My friend Sayem (not his real name) calls me up late in the evening. He is the administrator of the Facebook Page for the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) program where we train. Let’s call it Bangladesh BJJ (again, not a real name). Apparently, there is a girl visiting Bangladesh from Denmark who wants to train BJJ during her visit here! I ask him about her background in BJJ. He says he’s not sure, but from her Facebook Profile page, she looks like she means business.
I sit back and reflect on this. For one, there are only three BJJ blue belts in Bangladesh. What if the girl is a purple, brown or even a black belt? Won’t that be great? We could learn a few things from her! But our program is being run by a blue belt; will he allow her to take over the program?
Now, the more persistent issue; the BJJ practitioner is a she. Bangladesh has a majority Muslim population. Like 90% or so. There are secular laws as well as conflicting Sharia laws. Again, culturally, we live in a conservative society. Interaction between men and women outside of family members is not always easy. It depends a lot on your social circle.
The facility we use to train is a Karate club in a high-end neighborhood. Known to be part of the tri-state area, it boasts the most expensive real estate, homes of the rich, INGO offices, embassies, and so on. The club has been in business for 25 years and is frequented by expats: people from a well to do class who frequently travel abroad, and are, apparently, progressive minded.
In its midst is religion and culture.
Physical interaction (and we are not talking sex here) is taboo between men and women, although people always talk and chill together.
BJJ requires close body contact. We DO NOT have any girls training among us.
Heck, our student strength fluctuates between three to six people. The official statement (if that’s what we can call it) of the club is that there should be at least two females in practice for girls to train BJJ. Then the girls can train together: spar, practice technique, and do all the essentials of a class. No touching between boys and girls. This also leads to a question. If two girls enroll and if one does not show up for training on a given day, what will the other girl do? Just sit and watch?
A few days later my friend calls me up again. The girl from Denmark wants to know if she should bring her Gi. She seems hardcore! I feel bold. I tell him to tell her to bring her Gi. Her training is my responsibility.
This is the conversation Sayem, our admin has with her over Facebook:
To Whom It May Concern.
I’m traveling to Dhaka next month for a couple of months and would like to hear if I could join your BJJ classes and should I bring my Gi?
Looking forward to hearing from you.
Good to hear from you. Yes. Go ahead and bring your Gi with you. It’s always a pleasure to have people joining in. The diversity adds to better sessions. So, when will you land in Dhaka?
Sounds good, I do not have the date yet. However, I will contact you as soon as I know more… How often are you training?
We train twice a week: Mondays and Wednesdays. However, once you are here we will try our best to figure out something better Oss! Yes…BJJ is somewhat unknown and underestimated here.
I’ll be arriving next week. I have one question though, are you training with or without a Gi. I was looking through your photos and it seemed as it was no-Gi.
Good to hear from you. We do mixed sessions combining Gi with no Gi as well. So, do bring it. It’s quite warm these days, so pack accordingly.
Have a safe trip. Oss!
I learned later that her being able to train BJJ was a factor in deciding if she would come to volunteer in Bangladesh. “It’s one of the first things I looked up,” she would later tell me.
Simon (not his real name and a Roger Gracie blue belt who relocated to Bangladesh and trains with us), Sayem and I want BJJ to establish its roots in Bangladesh. In our own way, we are campaigning for its popularity and want the community to train with the Gi. Simon and I love Gi training and feel that the Gi is an integral part of BJJ. John Jones, who is a UFC star, is only a white belt because his coach refuses to promote him unless he trains more with the Gi. Nostalgically, we also miss our Gi classes we used to do when we lived abroad.
Freja was allowed to bring only 23 kg of luggage from her flight from Denmark to Bangladesh. This may not be a lot for a European white girl travelling to a Muslim third world country for the first time. She did not know a soul here. She was completely dependent on previous correspondence with local people. She had to plan her trip and pack accordingly. A BJJ Gi takes up a few kg and this is ample space considering the circumstances.
We got our Gis from London. We had shamelessly and desperately pleaded and convinced one of our friends to bring four Gis from the UK when he went there to visit his family and friends.
Selfishly, I told Sayem to ask Freja to bring her Gi. I was really hoping to arrange open mat sessions where the four of us could train with the Gi. I did tell Sayem to tell Freja about the challenges of women training BJJ and to communicate with her from his personal Facebook account. Sayem told me it’s too difficult to explain over a Facebook message. Also, he didn’t want to creep her out by leaving personal messages as they have not met in person.
Our mindset was, let her come to Bangladesh and we’ll deal with it.
How do you explain a whole social context over messages?
Fortunately, I happen to co-run a BJJ/grappling program at a Dojo with Simon. He was introduced to BJJ while residing in the UK and me, during my stay in Canada. We teamed up with a Kyokushin Karate practitioner Abe (not his real name) and decided to implement a program that incorporates both standing and ground techniques. Hence, a student who enrolls does both stand up and ground fighting.
I could drag Freja there and she would get some BJJ training. It’s No-Gi though. Something we like to call MMA. Also, I was thinking, on our off day, we could do an open mat with the Gi. It would be personal and customized training for some guys, her and me.
A few days go by. My phone rings.
Sayem: “Dude, you need to meet this chick from Denmark and her local contact person. She wants to train BJJ five to six times a week! They also want to do a BJJ for self defense program just for women.”
He is excited.
“Hook us up,” I tell him.
I am excited.
Freja and her local contact person come to my office. Immediately, I like her.
She says something like, “I have a Bachelor degree in History, a Masters in European Studies, I’ve interned at the European Union and my next goal in life is to get a Black belt in BJJ.”
Does career, job, or boyfriend come somewhere in the equation? I keep the thought to myself.
