One Thursday after leading a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) class, I was sitting in the office of the dojo (training hall/school) going through some administrative matters when a senior student, who also happens to be a friend of mine, dropped by.
Him: “See you on Saturday Tanvir.’’
Me: “No buddy, I’ll be out of town.’’
Him: “So Simon will lead the class?’’ (Not his real name; the other BJJ instructor.)
Me: “No, he will be out of town too.’’
Him: “So who will be teaching the BJJ part? No BJJ?’’
There are only two places in Bangladesh that teach BJJ. One is at the club where Simon and I are enrolled as students. There are no females in the BJJ program there. The other is here, at our dojo, where Simon and I co-run a BJJ grappling program which is blended with a Kyokushin-style karate program. Simon and I are blue belts from our training abroad. Combined, we have put in six active years into the art and run a No-Gi curriculum here. BJJ Gis (a.k.a. Kimono; the outfit worn during training) are not available here! Due to limited mat space, inadequate students, time, and other resources, we have not yet produce anybody who can lead a class. Officially, it is a mixed-gender training program; although, we don’t always have female students and when we do, it’s never more than one or two.
There is one person though: a bideshi (foreigner) visiting Bangladesh for a short period of time who happens to hold a blue belt in BJJ.
It’s a SHE. I tell my friend that she will lead the class. He seems a bit nervous.
I asked him, “What’s up?’’
Him: “Maybe I should talk to the head instructor about this.’’
Me: “Spit it out, mate.’’
Him: “Tanvir, because of religious reasons I cannot shake hands with a girl.’’
I raised my eyebrows. We do shake hands at the end of each class during our rei (greeting ceremony). But, that’s not what he was talking about. He was referring to the close contact that occurs during BJJ training, and some guys are not comfortable training with girls as a result.
I can see that in Bangladesh, a religiously and culturally conservative country, some girls are not comfortable training with guys either.
It is an issue us instructors have to deal with. I thank my friend for sharing his thoughts with me. We have to find a way to recruit and retain students, train them and also maintain social harmony, respecting cultural and religious beliefs.
The History of Our Dojo
On the terrace of a building in Dhaka, in a neighborhood that has soaring real estate prices, was an empty space. Walls were constructed and a tin roof was put on. A couple of heavy bags, a shelf with some basic gear, a few yoga mats, and so on. Then there was a feel of a fight club. (Later, we added 14 sq. meters of training mats, a makiwara (striking board that is used to practice striking a target that provides resistance, similar to a boxing heavy bag).
Simon trained BJJ under Roger Gracie during his stay in the UK and was fascinated by the idea of a place that could be turned into a fight club. He met Abe (not his real name) online and they befriended because of their common interest in martial arts. Abe taught full contact fighting. He was a former two-time Bangladesh champion who also competed and trained abroad. He is also the co-founder and the head instructor at the dojo.
After one of our BJJ training sessions elsewhere, Simon said, “Dude, You gotta check out this fight club they are trying to create.”
I stared at him, thinking, “Simon, The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club. Third rule of Fight Club: Someone yells stop, goes limp, taps out, the fight is over. Fourth rule: only two guys to a fight.”
Then, after what seemed like a long pause, I murmured to him, “So when are you taking me there?” He gave me the address.
I clearly remember that one Saturday evening, in the summer of 2014 when I walked into this place. I could feel the scorching June heat through the tin roof. Immediately, there was an allure, a sense of raw strength, toughness, martial spirit and respect.
I am nostalgic.
It reminded me of some great fighter producing gyms that I have been to.
Could we run a BJJ program here? A fight club is incomplete without a grappling program.
Abe, Simon and I instantly became a team. There was a chemistry and we all felt we could work together to build something big. Abe made that clear! He would be the head instructor and would teach stand-up fighting. Simon and I were to develop a grappling program using our BJJ skills and blend it in with his Kyokushin Karate. In essence, we would have a complete unarmed fighting system. We also needed to put a structure in place; develop it like a real gym and, maybe, a fight team.
In essence, we would develop Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) in Bangladesh! We felt like pioneers!
Our model seemed to follow Javier Mendez, the kick boxing guru who bought in the likes of Leandro Vieira, a BJJ guru to establish a pioneer MMA gym called American Kickboxing Academy (AKA).
For Simon and me, it is a platform to bring BJJ to a wider audience in Bangladesh. MMA is incomplete without grappling, in our case BJJ. Simon and I consulted with our BJJ seniors and proposed a BJJ curriculum. We were secular and liberal in beliefs and never thought the subject of women in BJJ would become an issue.
Simon’s business instincts kicked in, “Dude, we are unable to send talented fighters to UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) or even One FC (One Fighting Championship); but look at SFL (Super Fight League) in India! Can we send fighters there from Bangladesh?”
