Anne Lieberman was awarded the prestigious Fulbright Fellowship to study the role of women in Muay Thai in Thailand in 2010. That same year, Anne interviewed me as a participant while I was based in Bangkok. I thought I’d catch up with her to discuss her findings on gender and power in Thailand’s Muay Thai gyms.
Please explain the awarded Fulbright Fellowship.
The Fulbright Fellowship is a bilateral exchange program sponsored by the US Department of State in partnership with participating countries. Fulbright provides funding for a wide variety of education and research related programs around the world. Fulbright funds students, scholars, teachers, professionals interested in graduate study abroad, independent research as well as opportunities to teach in universities and in elementary and secondary schools.
In Thailand, there are several different kinds of grants, from English Teaching Assistants (ETA) to doctoral research grants. Four full grants are awarded every year for independent research or research and study grants.
I was awarded a grant to conduct my research and to enroll in an M.A. program at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand.
What is also interesting to me about the Fulbright program is that its inception was the brainchild of a Senator who was still reeling in many ways from the hatred and devastation of WWII. William J Fulbright (D-Arkansas) proposed the legislation that initiated the program, striving for “mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries in the world.” He argued – and won – that the US should sell its surplus ammunition and other military property in order to fund the program. So imbedded in the program’s beginnings is this idea of rebirth after war.
One of my favorite quotes from Fulbright is this one: “I’m sure that President Johnson would never have pursued the war in Vietnam if he’d ever had a Fulbright to Japan, or say Bangkok, or had any feeling for what these people are like and why they acted the way they did. He was completely ignorant.”
The man just so deeply believed in the power of exchange and building mutual understanding across cultures. He believed that this kind of exchange would build the foundation for a more just and peaceful society. (I’m not saying that it necessarily has, I just think – or the historian in me – is fascinated by his vision and the program’s trajectory.)
How were you able to connect with nak muay ying (female boxers) to discuss their experiences?
Connecting with nak muay ying – both farang and Thai – was one of the most difficult pieces of the research.
Let’s talk first about framework and making connections/introductions based on your framework. At the beginning, I really struggled with the framework because I personally didn’t want to do an anthropological study. (That’s not to say anthropology as a discipline isn’t good; it is when it is done well and with integrity). I didn’t want to go into the research doing only participant observation or interviews.
I wanted to try to connect with people on a more even playing field – through oral history. Oral history of course poses similar issues with interviewer/interviewee dynamics, but I felt that at the very least, it would be nak muay ying telling their stories instead of me trying to tell or interpret stories for them. Connecting with people took time. I wanted to establish a relationship with people before I sat down and did an oral history interview with them. But of course dynamics change depending on who is interviewing them, who else is in the room, if the interview has to be done through a translator, etc.
I remember when I first got to Thailand. My predecessor, a Thai American man, had gotten a grant the year before to study music and Muay Thai. He did really great ethnomusicology work. He said to me, “Anne. In Thailand, it’s not only about who you know, but who introduces you to who you know.” And he took me to some people and made introductions and initial connections which was huge for me to even begin my research. His position as a Thai American man opened certain doors for him and, by extension, me. As a white American woman, though, certain doors that opened for Rawi would be closed to me. Rawi made an interesting point to me early on as well.
He said that because I was not Thai, some people would say things in front of me that they would never say to another Thai person.
So as you can imagine, identity politics were constantly in play.
After Rawi connected me initially, I just stayed and trained in different Muay Thai gyms and talked to anyone who would talk to me. I interviewed promoters and gym owners too, because you never know what moment – what conversation – will hold an “ah-ha!” moment or another vital connection to a potential nak muay ying or piece of the overall narrative.
Were you able to find Thai women to speak to?
When I was in Thailand, it was incredibly difficult for me to try to find higher-level female fighters to connect with. It was of course harder to connect with the Thai fighters generally because often I would see them fight in Bangkok but they’d be from outside of the city, wouldn’t speak much English, and my Thai wasn’t good enough to go visit them on my own. In addition, the woman I had help translating for me was from a higher social class, so it could be an uncomfortable situation to discuss more sensitive issues when they were being translated through someone who is seen as “high so.”
I did find a few Thai women to speak to, but not nearly as many as I hoped to interview. The research that I did could use at least five more years. It’s such a long process! I feel like so much has changed even in the few years I’ve been away. Director Todd Kellstein released Buffalo Girls in January 2012, an entire documentary devoted to the stories of two eight year old nak muay ying.
Most recently, I’ve been floored by the emergence of and media coverage around Phetjee Jaa O. Mee Khu, the twelve year old nak muay ying who is fighting boys! Sylvie von Duuglus-Ittu has covered this really well on her blog, 8Limbs.US. I mean, in a country where women can’t fight in either Lumpinee or Rajadamnern stadium because their presence in the ring would, according to superstition, desecrate it and endanger the fighters – a young girl fighting a boy is shocking. Not only that it would happen, but that there would be so much interest in her and positive media coverage around it.
What were your findings?
Oh my! So much. I think that the piece I haven’t touched on is the most unexpected piece of the research I uncovered: the experience of the western woman living and training long term in Thailand.
I hadn’t expected to focus on western women as much as I did, but as I got to know more western nak muay ying and their experience with their male trainers, I realized it was an incredibly fraught and controversial issue. As I mentioned to Natalie in the Daily Muse piece, women experience a whole range of things – from sexual violence and rape to a consensual relationship with their trainers – but the point is that there is an expectation that western women will put out.
One of the things I want to highlight about the research is the fact that when you tell people the reality of what it’s like to train in Thailand as a western woman for an extended period of time (and there are always exceptions, of course), people don’t want to hear it.
