A mixed martial arts training for Filipino women

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The Femme Fatale Women’s Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) workshop bills itself as a self-defense class, although not your typical kind. Each session ends with a portion on active self-protection. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Editor’s note: Bea Quintos is a researcher, sportswriter, and amateur boxer. She currently works for the Public-Private Partnership Center of the Philippines, while taking up her Master’s in Public Administration at the University of the Philippines Diliman. This piece is part of a forthcoming anthology to be published by Gantala Press.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It’s eight a.m. on a Saturday, and the six-hour session is about to begin. Tammy, a 31 year-old entrepreneur, is the first of the girls to arrive. She does yoga and running, and says she’s here for self-defense.

“[I'm here to] Develop a bit of confidence and not be oppressed by men,” she says with a laugh. “You have that, like, fear in your mind, you know? It’s kind of like an instinct of fear that I want to gear myself up against. That’s the bigger picture.”

Jacqueline, 35, a teacher and mom, is here for similar reasons. “Kasi feeling ko bano ako, so I want to develop myself. So in case of emergency, handa ako sa danger. Kasi feeling ko lagi na lang ‘yung asawa ko ‘yung nag-po-protect sa akin, and paano kung wala siya, diba? Paano ako magiging independent?”

The Femme Fatale Women’s Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) workshop bills itself as a self-defense class, although not your typical kind. Rather than beginning with attacker-victim scenarios, a Femme Fatale session starts with the basics of striking, grappling, and wrestling. The point is to learn the sport of MMA, which provides skills that can prove useful in a fight, and which you can train for and improve on.

According to co-founders Nyla Caras and Robbie Reyes, their goal is to get their students to practice MMA regularly. Or at the very least, enroll in jiu-jitsu, which they say affords the smaller person certain advantages.

The Femme Fatale Women’s Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) workshop starts with the basics of striking, grappling, and wrestling, instead of attacker-victim scenarios. Photo from FEMME FATALE PHILIPPINES/FACEBOOK

Each session ends with a portion on active self-protection. Here, the use of the word “active self-protection” is deliberate. Neither Caras nor Reyes believe in self-defense.

“We don’t use the term except for marketing purposes,” reveals Reyes, 37, during the introduction. A blue belt in jiu-jitsu, Reyes has been a faculty member at the Ateneo de Manila University since 2008. “I’m a theology professor. Obviously I’m against violence. But sometimes you have to choose violence.”

The idea for Femme Fatale came to Reyes after years in the local MMA scene, and an acquaintance had asked him what she could learn to do to defend herself.

Reyes suggested his friend wear running shoes wherever she went, so if something untoward happened, she could quickly run away at the first sign of trouble. The suggestion offended her.

“She took my advice to imply that she lacked the capacity to fight because she was a woman.”

In a legal sense, self-defense is justified when force is used in response to a real or perceived threat of deadly or grievous harm. Practically speaking, self-defense is doing what you need to survive, whether that means running away or fighting for your life.

Reyes shares a comment they once received on their organization’s Facebook page: “No violence. Self-defense only.” That’s not the reality of violence, argues Reyes. “Sometimes to stop the attack, you have to make sure the attacker doesn’t get back up.”


What exists for women who choose violence?

On Aug. 15, 2017, a woman used her MMA training to fight off a man who tried to abduct children at a playground in British Columbia, Canada. Chelsi Sabbe fought off the alleged abductor with choke holds and neck locks when he attempted to kidnap the kids. Things escalated when the assailant started throwing punches.

“He hits me in the face several times. I then knocked him down again off of the playground equipment. He jumps up, he again punches me several times in the head and we go at it. At this time, it kind of turned nasty. I had to grab him by the hair and knee him in the face a few times, and then he ran away.”

The idea of Femme Fatale came to Robbie Reyes, one of the founders of the organization who has also been part of the local MMA scene for years, because of an acquaintance who asked him how she could learn to defend herself. Photo from FEMME FATALE PHILIPPINES/FACEBOOK

Sabbe suffered bruises on her arm and neck, and swollen hands from the punches she threw. “I never expected myself to be able to take down a grown man, and unfortunately you have to get quite physical to do so. He was very persistent and it had to get violent. I had no choice but to hurt him and get him on the ground. There was no way I was letting him get away with one of the children.”

There’s a difference between engaging in consensual violence in sport and encountering it elsewhere.

As an amateur boxer, I’ve known violence that comes from leather gloves hitting my face over and over again. I walked into a hook to the temple once and felt my brain lights shut off for a moment before I realized I was still in the ring. I’ve known violence, too, by my own hands. You play other sports, but nobody ever says they “play” boxing.

“I never liked martial arts in the first place,” shares Caras, co-founder of Femme Fatale, of her similar experience with jiu-jitsu. “I thought it was boring. So I had no inkling whatsoever to try it out until jiu-jitsu, and I realized what it did to me throughout. It’s been five years. I keep on going because there’s so much more you can learn.”

Caras, 27, is an advanced white belt in the jiu-jitsu belt system and works at the high school counselling office at the International School Manila. “I came from that shy, quiet type [girl]. Jiu-jitsu made me more comfortable interacting and sparring with people.”

In a Femme Fatale workshop, after the sessions on striking, wrestling, and grappling, there is a session on active self-protection, which included a Simulated Sexual Assault Drill (SSAD). Photo from FEMME FATALE PHILIPPINES/FACEBOOK

As much as sport or martial arts can be empowering, exercising one’s capacity for violence as a woman in a self-defense class is different. After the sessions on striking, wrestling, and grappling came the portion on active self-protection, which included a Simulated Sexual Assault Drill (SSAD). In this drill, “attackers” and “victims” were assigned. Over a minute and a half, the objective for the victim was to “survive” by reaching the identified exit, while the goal of the attacker was to subdue her. The attacker in this case was played by Reyes.

