Egyptian born sisters Yara and Nancy Helmy are at the forefront of a recent evolution…
In this article, three modern-day BJJ athletes speak up about the hidden tournament of our sport: the fight for equal pay and equal respect, on and off of the mats.
JIU JITSU’S HIDDEN TOURNAMENT: WOMEN AND EQUAL PAY
ARTICLE BY EVAN FLORES
Pictured in photo: From left to right: Dominyka Obelenyte, Katrina Phillips, Tori Applegate
In this article, three modern-day BJJ athletes speak up about the hidden tournament of our sport: the fight for equal pay and equal respect, on and off of the mats. The three women reach the span of possibilities of athletes in the sport, from Dominyka Obelenyte (a Marcelo Garcia black belt, and IBJJF 2015 Worlds Women’s Double Gold champion) to Tori Applegate (a ferocious blue belt no gi competitor scrapping out of 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu Gulf Shores) and Katrina Phillips (an avid blue belt student with a proclivity for hard training over competing, out of Monster Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in NY).
In your own words, would you describe the #equalpayforbjj movement and how it started?
Many point to Dominyka as the tip of the spear in the #equalpayforbjj movement. “The movement is really just about getting what women Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competitors rightfully deserve: the opportunity to receive the same monetary prizes in competitions as their male counterparts,” states Dominyka. The biggest bone to pick is with the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (IBJJF); Dominyka states that she was, “taken aback” in seeing how little women were being offered as prize money when she attended the IBJJF 2014 NY Pro. Her intelligence of the sport overall shines through when she notes, “the state of the prizes wasn’t temporary when the IBJJF released the conditions for its two upcoming BJJ Pros. One could say that now, the black belt women are even worse off, as the brown belt men are offered a cumulative sum of prize money that exceeds that of the black belt women.”
Undoubtedly, women’s divisions are often smaller than men’s divisions; could this affect pay?
Katrina believes that the “often repeated ‘there are more men than women in jiu jitsu’ response is just an excuse.” Instead of accepting the status quo, she proposes that all participants of the sport should “ask why this is happening and ask what we can do to increase these numbers [of women practicing and competing in the sport].”
Dominyka wisely points out that, “if the IBJJF were to decide to dish out money according to the size of the division, blue belt and white belt males would likely be the victors in that category, as they usually boast sizably larger divisions than anyone else. Women BJJ athletes put in the same efforts and work into training, competing, dieting, etc. as their male counterparts, and they really shouldn’t be rewarded any less for it.”
How would we overcome this? Is this a problem only seen in the IBJJF?
“This is not just an IBJJF issue,” states Katrina. “We hear time and time again when we are learning Jiu Jitsu that size doesn’t matter, that technique will always win, but the IBBJF is telling us that size does matter by making it monetarily more valuable.”
“The IBJJF is capable of setting precedents that other up and coming tournaments will try to follow,” notes Dominyka. Thus, meaning its flub on Pro paydays is of even greater significance. Thanks to organizations like FIVE Grappling, paydays of equal footing are available for both men and women, however.
On the other hand, Tori suggest a more proactive approach for women in BJJ. “We have to be entertaining and show people we came to fight,” suggests Tori. “Things are changing in jiu jitsu, sometimes you just have to take a step back to see it… I think we need more women and I believe we need to be vicious and relentless to get what we want.”
How will we bring about a change for equal pay in BJJ?
“Paying men and women equally is a logical way to demonstrate that women and men are treated equally. Women need to make themselves be heard on the issue, and we need to enlist the support of the men at our academy. We can complain and talk about how it’s not fair but it won’t be until we truly unite that the IBJJF will be able to see how many women really participate and are a part of these events and how much they are upset about the unequal prize winnings,” states Katrina.
Dominyka had trouble answering this, but mentions, “the major thing we are trying to do is spread publicity and get our story out into the mainstream, which has been working pretty well so far. I have tried reaching out to the IBJJF and connecting to any major people working within the federation, but it is very difficult to even get an e-mail response, let alone connect with anyone in charge. If the IBJJF does actively listen and plan to instill changes on its own volition, that would be great, but unfortunately, it does not seem to be the case thus far.”
Have you faced any other glaring problems in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, in the professional arena? What about problems in training?
Dominyka takes major issue with “the general lack of pay in the sport.” She goes on to say, “the majority of the money we earn comes from lucrative sponsorship deals, and from owning and managing an independent school. Competition, though one of the major parts of BJJ, and the part most responsible for launching a professional BJJ career, yields very little income, if any at all.”