They think you did something to entice certain behavior from trainers. Or they think that you’re lying. They think that you’re “ruining” Muay Thai for them.
These are the same people who tend to romanticize the life of a Thai fighter. It’s not sexy or fun to leave home at a young age, fight until you’re 23 (to 25 if you’re lucky) and then spend the rest of your life training dumb white people in a gym in Phuket who often disrespect you. Do some fighters love it? Sure. But there ain’t nothing sexy about being commodified like a racehorse.
And if you don’t think that’s true (not you, Laura, but you the MBSB audience) let’s talk linguistics. I’m not sure if you covered this on MBSB but I think you may have.
Often, when promoters and fighters speak about fighters they use the same classifier that they would use for animals.
What does that mean? It means that instead of putting fighters in the category of humanity, you disrespect them and classify them like animals.
But then there’s another side of it re: women in training. And we’ve spoken about this – which is that sometimes you have these incredibly uneven power dynamics where these foreign women will come in, have their young trainers think that they’re going to be together and will have a future – and then they up and leave back to their country. There’s a bitterness you feel from a lot of these relationships. So the complexity is just enormous.
After the interview on the Daily Muse, a woman reached out to me who had been training in Thailand for years and was happy about the article, and that so many of those issues were actually being spoken about. But she mentioned something really important. She said she felt like she was always hearing two conversations in the gym – what the trainers would say to the students and then what they would say to each other in Thai – often two entirely different conversations, one often more harsh than the other.
They knew she could understand but were totally confident she wouldn’t say anything. “It’s like I’m stuck somewhere in between Thai and Farang and fit nowhere.” When she said that, it struck me. It so well articulated that feeling of limbo you feel as an outsider. It’s this weird purgatory that we find ourselves in. We know too much to be fooled, but we’re always one step behind.
I also found that there was a population of trans* men (or beginning to transition) trans* men doing western style boxing. There is no real money for women in Muay Thai, so many would fight in western-style boxing bouts to make money. This is one of the biggest gaps in my research, this population of trans* men and lesbian women in Thailand who did Muay Thai or boxed.
What I have been thinking more and more about recently is the relationship between Muay Thai, sexuality/gender identification and protection: how perhaps the decision to take up a combat sport could relate to the increasing instances of violence against lesbians around the country and most certainly in more rural areas of the Thailand. Does or can Muay Thai give you a kind of negotiating power when you have no protection within your family, your community and certainly no legal protection under the law?
You were in a very interesting position.
In one regard, you were an academic in Thailand, a position which culturally holds a great deal of esteem and in another, you were a nak muay, which holds very little. The first allowed you to navigate the world of Bangkok’s highest classes and the latter, the world of some of Thailand’s lowest. In addition, you are a woman and a Farang. How did this all meld?
You have teased out one of the most bizarre – often awkward, hysterical, sometimes infuriating – pieces of my time in Thailand. Whenever I would tell people that I would be researching women in Muay Thai, people would laugh and say, “WHY? Do women even do that?” I was sitting in a language class one morning and my teacher said to me, “Wait. What? Women are supposed to be cooking. Not boxing.” He said it in a very playful, silly way and had the whole class laughing, but it was very clear he was not joking.
Once people were done making fun of me for researching Muay Thai period, they would then ask me if I knew about Nong Toom. That in and of itself is fascinating – ok, we know about that one trans* boxer, but “real” women don’t actually do that. That also killed me – that somehow the MtF trans* population (specifically traditionally male-bodied people making the transition to a traditional female-body) and the experience of that population in Thailand wasn’t “real” that they weren’t “real” women. What does that mean? They’re not biologically women? What makes a woman “real” or “fake”?
Those conversations, though, were not ones that I was willing to have with people because they were too exhausting. People don’t understand that although there is a visible trans* population in Thailand – specifically MtF or “lady boys” – does not mean that they are any less oppressed. It also doesn’t take into account the whole other range of gender and sexual expression that takes place in the country and that many of these populations face extreme violence (e.g. the Lesbian population).
Some people on the other hand found my research very interesting and were really happy that I was doing substantive research on Muay Thai. At a moment when a lot of higher-class Thai youth are doing martial arts like Karate and Tae Kwon Do, some people I spoke to where excited to hear that younger women around the country were participating in the sport.
In terms of navigating the “high so” dynamics and the Muay Thai world – this was difficult because I was often with a very high so crowd due to my connections at Fulbright. One of the most telling experiences for me regarding the class divide here was when my friends and I had an art opening at a gallery outside of Bangkok. I invited some of my friends from the gym to come because I wanted to extend the invitation but I also knew that there was a potential that it could be very uncomfortable. One of the young men who was a trainer came with the woman he was dating who I had become close with.
He was so visibly uncomfortable it killed me. And some of the women there were incredibly unkind to him and it made me so angry.
I didn’t know them, but their sense of entitlement and their disdain for him was so palpable it made me sick. I realized in that moment just how much he cared about his girlfriend to put himself in that situation with a group of high-so Thais.
Regarding the identity politics associated with being a white farang woman – ohhhh my. I don’t even know where to start. At the time I was researching, I wasn’t fighting yet, so I was seen as a very nonthreatening little sister type. Also, because my Thai got better, I understood more of the dynamics. One time a trainer said to me after I had a particularly ugly round on the pads, “He said, don’t worry, Nong Anne. You’re still doing well.” And I said, “but that was so ugly!” and then he explained to me on the spectrum of Muay Thai skill, women could only get so far – and that actually I was doing pretty well. That I think underpins a lot of the feeling about women in Muay Thai in Thailand. We can only be so good, so there’s no point in aiming too high.
For Thailand solo travel and safety tips, in addition to Thailand information you won’t find in traditional tourist guides, please visit my post Tips For Women Traveling To Thailand.