Learning how to fight back

India's president calls for girls to study martial arts as self-defense against rape. Why not here?


Carol Lloyd
January 18, 2008 3:30AM (UTC)

A recent report stated that India's president, Pratibha Devisingh Patil, has called for the nation's girls to study karate and judo in order to defend themselves in light of India's deplorable rape and molestation rates. The story made me wonder: Why not here? Wouldn't it be awesome if all our ballerinas in tutus and aspiring gymnasts spent a couple of hours a week learning to kick serious booty so that when they grew up they would no longer fear date rapers or dark alleys?

Full disclosure: My 8-year-old daughter studies Hapkido -- a mixture of judo and karate -- and lives for the thrill of it. At first glance, I love Patil's plan for the same reason I love watching my daughter trounce boys twice her size and weight. It's all a part of a larger scheme to make girls know their worth and feel strong. Patil's self-defense proposal calls for stricter laws against sexual harassment in the workplace, an end to female infanticide, and making women equal partners in all aspects of Indian society.

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But I'm also well aware that my daughter's Hapkido may not live up to my fantasies. In the same light, the plan to defend a nation's women and girls via self-defense classes may not really ensure that women can defend themselves. Sure, self-defense classes have been known to protect many women and men -- a recent story about an elderly woman who fought off two muggers with her walking stick after learning to use it as a self-defense tool proves that self-defense classes can be an invaluable resource in the right circumstances. And I wouldn't diminish the psychological value of teaching little girls self-defense skills in improving their confidence and their sense of courage, strength and physical prowess.

But practicing a martial art doesn't necessarily prepare anyone for a real act of violence. In fact, it's common for trained martial artists -- both male and female -- to freeze when faced with a violent assailant. (Kick here for one martial arts expert's take on this issue.) And since the men's increased size and muscle mass tend to make males stronger than females, women and girls can't simply be good fighters relative to their height and weight and assume they can defend themselves.

Still, Patil's plan may have value as a sort of national deterrent. Criminals tend to avoid victims who they think might fight back -- so perhaps if all Indian girls were trained in hand-to-hand combat, the men of India would think twice before assuming all women are easy prey.

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Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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