Women in Ju jitsu: an article by Melanie Letham

joint lock

It sounds incredible, but I had been watching my husband do Ju Jitsu from the sidelines for nearly two years before I finally plucked up the courage to give it a go.  I had thought that it looked a bit rough and tumble and didn’t really think it was for me.  However, having now done it for a couple of months, I find it tremendous fun, as well as being an incredibly practical and useful martial art to learn.  It seems amazing to me now that I had any trepidation at all, as it’s proving to be immensely satisfying, from both a physical and self defence perspective and it’s completely different to any of the other activities I’m currently involved in (mainly running and weight training).

Why I started

I had toyed with the idea of trying it for a while as my husband was really enjoying it and we tend to like most of the same things.  I think the clincher was when I watched one of the gradings (these are tests which are held to gain a new belt).  There was a girl there who was taking her first belt.  She was very petite and was paired up with a guy probably nearly three times her weight.  She passed the grading and I remember having the utmost respect for her.  That was when I thought, ‘well, if she can do it, there is no reason why I can’t’.  That was probably when I realised that there was much more than meets the eye with Ju Jitsu, as in it’s not all about using brute force, but about using technique and body positioning to execute the various moves.  Of course, being strong is also a benefit, but is not what Ju Jitsu is really about.

Is it just for the boys?

Of course, the answer to this question is a resounding ‘no’.  I think there is the idea out there that this is more of a male activity.  This couldn’t be further from the truth. There are certainly more males than females practising Ju Jitsu at both the Covent Garden and Tooting classes, but we are always on the lookout for more females to join to add a bit more balance.  I find it really useful to train with guys who are bigger and stronger than me.  This just shows how effective Ju Jitsu really is.

Self defence

This is where Ju Jitsu really comes into it’s own.  I have seen only too often ‘self defence’ classes aimed at women instructing them to fight back using techniques such as kicking into the groin or running their heel down someone’s shin if they are grabbed from behind.  These would serve as a distraction and that is all.  It is likely that the attacker would become even more agitated at this point and may resort to even more violence than was originally intended.  In Ju Jitsu there is usually some kind of distraction manoeuvre, which is then followed up with a devastating finishing move.  You could be halfway back home before your attacker has even managed to get up off the floor!  You have to think as well, that during the class things are very controlled and we fall onto thick padded mats, whereas in a street situation it is likely that your attacker would be landing on concrete.

Ground fighting

Ground fighting is a bit like wrestling on your knees, the point of which is to pin down your opponent and get them to submit.  I think some women are a bit put off by ground fighting as it is quite intimate and looks a bit rough when you are watching from the sidelines.  But I cannot express enough the benefits of learning ground fighting.  In a street situation, knowing these techniques could mean the difference between being raped and not being raped.  This sounds dramatic, but by using correctly applied technique I believe this to be true (of course it’s easy to say this on paper, as no-one really knows how they will react in a real life situation unless they’ve experience it first hand).  Obviously, it is better to try and not get into this situation in the first place, but if it happens you will have a hidden arsenal that will surprise and hopefully fend off your attacker.  That is why I think there is a benefit to ground fighting with a male who is slightly heavier and stronger than you.  This way, you get used to the feeling of being on the ground with someone in a controlled environment, so there is no need to panic if you get yourself into a situation you feel you can’t get out of.  At first I tended to flay around, but in just a few months I have gone from knowing nothing to winning a few sparring matches with male opponents who are heavier and stronger than me.  It doesn’t take long to learn the more basic moves, and as a beginner I am looking forward to learning many, many more.

The classes

The classes are run by Sensei Salur Onural in Tooting and Sensei Chris Lacy at Covent Garden (Sensei is Japanese for teacher).  Even though you are there to learn, the classes are fun and full of friendly people.  The instructors themselves are highly knowledgeable and the emphasis of the classes is to learn correct technique. There is no point learning something half-heartedly – if you do that you negate the whole point, ie you wouldn’t be able to apply the techniques and get them to work out on the street when you needed them the most.  The classes start with warm ups and stretches and also drills for falling from throws correctly and techniques for getting up from the ground quickly.  The sessions are certainly great workouts, although I’m usually too busy enjoying myself to really notice, but I would imagine many calories have been burned off in the process!  There is no need to feel apprehensive - you will be warmly welcomed.

Final words

I’m really glad that I decided to take up the challenge of Ju Jitsu and I look forward to progressing up the belts in the years to come.  I only wish I’d started it earlier! Come and give it a try – you won’t regret it!  And even better,at the Tooting class, the first lesson is completely free.


Melanie Letham started training in ju jitsu in May 2007 and at the time of writing this article, has just passed her first grading.