I tell them the situation on why she can’t train at the Bangladesh BJJ program where we practice. I invite her to join the full contact fighting program we are running at the other gym. She seems unhappy. I agree to take her to our Bangladesh BJJ program to meet the instructor. Freja got her blue belt in one year and four months. Maybe, with her skills, she can convince the instructor or management. Some people like strong women. I know I do.
Would this Danish girl scare them? Make them change their mind, or not even make them flinch! How is this going to play out?
Our practice time is at 8 pm. We go there 20 minute early. There is a Karate class going on. In order to run the BJJ program, we sublet our training space from the Karate club.
Freja: “See, there are girls and guy training together.”
Me: “Yeah, that’s Karate. We are going to do BJJ.”
She doesn’t get it, or refuses to get it.
At a personal level I believe BJJ, just like other martial arts can enable and empower people.
It can develop your confidence, make you healthy, happy, grow spiritually, forge friendships; the list goes on and on. I fail to convince my belief to the wider society.
This is not how most people here in Bangladesh think.
A boy and a girl hugging each other! Surely, the infidels are polluting our righteous way of life.
Now I am not sure how to explain this to her. I come from a Muslim conservative family but I am very secular in my practice and beliefs. It’s not me she requires to convince. Does she expect me to fight for her right to train? I can’t fight a war that I can’t win.
When she got the offer to go to Bangladesh, the first thing she checked was if she could train BJJ here. And now, the first thing we tell her is that she was not allowed to train anyway, and that we had been fully aware of this fact the entire time. So yes, she expects me to fight for her. Why else had we (in a way) brought her to Bangladesh and now agreed to take her to this class?
There is also a new guy who wants a trial class. The instructor talks to Freja and the new guy. He gets a green signal to join the class; Freja does not. However, she can train just today since she is here.
During class Freja displays her blue belt skills. I really had fun rolling with her. In another sparring session she taps out her opponent multiple times. I can see the instructor is impressed. After class, the instructor tells Freja that she should drop by sometimes. Freja thinks she has won him over and she can train here.
I pull the instructor aside.
“So, it’s okay if she comes here to train with us?”
He gives a ‘my hands are tied’ explanation.
“This means NO?”
The instructor tells me to take her to the other gym where I co-run the grappling program. He explains his frustration that two new inquiries come by and he says yes to one and no to another, just because she is a girl. The sad part is he lived in Australia for many years and at present, works for an international NGO campaigning on social causes.
I tell Freja as the instructor said, when in 2009 the BJJ program got started, there were a few inquiries from women. They were interested but the owner of the dojo, who now lives in the USA and runs a dojo there, had a meeting with the BJJ instructor and the instructor-in-charge of the dojo in Dhaka. He said that he is personally okay with girls training BJJ and there is nothing wrong with it, but the Karate class before has some children training. Their mothers wait in the waiting area. They talk. It’s bad; they look at it as a taboo.
So basically we have women who are against women training BJJ.
Isn’t that women against women’s empowerment? Freya does not hide her disappointment.
“But he said I can come sometime.”
“No Freja, you can’t.”
In my mind I am thinking, This one is a rebel. I like her.
Again, Freja tells me that when she arrived, she had the belief that you could change the world if you just wanted to do it.
So, the only thing to make the moms stop talking was to stop giving them the power to talk. If you react and change your life according to how someone talks, they have all the power. However, if you just don’t care, it’s just talk and nothing else. How much power people gave to talk is something Freja realized much later. Deep in my mind, I loved her for that.
Albert Camus once wrote,
The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.
I like the idea. I am also thinking, It’s easy for you to say white girl.
Am I a patriarch myself, or after all these years of martial arts training, have I lost as a fighter?
I would like to consider myself as a martial artist of some capacity. How far will I fight for the likes of Freja, for myself, or for people I care about?
I take Freja to the gym where I co-run a grappling program. She is happy to grapple. She is not impressed with the stand up.
“It’s okay. It’s just not my thing. Can I come just for BJJ?”
“I might get stuck in traffic. That’s not my fault.”
It is a legal excuse in Bangladesh, traffic is horrible, however I had to stress to her,
“Freja, the class runs from this to this, you are expected to attend both stand up and ground fighting.”
“Okay, I guess,” Freja says, a bit down.
The idea of training more stand up than BJJ is not really making her happy.
Freja is a strong and direct woman. She feels betrayed and is pissed. How will this affect our long-term relationship? Am I just another Third World Muslim guy who manipulated her? She makes it clear to me it was a bad judgment call on our part. Can we move past this or will this always linger in her mind?
Luckily, both of us are determined to get the best out of it and do anything to train as much BJJ as possible. At the gym where I co-run the grappling program, some of us come in early to train before scheduled practice to train by ourselves. We thought of starting a routine of meeting an hour before every session to drill and roll. I love the idea.
There are no girls (there are only a few to begin with) who can match Freja’s level of BJJ. Even the guys here aren’t really at her level. We have only 14 square meters of mat space. Only one pair can spar at a time. Both Sayem and Simon injured their arms while training. That leaves Freja to train BJJ only with me. On a positive side, it turns out that our BJJ styles give us a good flow in our rolling. This could actually turn out good, although, we have to admit both Sayem and Simon are missed on the mat.
Against all limitations, Freja is committed to her training. It’s March 2015. This is gonna be a good few months of BJJ training. We even plan to start an open mat session with selected students on an off day. Sundays, it is decided. The space is available and so is time.
Then, a concern is bought to my attention.
More to follow in the next the next post.
Mohammed Tanvir (Nick) Mosharraf has been practicing martial arts actively since 2002 and has been exposed to Boxing, Muay Thai, BJJ and Kyokushin Karate among others. He is an avid fan of Boxing and MMA. He believes in using combat sports and martial arts to foster community relations and also enable and empower people from all walks of life.