What about women? All three promotions have female fighters. Both Simon and I are comfortable training with women. Abe mentioned to us that during his training in The Philippines, he met a girl who could break baseball bats with her shin. She was around 5 feet tall! That’s one tough cookie!
Knowingly, or unknowingly, we considered men and women equal. We did not take any incentive for affirmative action. The girls who inquired or dropped by came in naturally. We did not think of doing anything special for them or segregating them.
I thought, “This dojo could be my new home. It surely is a boys club! Oh! Why did I just think that?” Great fighter producing gyms do have female athletes and coaches.
Did my relocation to Bangladesh result in a change in my attitude towards women?
Did my relocation to a socially conservative country constrict my otherwise open-minded views of gender-equality when it involved BJJ training? I have trained with women. Heck, I even got tapped out by them. I respected and regarded all the women I trained BJJ with and call some of them my friends.
Social Issues in Bangladesh
Simon and I converse about social issues in Bangladesh all the time. We were discussing such issues over drinks at a local bar:
Simon: “See, it’s the same in the UK and Bangladesh. You have a job, earn money, you meet up with your friends, have a couple of drinks and have fun.’’
Me: “Well, it doesn’t feel the same.’’
Simon: “Well, you are right. There are no girls! No chicks in the mix.’’
You bring in a girl and drink with her; she will be considered a slut by our society.
If you have money and contacts, you can get perks not available to the mass population just like any other place, but Bangladesh, as a Third World country, will not really give you a taste of living in a developed country. This is a country that recognizes sharia law (Islamic legal system). Again, secularism is one of the four fundamental principles of the Bangladeshi constitution. The two do not always blend in harmony; thus, often creating chaos in the fabric of society.
In order to make BJJ reach its full potential in Bangladesh, we need to reach out to women, who happen to be 50% of the population. Traditionally, they are considered weak by our society. Well, BJJ is designed for a weaker person to overcome a stronger opponent through leverage. It would also prove that a woman is not weak.
Training Women BJJ
In response to my conversation with my friend who objected having to touch females during training, I opened communication on Facebook before I headed out of town. The conversation is edited in order to respect privacy.
Topic: BJJ This Coming Week
So I spoke to sensei (Japanese word for teacher). He would be happy if you can take over the BJJ class this Saturday.
Come by at 4:45 pm and, after the strength, conditioning and stuff, you can lead the BJJ class.
However, do note I already have one person approaching me at the dojo citing religious reasons that he is not comfortable with physical ‘touch’ between male and female. So while pairing up please keep boys and girls separated now.
Once I come back I’ll sort out who is comfortable with co-training and those who are not. Then, we will devide the training accordingly. Don’t worry too much, let me (the NGO guy) handle it.
Simon can lead the BJJ class on Tuesday.
Consequently, as a result of earlier concerns of some of the male students having to grapple with female students during training, I raised this concern with the other instructors. We decided we would handle this issue by pairing up students in class so males and females are separated. We also decided to reach out to students to figure out who are/aren’t comfortable with co-training.
BJJ legend Saulo Robiero once said:
‘‘When we put on the Gi, we are the same. What makes us different is the heart, your experience and your skills.”
“Everything I need for my life, I have from jiu jitsu. Lawyers, doctors, real estate, mothers, cooks, DJs. All the specialists are here; it’s your army. The people that you go to the next level with.’’
We have a program running here where we have a steady flow of students. Ten to fifteen students meet up three fixed times a week. Deshies (someone of sub continental origin) and bedeshies (foreigners)! It’s still a boys club. The atmosphere is multicultural and tolerant where both conservative and liberal minded people train together creating social harmony.
A buzz is being created in the city. As the months pass, we receive inquiries from women. We encourage them to come for trial classes. We gave a couple of female students’ deals in order to encourage their participation in the gym. Discounted fees; no fees! The head instructor told us, “I have my other business for money and livelihood, this is just passion.” We want people to learn martial arts and grow from it. We are already dealing with gender issues and are acting to enable and empower the marginalized.
Like us, Abe wants to build something here. It’s an avenue for Simon and me to promote BJJ to a much wider demographic. It also allows us to improve our game and our skills, both on and off the mat. More sparing partners, different body types, more challenges! Occasionally, we invite people who are not members of the dojo to diversify training partners.
Gender Relations in Bangladesh
In conservative Bangladesh, a great demographic of the population have not gone through co-education. Where there are instances of co-education, interaction between boys and girls is still minimal.
I remember a couple of years ago when I just moved back to Bangladesh, our NGO sent me to attend a gender workshop. The facilitator asked all participants to hold hands in a sequence where men and women had to hold hands.
When asked about their reaction, a couple of people confessed that they had never held hands with the opposite sex.
