of these reasons, I think it's fantastic that the 2012 Summer Olympics will embrace women's boxing.


[1] http://www.lindseyvonn.com/photos/lake-louise/

[2] http://www.amazon.com/Eat-Smart-Play-Hard-Customized/dp/1579543448

Brown Eyed Girl said...

I think you are absolutely right, Rose. Young girls, and boys as well, have long been pressured to achieve the "skinny look" that encapsulates the world's definition of beauty. They have been and are constantly inundated with these unrealistic expectations by television commercials, magazines, and their friends. And the consequences have been severe, with increased cases of anorexia and bulimia. [1]

But in the past decade, we have seen an increasing push to celebrate strong and fit bodies over those unrealistic expectations provided by the world's runways. The NFL has introduced the campaign "Play 60." [2] Although it is focused on combating childhood obesity, the program encourages active fitness as an alternative to the crash diets that have centered on achieving "skinny" beauty. And America's political leaders have also taken a role in this movement. [3]

Most recently, ESPN has helped to support the appreciation athletic bodies as an alternative measure of attractiveness. [4] The magazine's "Body Issue" famously photographs the nude bodies of world class athletes in motion. It is interesting that the magazine portrays both male and female athletes within the issue. In doing so, the magazine truly celebrates an athletic body rather than exploiting the female body alone, as Playboy or Hustler do for economic gain. As strong becomes the new measure of beauty, athletic women who were once considered "tomboys" will find that they are redefining gender roles and providing empowering examples to younger girls.


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/06/health/06iht-sneating.4491388.html


[3] http://www.fitness.gov/

[4] http://espn.go.com/espn/bodyissue

Caitlin said...

I was most struck in this post by the fact that women were legally banned from participating in boxing. I am not sure, nor can I easily find, what "banned" means. Was it simply forbidden, or were criminal sanctions in place if an establishment condoned or a woman was found to be boxing?

This seems to be akin to women's place in the military--society does not like seeing women in a position of getting injured, and therefore puts in place policies to prevent that from happening. So paternalistic!

Additionally, I am so happy to know that women's boxing is on the rise because it seems fairly obvious that women have participated in the sport of boxing for awhile--as the boxing ring card girls who parade around in bikinis and 5 inch heels holding signs showing the number for the boxing round.

It is nice to know that they have progressed to a place beyond being used for their sexuality and instead can be counted on to use their strength and stamina as athletes.