The theology professor, who stands at a little over six feet, once competed professionally in MMA. In 2002, he won via technical knockout in the second round during the inaugural event of the Universal Reality Combat Championship, a local MMA promotion.

Sybil, 28, one of the participants who volunteered for the drill, describes the experience as necessary. As a doctor, her job has taken her to public hospitals, where, she shares, sometimes patients’ emotions run high, so much so that “you can feel the aggression.”

The harsh reality of violence is women don’t often choose it as much as it chooses them.

In a 1996 interview with “Probe,” former beauty queen and actress Maria Teresa Carlson accused her husband of domestic abuse.

"At the start, there would be occasional slapping on the face, physical abuse, beatings. He will box you... all over. I was subjected to water torture. I had a gun at me in my mouth... a wet towel all over my face, pour [sic] Sprite, 7-Up or continuous water...”

A week after, she appeared on the television program “Magandang Gabi, Bayan” to take back her accusations against her husband. It was a case of alleged domestic abuse that played out in public.

On Nov. 23, 2001, Carlson, 38, leapt to her death from her apartment on the 23rd floor of a condominium in Greenhills, San Juan. In response to her suicide, women’s groups formed Task Force Maria to lobby for the passage of the Anti-Violence Against Women and Children Act. It was enacted into law in 2004, and recognizes several forms of violence, including sexual violence, and non-physical violence, such as psychological and economic abuse.

Public spaces may make women feel unsafe, but it’s more likely that violence will occur in places private, and at the hands of someone they know.

In the context of a self-defense class, there’s a gendered insecurity that comes to the fore. “I’m here to learn self-defense,” is a statement that points to a lack of security one feels simply by being a woman. Photo from FEMME FATALE PHILIPPINES/FACEBOOK

In 2015, the United Nations released The World’s Women Report which said one in three women worldwide had experienced physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lives. According to the same study, intimate partner violence made up the most common form of violence, peaking during women’s reproductive years in both developed and developing countries.

In the context of a self-defense class, there’s a gendered insecurity that comes to the fore. “I’m here to learn self-defense,” is a statement that points to a lack of security one feels simply by being a woman. The assumption that we will be attacked is what's wrong here. The onus is on us, the would-be victim to be able to fend off the attacker, instead of the would-be attacker not to commit assault in the first place. That being said, practicing sports can be empowering, but being attacked does just the opposite.

In the SSAD, three girls volunteered and I was one of them. Given my athletic background, I thought I had the best chance of reaching safety — but as soon as I’d started for the exit, I was forced to the ground, where I realized none of my boxing training would help me.

I struggled as much as I could, rolled and snuck in some punches between fighting my attacker’s hands. Before I knew it, Reyes had me in full mount, and I couldn’t reverse the position despite my best efforts. Time was winding down. I continued to struggle as hard and as violently as I could until it dawned on me I was stuck and helpless under the weight of this man, who, until then, I’d only known to be friendly and kind.

“This is it,” I thought. This was what all the hushed warnings of “mag-ingat ka” were about, all the fear of sexual assault I’d never let myself feel in the past. Even though it was just a drill, I didn’t get away. None of us did.


“It’s that expectation, because what we’re trying to advocate does not really go in line with what women are in the Philippines, there’s that ‘Maria Clara’ mentality,” shares Caras as the session ends and we watch the girls pack up their belongings.

I’d attended the first Femme Fatale workshop in April, and ask Caras regarding the inclusion of the SSAD portion to the curriculum since. Caras confirms it as something new, and describes how the workshop is still evolving. “Actually from our second workshop, someone gave us feedback that they would be more comfortable if a woman initiated the drill, so they’ll feel more comfortable in understanding what the drill is for. It’s important to have a female, someone to coordinate that.”

In this drill, “attackers” and “victims” were assigned. Over a minute and a half, the objective for the victim was to “survive” by reaching the identified exit, while the goal of the attacker was to subdue her. Photo from FEMME FATALE PHILIPPINES/FACEBOOK

“We’re learning as we go along,” she adds. “We want to be, as much as possible, not insulting to the opposite gender, because it’s an all-women’s thing. We try to show that women aren’t weak and all that, and along the way we’re trying to explain how women are better listeners without being sexist. I think that’s one of our key results.”

Empowerment is important, but it shouldn’t lull us into a false sense of security. Whether you’ve spent all your life steeped in martial arts or not, regardless of gender, all the training in the world won’t save you from the reality of violence.

In the post-drill debriefing, I’d later find out that SSAD was done by other trained jiu-jiteras. At least one blue belt, and several advanced white belts in the jiu-jitsu belt system. They performed better than we did, but didn’t get away either.

Self-defense isn't a solution to insecurity, but to be capable is to be dangerous. As women especially, this is our business, to not be cowed by reality, but ready for it still. In the words of Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”


Author’s note: The Simulated Sexual Assault Drill was done with the utmost safety of the participants in mind, taking into account the gender and culture-specific sensitivity of the topic. In real life situations, prevention from becoming a target is a key aspect of self-protection. Krav Maga, for example, considered one of the most practical self-defense and fighting systems developed, integrates instinct based self-defense tactics, with a curriculum that trains aggressiveness, fighting spirit, together with situational awareness, and verbal de-escalation of conflict. For more information on self-defense classes, contact Femme Fatale Women’s MMA Workshop and International Krav Maga Federation Philippines.

Update: This article has been updated to include a link of the International Krav Maga Federation Philippines, as requested by the author.