It is not uncommon in this country for a pair to get married where both the partners have no previous physical interaction with either each other or different partners.
Public display of affection is frowned upon. The national curriculum in Bangladesh does not incorporate sex and gender education. Consequently, people are not empowered through education on these issues. Hence, peoples’ concepts on such issues are either minimal or, very limited altogether. Consequently, discriminatory social behavior further fuels re-establishing of a patriarchal society.
Here, back at the Dojo, I am trying to run a co-educational BJJ program. When a guy and girl grapple during a sparring session, the girl can usually tell if the guy is sparring or just enjoying the skin to skin contact. As an instructor, one of my biggest concerns after a sparring session is if a female complains of groping or inappropriate touching by her male opponent, whereas, the male dismisses it to be part of sparring.
I have also witnessed couples train BJJ together. I have sparred with both partners, one after another on the same day. Here at the dojo, since it is a co-training program, we can have students who may be a couple. Most importantly, is one partner comfortable with his or her mate sparring with a different gender or, is he or she comfortable sparring with a different gender, especially if the partner is in the same room?
BJJ enables you to foster great camaraderie and, if roles and boundaries are not defined, it can disrupt the harmony, especially the small BJJ community enclosed here in Bangladesh.
I remember coming come across a Facebook wall conversation, February 5, 2015 (edited from the original to respect privacy):
Female BJJ inquirer: If I go for jiu jitsu, I don’t think I am gonna find any partner.
Male response: You may be wrong about that.
Female: LOL. So there’s no way I’m gonna find a girl as my BJJ partner, unless I bring one with myself.
Male: Didn’t say anything either way. LOL. Check inbox.
Female: It’s not like if I don’t find one, I won’t go for BJJ. It would be good to have a lightweight partner as I’m gonna sign in as a beginner. Having a man/boy as my opponent at the beginning of my training can complicate things more for me. LOL.
Male responder 2: One thing is for sure, when you are training and rolling, the sexes make little difference, especially with respect to ‘complications’.
In cases like this, women are comfortable training with men; as long as they are respectful! On top of that, the student strength is very low. We had maybe three girls enrolled and not more than two girls usually in a class. A larger number of students would allow us to segregate better.
The dojo has a tin shed roof on top. During summer, the heat and humidity makes it unbearable at times. Mosquito bites are another challenge; in response to which nets were put on the windows.
During class, with the adrenaline high, the intensity of training, the emotion, the flare and what not, how do we as instructors deal with this?
During a conversation with one of my students, she mentioned that about ten years ago in Bangladesh, if a girl wore jeans, she was considered too Westernized and the attitude was that she was a promiscuous. However, if a girl wore churidar (a south Asian traditional tightly fitting pajama) it was accepted. She said, “The curidar is more revealing than jeans.”
The friction in BJJ does result in those awkward moments where our pants may be lower than where we want them to be or, a t-shit may reveal the belly. In conservative Bangladesh that may not be accepted for a girl. But, girls do wear a sari which reveals the stomach (a female garment that consists of a drape that is typically wrapped around the waist, with one end draped over the shoulder, baring the midriff; perhaps it can be compared to a stola or toga).
Amidst this cultural backdrop, I was told by a student, “I want to learn BJJ for self-defense; if I get attacked it would be a guy, much stronger than me, not a girl.’’
Bangladesh does have a record of intolerance. The hacking of atheist blogger Avijit Roy, is an example in recent history.
Someone once told me, “sometimes a change may be good for society, but it may be too profound for a society to accept it.”
Women, BJJ and Changing Attitudes
I strongly feel women practicing BJJ is a great step towards changing the negative mindset and attitude of our society and it also enables and empowers women. How do we fit them in a local context? I have high regards for the women who take the incentive to train BJJ here in Bangladesh, whether or not they roll with guys.
The majority of people in Bangladesh think a woman’s place is in the kitchen. Gender roles and place in society are strictly defined. Once remarked by a friend, “Girls are expected to be homemakers and be a living make-up box.’’
It is a perception very different from what I feel somewhat makes me a black sheep here.
Jack Holland once said, “The right to choose is always the key to progress for women, as it is for men.”
If a woman (or a man) chooses to train for BJJ, it should be respected. Whether he or she grapples with males or females, it also should be respected. The challenge is that we have a very small student strength, in terms of numbers. Between the two places where BJJ is available, there are less than twenty students training at a time. In BJJ, when you spar with different people, with different body types, skills, strength and styles, you improve your game. Limiting your sparing partners limits your development.
Simon and I sat down. We started strategizing.
A friend messaged me; she wants to talk over about training self-defense to women incorporating BJJ. They say that “every fight starts standing but can end on the ground.” Well, when you are on the ground you need BJJ.
Saturday, June 20, 2015
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.