Research reveals the real reasons why Dutch immigrant women love kickboxing
- 15 October 2018
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Muslim women in the Netherlands, especially those of Moroccan origin, have taken to kickboxing with great enthusiasm, but it is only recently that we have started to learn why.
Though the initial idea of promoting the martial arts within immigrant communities was to empower them, researcher Jasmijn Rana has found that most Muslim women took to the sport for a reason that is closer to home for all of us: It is a way to stay fit.
Jasmijn is an assistant professor at the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University. She enrolled herself in kickboxing classes in 2009, when her local community centre introduced women-only classes. Enthused by the unique communities that grew around these classes, she decided to base her PhD research on this topic. She recently completed and defended her thesis on sports and how participation in sports creates feelings of community, for which she specifically focused on Muslim women in kickboxing in the Netherlands. My Salaam caught up with her to discuss her research.
Jasmijn started her research on six gyms offering women-only kickboxing lessons but focused on two in The Hague for her final research. “My research is based on participant observation as the most important method,” she said. “I did participant observation five to seven days a week in two gyms. Most of my information comes from informal conversations, as is common practice in ethnographic research.”
In 2006, the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport started a five-year programme to promote martial arts within the immigrant communities. As Jasmijn explained, quoting a government circular about the programme, it hoped that participation in martial arts would help with integration; young immigrant men could channel their aggression and immigrant woman could be empowered. In reality, she found that Muslim women chose kickboxing classes to lose weight and to stay fit; very rarely did they learn for self-defence.
As the idea of separate classes for women caught on, most of the women’s kickboxing classes opened in neighbourhoods with a big Muslim population, especially Moroccan immigrant communities, to capitalize on the demand.
Jasmijn said that easy access to classes have also been a factor in the popularity of the sport among Muslim women in the country.
One major reason for the popularity of the sport within the Moroccan Dutch community is that kickboxing is big in Morocco. But there is still another reason that so many women have adopted it. The women’s classes are closed to the public to create a safe space for the participants, so they get a space where they can train that is shut away from the male gaze.
“The norms and values of modesty and piety are maintained, as women wear clothing that keeps them completely covered,” said Jasmijn. At some of the gyms that Jasmijn researched, music was not played either, in deference to the practices of certain Muslim communities.
In a discussion about women training in kickboxing and martial arts on Hasanaat Community, an online Islamic forum in Dutch, user Umm Firdaus remarked, “I see it as building a bit of self-confidence for the woman. The piece of certainty she has of herself if someone wants to attack her on the street. Of course Allaah is our Protector. But a woman who has been training Taekwondo for a long time knows exactly the weaknesses of the enemy, the ways and how she can defend herself in such situations.”
Not everyone on the forum agrees. A male user expressed his discomfort with women learning to fight, saying that they would be better off using pepper spray or a taser if their motivation is primarily to learn it as a safety measure. Umm Jubayr replied, “I think that practising martial arts is one of the most effective ways to stay in shape. It is a pity that there aren’t more women’s-only classes.”
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