To celebrate International Women’s Day we interviewed some of GKR Karate’s prominent female role models who told us what IWD means to them, how we can #BreakTheBias surrounding martial arts and how training with GKR has empowered them.
Our interviewees are:
- Jessica Patterson, Regional Manager for Region 22 Christchurch
- Charmaine Agius, Regional Manager for Region 22 Sydney
- Cherie Fenlon, Regional Manager for Region 14 Newcastle
- Rebekah Zaloumes, GKR Karate student since 2005
- Dee Lancaster, Regional Manager for Region 17 Wollongong
- Nicola Berry, Senior Instructor for Region 16 Canberra
- Jenna Sinclair, Regional Manager for Region 12 Perth
- Nicola de Bruin, Senior Instructor and Office Administrator for GKR Karate New Zealand
What does International Women’s Day mean to you?
Jess: International Women’s day is a great opportunity to celebrate how far we have come in terms of gender equality over the past few decades. It’s also an opportunity to pay closer attention to where we are still lacking so that we can work on those areas moving forwards.
Charmaine: International Women’s Day is a day for us to join voices with people around the world and shout our message for equal rights loud and clear: “Women’s rights are human rights!”. It is an opportunity to reflect on by celebrating the power of women. It shines a spotlight on the many inspirational, supportive and motivational stories which ultimately empower us, as women and girls, to achieve our full potential. “I truly believe that when everyone supports women, incredible things happen.”
Cherie: I’m happy we can display the strengths and achievements of women everywhere and that we have a day to celebrate and inspire each other. I read a quote recently that really resonated with me that I think is very relevant: “Feminism isn’t about making women stronger. Women are already strong. It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength.”
Rebekah: It’s a celebration of women and women’s achievements around the world. It’s empowering, exciting, and enlightening. It’s always a beautiful day when women come together to recognise, support, and encourage one another. International Women’s Day is important to me because it’s a day of anti-discrimination. A day of kindness and love, which is exactly what the world needs right now. A day where we acknowledge women for the amazing accomplishments, big or small, that they experience daily. A day where women can stand up and say “I can do that too” with no hesitation.
“IWD is an opportunity to recognise the work women around the world have done for equality, to acknowledge the work that still needs to be done, and to continue the conversation and education in this space. It celebrates the little and big things we do everyday to be powerful, strong and successful women.” – Sensei Jenna
Dee: When I think about IWD lots of ideas pop into my head; history, strikes, protests, fighting against discrimination, empowering women, gender equality, stereotypes, sense of self confidence, physical and mental strength, our bravery and heart, celebration of how far we’ve come, where we are in the present moment, our future and where we want to go, recognising our achievements. It’s huge!
But IWD for me personally is taking a moment on this day to think about our past, present, future and celebrating US ALL for what we do daily to promote gender equality. Easy for me – I only have to look up in the dojo, it’s all around me.
Nicola B: International Women’s Day gives the community as a whole the opportunity to see that women are as capable as men in a male dominated world. We have come a long way over the years to show that women are not the weaker sex, but equal to men in so many ways. It is a fantastic way to be able to focus on the achievements and contributions that women make to society.
Jenna: IWD is an opportunity to recognise the work women around the world have done for equality, to acknowledge the work that still needs to be done, and to continue the conversation and education in this space. It celebrates the little and big things we do everyday to be powerful, strong and successful women.
Nicola D: International Women’s Day to me is a celebration and recognition of women, regardless of occupation, successes, failures and opportunities they may have been exposed to. I think that International Women’s Day is a reminder to all women that regardless of if you are a mother, a wife, a corporate worker, self employed or a factory worker, every single one of us is important and plays an integral role in bettering society. When we all work together and support each other we can achieve so much more!
Some people may see the dojo as a male-dominated environment. How can we #BreakTheBias and encourage future women participants in this space?
Jess: I feel that GKR does a great job in creating a space where everyone feels welcome, no matter age, gender or physical ability. I have never felt like I was treated differently than my male counterparts, or that I have had to work any harder to achieve the same results that they have. For myself, the only way that being female has held me back in the dojo is through my own internalised biases, and I think that is the same for many women in the dojo.
