Sexism and Religion in the Dojo 3

Sonja Power

Last week, an online friend of mine shared this article about Sonja Power, a girl who felt degraded by the treatment she was given by her Aikido sensei at the behest of a new student, because he was strictly adhering to his religion. I was a bit dumbfounded by the article, to be perfectly honest, and I shared it on Facebook to see what kind of reaction it would get from other martial artists.

The top of a mosque, where the crescent moon of Islam is mounted

The new student in question was a Muslim man–that, in and of itself, is not a problem at all. The problems came when he insisted that, in order to be true to his faith, he must not have any contact with women, or bow to anyone. This resulted in classes being divided by gender, with women on one side and men on the other. Following that, the man began bringing booklets on Islam to the dojo and handing them out to everyone, and these booklets contained content that strongly offended Sonja.

An illustration of an Aikido technique

This article describes a very complicated situation, but one that tends to evoke strong, knee-jerk reactions that make it seem simple. Generally, I found that most people immediately felt that the Muslim man’s requests and behavior were not appropriate for a dojo–particularly a dojo that teaches a martial art that requires close contact with a partner–and that he should not be accommodated. I also noticed some reactions to the contrary, however, with people feeling that Sonja was overreacting out of a misunderstanding of Islam, and that martial arts should accommodate everyone. In reality, I don’t think this issue is as simple as that, but it’s easy to see it that way. Honestly, I’m not sure what the right answer is–I can only say how I feel about it. Personally, I think the best course of action would have been to have the Muslim man only work with other men (and sit out, in situations where that was not possible), keep the rest of the class integrated, and either set a policy prohibiting all religious materials, or allowing all religious materials. That seems the most fair, to me, but as I am far removed from the situation, I can’t say that my view is the right one, either.

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About Noah

I began training in karate (Shuri-Ryu) in the Summer of 2006. Subsequently, I started training in judo, kobudo, and iaijutsu within the next 6 months. During my training there, I earned the rank of Sankyu (3rd Degree Brown Belt) in Shuri-Ryu, Gokyu (Green Belt) in judo, a certification in the use of the bo, and passed proficiency tests for the four tachigata of Shinkage-Ryu iaijutsu. I moved to Arizona in the Summer of 2008, and continued training and researching karate at home. I continued regular training in judo at a local club until 2010, when I was able to start training in Shorin-Ryu with Sensei Richard Poage. I have been training with him ever since, and currently hold the rank of Shodan (1st Degree Black Belt) in Shorin-Ryu under him. In addition, I began studying KishimotoDi under Sensei Ulf Karlsson in 2014.

3 thoughts on “Sexism and Religion in the Dojo

  • Sue Wharton

    A tricky situation all round and it is important to generalise the situation when discussing it so that it is not seen as a religious or race incident. I think it is important that one student is not allowed to dictate the way a dojo is organised or run – for any reason, religious or otherwise. In a dojo leadership must come from the top i.e sensei, not be skewed by a single student. With this in mind it was wrong for this student to be allowed to insist that men and women be segregated in the dojo to fit in with his needs. Allowing him to only train with male partners would have been a better option. Though I feel that people’s individual needs must be catered for wherever possible this must not be to the detriment of other students as was the case you describe. I’m not surprised Sonja was spitting nails over this, she must have felt that her dojo had been hijacked and that her sensei was weak to allow it. It is important that all student’s needs are taken into consideration when considering an unusual request from an individual student (what ever the basis is for that request).

  • Mohammad Raza Khan

    As a Muslim man who has practiced Karate, TKD, Aikido, Judo, and BJJ, I have also struggled with what is acceptable for interaction with women. I don’t bow, and the only physical contact I have with women is to shake their hands, but it was never a problem even in my grappling classes, since most of the women felt uncomfortable grappling with a man anyways. We never segregated the class into men or women, though, and I still talked with the women like normal.

    While talking about religious topics before or after class would be fine, I disagree with him bringing booklets to just distribute randomly. If you’re interacting with people regularly, it’s better to get them interested in religion first, and then bring them information, rather than distributing them to everyone.

    Ultimately, I agree with your statement, Noah, that they should have “the Muslim man only work with other men (and sit out, in situations where that was not possible), keep the rest of the class integrated, and either set a policy prohibiting all religious materials, or allowing all religious materials.”

    • Noah

      Thank you for the feedback, Mohammad. It’s certainly a complex issue to deal with, and I appreciate you sharing your experience!

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