In the second part of my interview with Shihan Gillian Booth, she talks about the experience of being female in the “boys’ club” of Bujinkan and what an all-female taikai can achieve.
Female instructors are in the minority in Bujinkan, and certainly few have risen to the rank of 15th Dan. Having been through plenty of ‘only girl in the room’ moments myself, I wonder how it must feel for someone who has gone through 38 years of it.
“There are probably 5 or 10 women in the world who are amazing practitioners, at the top of their game. Us others are working to keep inspired by that, seeing models of other lone wolves.
And when lone wolves come together?
“The energy was electrifying,” she says of the all-female Kunoichi Taikai in Germany in 2010.
“All of those one or two women from hundreds of dojos – the black sheep – they all got together. It was a very consolidating time for everybody.
Soke wanted women to find their own space within the Bujinkan, she explains.
“He felt it was really important that women had that feeling of not being alone. He really wanted them to have the feeling of connectedness and congeniality and consolidation. That they were not just one in every dojo – they were hundreds.
Instructors reported their female students returning to dojos expanded in “their spirit and their confidence and their attitude.” She shakes her head. “Even a very supportive teacher can’t inject that to a student.”
I ask for her tips for an injury-free career.
“As a smaller person it’s important to say, ‘you cannot apply these techniques in training with the same force that you would on a big strong fellow’. It’s okay to say ‘that’s too much for me’.
It reminds me of the advice from Marie-Valerie Saumon at the Kunoichi Taikai: “Don’t think you’re a man. You’re a woman – be proud of it”. She agrees it’s simply not a level playing field.
“If we try and compete and emulate how much energy or strength it would take to compete with a guy, we end up sending too much energy out and end up robbing our own energy and immune system.
“Soke talks about ‘take this Taijutsu, take this movement, and make it your own’. And that doesn’t mean trying to do it exactly the same as the person who’s demonstrating it, or exactly as the person who’s 6ft 4 and weighs 100 kilos would do it. It means own it. How do you do it for yourself in a way that’s sustaining for you, not draining for you?
Before I leave to have ‘sustaining not draining’ printed on twenty black t-shirts, I ask what lessons she is keen to impart to her own students.
“Well Soke talks about this principle of ‘one thousand cuts and no surprises’. What it means is if something happens on a one-off basis, you’re likely to be immobilised or frozen or not quite know what to do. But if in our training we continue to get exposed to variables that we don’t always know the answer to, then eventually everything becomes like a walk in the park.
The key, she says, is to get exposure to things that we’re not necessarily always in control of, walk through the variables and collect them all.
“I think it is a really important metaphor for not getting our boat rocked in – or out – of the dojo.
This exposure is why some women get involved in martial arts in the first place, and, indeed, why this author feels every woman should.
Many high-ranking female instructors have had connections with women’s self-defence initiatives. Sheila Haddad and Cathy Lewis are board members on women’s self defence associations, while Frances Haynes is a consultant to governments on interpersonal violence and Natascha Morgan has taught women’s self-defence.
Gillian is keen to differentiate between budo and self-defense though.
“The basis of women’s self defence is not getting out of strangles and arm bars and kicking people in the groin. It’s actually a spirit and an attitude. Being able to show ‘I’m not going quietly – I’ll fight every inch of the way’. That’s the thing that defuses many attacks in the first place.
She tells me that if someone approached her and said something leading or offensive, her first response would be put her finger in their face and shout ‘DON’T FUCK WITH ME!’
The words – dripping with intention and aggression – seem to shake the table. It’s a scene I have recounted excitedly to many women since. Her basis of women’s self defence is this psychological lesson: project an attitude of ‘I’m no pushover’, and you’re in a better position to not attract that domination in the first place.
“I think like many lessons in life, it’s really important to be able to say No, and to be able to say No with a really loud voice. If you haven’t had exposure to standing your ground and saying No, you can actually learn that in a training environment.
Now I want to know whether anyone has ever been stupid enough to try something on her.
“I met somebody who did karate at a party. He kept wanting to know ‘what I would do if he did this sort of karate kick’, and I said ‘no, no, don’t do that’. And he did that. And in front of a crowd of people, he just ended up flat on his back with my hands around his neck.
I ask for some final advice for the women of Bujinkan.
“Keep going, but keep going on your own terms. Don’t try and keep going in the terms of the bigger, stronger person.
Black sheep and lone wolves – we’re all stronger than we look.