For the more amateur grapplers, Katrina points out, “Often men see me and assume I am a white belt, they assume I do jiu jitsu to lose weight… when an odd number of people are in a class I am more often than not the one left out.”
[A side note: ever since Katrina has mentioned this, I can’t help but notice that female grapplers at my academy often shyly do not seek a partner come class time. Maybe they do not feel welcomed; maybe they are not welcomed. Either way, an unaddressed problem is a problem that cannot be resolved.]
Tori goes on to say, “I think the biggest challenge as a woman in training with men is that some treat you like a child…. Sadly, sometimes I roll with men who want to “flow” with me or let me have submissions. I hate this.” With conviction, she states, “That’s one huge message I’d like to get out: stop treating us like children. We do not want you to walk is through the roll or let us tap you. We are not five years old; we are adults just like you and we are lethal.”
Dominyka adds, “As for the training, personally, I haven’t experienced many problems in training, but I have heard stories of how certain people, especially female athletes receive unwanted attention for their looks or simply for being women. I’ve even heard of instances of sexual harassment, which usually goes unreported, since the women involved don’t want to cause trouble the gym, or possibly get kicked out. I think this problem is one that can be fixed by reinforcing the idea of mutual respect on the mats. Black belts, white belts, women, men, former wrestlers, inexperienced couch-surfers, we are all human beings, and we shouldn’t use this sport as an excuse to bully, hurt and control people just to get an ego trip.”
What’s different about being a woman in martial arts?
“I think as a woman in martial arts, your presence in the sport is questioned more than a man’s… There are many things I’ve heard my fellow training partners and even just random women in BJJ complain about, from unsolicited attention and harassment from other training partners to sexist remarks and outright bullying. I even heard of an experienced female black belt receiving coaching during a training session from the lower belt she was rolling with.” Dominyka goes on to say, “This behavior is childish, and it happens too often to be acceptable.”
For those who face issues with higher belts, who might wield their power with reckless abandon at their respective academy, Katrina suggests, “You are a woman off and on the mats and deserve respect regardless of belt level.” She continues with, “We have to find a balance between respecting the higher belts in our school while still demanding respect for ourselves and making sure that we don’t feel uncomfortable in any situation.”
Being the fireball that she is, Tori proposes an entirely different perspective. “It’s only different when other people make it different.” She continues stating, “We are the same. I train, I sweat, I cry, I bleed, I have goals; I do everything in my power to be the best athlete and martial artist. What gives you the right to say I’m different than you? Women will do the same and victimize themselves. We are not victims. Yes being women we have to deal with a few different challenges. I’m sure men have theirs, too… if we want to be equal then let’s show the world we are just as tough, technical, and awesome as everyone else. We are martial artists.”
What advice would you give to women getting into a male-dominated sport?
“I think my main goal would be to just convince them to stay in the sport, as there are many challenges that accompany it. I know that I, myself, have had many instances when I just wanted to give up on everything and quit,” says Dominyka. “The community is really full of wild and interesting people, and the friends I’ve made in BJJ are lifelong friends.”
“My advice to women would be to speak up if you see or hear something that doesn’t feel right,” says Katrina. “You pay a membership like everyone else and if you are unhappy, then you have a right to bring up your concerns.”
“Keep your chin up and learn to be tough,” Tori advises. “Jiu jitsu is not easy, that is what makes it so amazing. Persevere and we will grow. Be fierce as a competitor. Learn all the techniques you can. Believe in yourself and know that you are amazing. Do not let lines define you; become the best you can be and do not pity yourself because of your sex. Do not let other people pity you in this sport because of your sex. Lastly, be aggressive.”
What inspires you to keep training?
For someone who is just in love with the sport generally, Dominyka writes, “I love going to the gym and seeing all the people I like. I like my training partners and the friends I have at the gym. It is just an overall happy and peaceful environment, and I don’t plan on giving up training for a long, long time.”
Passionately, Tori states, “There are many things. I’d say the biggest things are my goals and this sickening feeling in my heart [that drives me] to reach them. I want jiu jitsu to grow.”
Katrina writes, “I am motivated by all the women who have come before me who probably had it WAY worse than I did. If they can get black belts, then I can. And I am inspired by the ladies who I train with who are just starting their own Jiu Jitsu journeys. They inspire me to be active in the community and participate in movement like this and try my best to be a role model.”
Follow these athletes on Instagram:
Dominyka –> @d0mdab0mburm0m
Katrina –> @asskickinlibrarian
Tori –> @fireballtori
About the author:
Evan Flores is an active competitor and participant in the martial arts community. Evan is currently a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu under Master Alexandre “Soca” Freitas. Follow Evan on Twitter and Instagram –> @JiuJitsuism