When many envision Muay Thai, it is not uncommon for such perceptions to be based around two males fighting head-to-head in the ring. To be sure, such imagery has indeed been one of the enduring traditions of this interesting and challenging sport.
It is nonetheless a fact that women have played a pronounced role for an impressive period of time. Although some sources claim that this is a modern phenomenon, the truth of the matter is that their role can be traced back for far longer than the twentieth century alone.
Let us endeavour to examine the female presence in more detail.
Muay Thai Women
More Than Meets the Eye
Many contemporary sources tend to cite that women did not enjoy a pronounced presence within Muay Thai until the 1920s. This is likely due to the fact that the sport failed enter (publicly) into the western world until this time. In fact, there are some who will argue that women were not seen in competitions until the early 1970s. While this is not completely true, we need to appreciate the importance of the blessing ceremony that takes place before each match.
Traditionally, Buddhist monks would bless the male during a traditional ceremony before the fight began. Unfortunately, these monks are not able to touch women; it is said that they represent desire. It is therefore clear to appreciate why few women participated in Muay Thai events.
This is not the entire truth. We need to take an excursion back to the tumultuous days when Muay Thai was used as a pragmatic form of self defence. Many will be surprised to learn that females known as Khunying Mae Yamo very literally fought alongside their male counterparts to repel invaders from entering their land. Like many sports such as boxing, karate and MMA, the role of the male was still emphasised the most. It should still be mentioned that women continued to fight in tournaments although such events were rarely sanctioned and most were held outside of Bangkok (considered for many years to be the home of Muay Thai).
Adapting to Tradition
Even in ancient times, there were fights which were sanctioned. These most often occurred in the form of females whose fathers owned a Muay Thai training centre. If she was good enough to be considered a worthwhile bet, she was allowed to fight. As an interesting observation in terms of tradition, any fight between to females was generally held last. This was intended to not offend the spirits and bring “bad luck” to the male fighters. Such practices were only reinforced when women were obliged to go in between the ring ropes as opposed to over the top; it was thought that the spirits would be less offended with such actions. We should still recognise that women were not as much shunned as they had been placed off “to the side” in terms of importance and agility. This would continue for some time before changes took place.
Changing Attitudes Towards Genders
Some would assume that the progressive attitudes of the 1920s would have embraced a greater female presence with Muay Thai. This is an unfortunate mistake. Most will observe that it was not until the “women’s lib” movements of the 1960s and 1970s that women were finally able to enter into this realm (even then in a rather minimalistic presence). Now, it may be argued that the sight of women bleeding was rather unpalatable to men. This could possibly be reinforced by an incident that occurred at Rajadamnern Stadium during the later half of the 1970s. After so much blood was observed, a near-total ban was placed upon Muay Thai Women fighters after a sanctioned bout. The truth is more likely related to the pronounced gender gap that had been present for centuries up until this point.
Most will state that it was not until the advent of the 1990s that women were finally able to enjoy a public presence within the sport. This is largely due to the World Muay Thai Council. Due to the fact that this governing body is rather cosmopolitan in its nature, the role of females was more embraced than ever before.
In 1998, matches between female competitors were held within Rangsit Stadium. More importantly, these bouts were televised. This was one of the first times in history that international fans were exposed to female matches. Such a massive paradigm shift also opened amateur practitioners up to the idea that they would be able to compete on the professional or semi-professional level.
Like their male counterparts, women are now able to participate in five three-minute rounds while elbows are included. Older generations are stubborn in terms of change, and some of the largest arenas are owned by these individuals. Still, money is money and if a female match can bring in funds, dogma can change when necessary.
The Female Muay Thai Athlete
Thanks to publicity and the advent of the Internet, there are more Muay Thai women athletes than ever in the past. In fact, it estimated that there are no less than 8,000 female fighters in Thailand alone. One can only imagine this presence outside of the country.
Now, names such as Daoprasuk, GeangKaew and Surat are common within Muay Thai circles. It is even more significant that this challenging sport has found its hold amongst the female community in the western world. Roxy Richardson, Sarah Rankin and Tiffany Lynn van Soest are prominent names. This fame will likely continue to grow into the foreseeable future.
As the younger generation emerges and thanks to the barriers which have been removed over the virtual world of Muay Thai, it appears that the sky is the limit for muay thai women fighters in this sport. Due in no small part to the massive promotional campaigns alongside the fact that women are just as capable as men, there is no doubt that the presence of women in Muay Thai is truly in its glory days.