Female Boxing: Changing the Conversation about Women and Violence

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GirlFight 2011 ©Rhett Morita

By Lil Manger and Jenna Pettinato at Nellie’s Women’s Shelter in Toronto, Canada

Imagine this: you settle in at home on any given evening to relax in front of the television. You microwave some popcorn, rearrange the cushions on the sofa, and reach for the remote. The first image you see is of a woman, or whatever remains of her, laying on the pavement in a widening pool of her own blood. The image is interspersed with flashing lights emanating from police cruisers and ambulances, haphazardly parked around her. “In the criminal justice system…” the announcer’s voice chimes in and the show begins.

It is the story of a murdered woman. The suspects are interrogated, there’s a twist in the story, and the killer is revealed. It is a story about the detectives, the people they interact with, and the killer. A small tribute is often played to the victim’s family. The woman, the victim, is incidental, invisible. At worst, it is her fault — her fault for being in the wrong place at the wrong time; her fault for being a woman. On these shows, it is understood that women will be victimized, disembodied, objectified, and dehumanized. It is the story of violence, often sexual violence against women. This story has been set on repeat and we see it everywhere from CSI and Law & Order to Desperate Housewives. Through physical, emotional, psychological, sexual, and financial abuse women are continually shut down and invalidated, portrayed as incompetent and submissive or dangerous, manipulative, and hypersexual.

How does the normalization and systematic representation of violence against women in the media affect us? If we see something often enough, we start to think it’s normal. This means a deepening acceptance and fear of violence and the feeling you simply can’t fight back. Women are perpetually portrayed as victims in the media, not survivors or fighters. Even if women do “fight back” on television, they often “fight like girls” – they are chased and attacked on shows, often pound their assailant’s chest and scream a Psycho-shower-scene-esque scream, before they wail away and die.

Two years ago, Anna Von Frances, founder and CEO of Pink Mafia, a women-run promotion and marketing company in Toronto, wanted to change this. Tired of seeing images of women as victims in the media and determined to make a difference for organizations supporting survivors of violence, Von Frances created GirlFight, an all-female boxing event. Von Frances wanted to bring the empowerment and strength that she had experienced as a boxer to a wider audience as a fundraiser for Nellie’s Shelter in Toronto, a safe place for women and children who have suffered from violence, poverty, and homelessness. She describes her experience participating in the sport as follows:

“Boxing and kickboxing have taught me to stay calm in heated situations and above all, that I do not have to be victimized by anyone, anytime. It’s the most empowering thing I’ve ever done and has given me the confidence as well as a sense of community that I’ve never had before.”

Her vision for GirlFight has been to promote self-esteem through physical fitness and positive expressions of aggression and to encourage more women to become involved in the sport. GirlFight has been a huge success for two years running and has raised over $10,000 for Nellie’s Shelter.

The female boxing community offers a positive space for women to feel powerful. Debby Cabral, a Muay Thai fighter who participated in GirlFight spoke to She Does the City about her experience fighting:

“What I love most about Muay Thai is that it has changed my life forever. I was in a dark place for a long time and didn’t really have any goals. Once I discovered Muay Thai and my family at Hook Up, everything changed for the better.”

The phenomenon isn’t limited to Canada either. The Globe and Mail reports that Afghanistan women are taking up boxing as a statement against the violence they face both at home and in public in a society that is often dangerous for women. Under Taliban rule all sports were banned for women, but today women like Shabnam Rahimi are training with hopes to make it to the Olympic games and win Afghanistan’s first Olympic medal.

Although the media offers few strong female role models, there are groups of women, such as the female boxing community who are breaking ground and defying stereotypes. The media repeatedly tells women not only to expect, but also to accept violence in our lives, but we do not need to internalize this message. We can choose to identify with empowered, strong, positive women like Anna Von Frances, Debby Cabral, and Shabnam Rahimi, who are redefining the discourse around women and violence from one that focuses solely on women as victims to one that rightly includes them as fighters.

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