Female boxers still fighting for respect

January 25, 2012

The middle-aged lady sitting next to me on the plane leaned over and confessed.

“I don’t think women should be boxing. It doesn’t seem right to me,” she said.

This was after I’d just told her I had spent the week in Sydney, N. S., covering the Canadian amateur boxing championships for my newspaper, where men and women were fighting.

It was a good thing she kept her voice down. In the seat behind her was Mandy Bujold, Kitchener’s seven-time national flyweight champion. Two rows up was fellow flyweight fighter Amanda Galle, sporting a black eye so gruesome it looked like it was added by a Hollywood makeup artist.

Try telling those women they shouldn’t be boxing.

Canada has some of the best amateur female boxers in the world, giving our northern country a dominance on the international scene normally reserved for hockey or curling. And yet so many of us, like the lady on the plane, think there’s something inherently uncomfortable about it.

Women have been boxing since early 18th century, and have encountered opposition nearly every step of the way. So many people still feel it’s just plain wrong – even if we don’t know exactly why we feel that way.

Despite often positive portrayals in pop culture and the media, women’s boxing still struggles for mainstream respect. After spending most of the last century banned in many countries, then finally winning the long, stubborn fight to be included in the Olympics for the first time, the debate switched to whether women should be required to wear miniskirts in the ring.

It was the International Amateur Boxing Association that proposed the idea, arguing that the women making history by boxing at the Olympics for the first time needed something to help them “stand out” from the men.

The idea, I guess, is that if we’re going to allow women to box, they should at least do it while wearing something we consider feminine. I suppose high heels were too impractical.

To their credit, most female boxers – who don’t see any difference between their sport and the male version – have laughed at the miniskirt suggestion.

“I won’t be wearing a miniskirt,” Ireland’s three-time world champion Katie Taylor told the BBC. “I don’t even wear miniskirts on a night out, so I definitely won’t be wearing miniskirts in the ring.”

Despite the progress the sport has made, made of us still have some pretty Victorian attitudes about women fighting, even with gloves, protective head gear and a referee to keep anyone from getting seriously hurt.

I heard from more than one cab driver in Sydney during the boxing championships that pretty girls shouldn’t fight because it might mark or scar their faces. I didn’t ask how they expected such a rule should be enforced.

Attitudes like this, of course, exist the world over. In Afghanistan, it takes even more guts to be a woman and a boxer. Female boxers dreaming of fighting in the Olympics endure threats from the Taliban, who think the sight of a woman wearing boxing gloves is a sign of a degraded, immoral society.

It’s a safe bet most people who frown on women’s boxing have probably never seen a bout. At the amateur level, protective gear and keen referees make it more like fencing than fighting. There is no pummeling into unconsciousness, no knockouts that leave a fighter spread-eagle on the mat.

Many coaches even frown at the use of the word “fight,” preferring to call them “bouts.” Boxing, they say, is a sport. Fighting is what you do on a Saturday night after the bar.

Whether we like it or not, women’s boxing is set to make history in just a few short months at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Here’s hoping most of us can open our minds just enough to admire it.

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