To “#BreakTheBias” and to encourage future women participants in karate, we need to first look inwards and identify any limiting beliefs that we have. Remember that the aim is to be a great karate-ka, not a great, female karate-ka. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, whether they are female or male. It’s not necessarily the stronger, faster person who will dominate in the dojo, it is the person who knows how to play their cards the best.
Charmaine: In 1900, 22 women were allowed to participate in the Olympics and only competed in 5 sports. Back then, there weren’t that many female role models or media coverage to help support females participate in more sports. Over the years, social media has helped contribute to an increase in the volume of female competitors. For example, in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, 5,494 women and 5,982 men competed. Seeing a lot more female competitors excites me for all future sports. It just goes to show that social media has made a positive impact on a lot more female athletes and role models to be doing so well at sport.
So, to break the bias in the dojo I would like to see more media coverage of females doing karate, focused groups of female classes, females at the front of class doing self-defence seminars or classes. These things will help increase the number of female students wanting to participate in karate. More opportunities for female instructors to lead at special events also, with more female role models being at the front, and mentorship and encouragement from their leaders. They always say students get their awesomeness from their senseis.
Cherie: There are a lot of people who may feel karate isn’t female-friendly and that it’s all about strength and how hard you can hit and take a hit, but I’m proud to say that we have many successful females who have taken up their karate journey in our style and are breaking this stereotype. When you look at Martial Arts, they are exactly that: ‘an Art’, and I believe part of that art is discovering your own personal strengths and learning to work with them.
I also think it’s fair to acknowledge that our club has many males who are also doing their part to empower women as well, by helping to build and recognise their strength. GKR has developed a supportive environment where it really is ‘Karate for everyone’, there are no glass ceilings and it’s all about people helping people – no matter their gender.
Rebekah: I have grown up with karate. It has been a huge part of my life and I couldn’t imagine myself without it. It’s no secret that sometimes women can feel like the odd ones out in the dojo. Yes, I do believe it can be seen as a male-dominated environment, but I also know many incredible women who do karate, who have helped shape me into the person I am today. The first thing I would tell a woman about karate is that I have the confidence to walk alone in the street knowing I can protect myself. I truly value this feeling. A feeling I believe every woman should experience. Safety, Confidence, Reassurance, Empowerment. These are the first 4 words that come to my mind when I think of what karate has given me. The time is now! It is never too late to start karate. Karate is an all-inclusive sport that encourages all types of people to be the best version of themselves in a safe and positive environment. The best part is that there is no time limit. Everyone has a different experience and a different journey. The first step to Breaking the Bias is YOU. Be brave, believe and take the leap.
“When you look at Martial Arts, they are exactly that: ‘an Art’, and I believe part of that art is discovering your own personal strengths and learning to work with them.” – Sensei Cherie
Dee: It’s not how can we break the bias and encourage future women participants into our dojos because WE ARE RIGHT NOW. When I was 8 years old and I started karate I was the only girl in my class but today I look up in class and am surrounded by females training. Look up social media into dojos today and you will see 3/4yr old girls up to mature age women owning their karate journeys. Walk into any dojo in GKR Karate and you will see and feel the empowered women around you. We currently have 35 female instructors out of our 60 people instructor base just in our region alone.
Nicola B: Yes, many see the dojo as a male dominated environment, and in reality it is, however whilst there may be fewer women in the dojo, those women are strong, inspiring, confident and fierce. Karate is an individual journey, and to see women training alongside men is fantastic. Women demonstrate that they can be as good and often better at Karate than their male counterparts, because it’s not just about who is the biggest or strongest at karate, it’s about who is giving their all for their own self-improvement. A karate dojo is a respectful place, and to see the respect between women and men as equals is inspiring.
Jenna: The dojo used to be a male dominant environment. 20+ years ago, When I first started, there weren’t many women in the dojo at all. Fast forward to now, there are many more girls and women empowered to learn self defence and improve their confidence and fitness levels.
The fact that we are a family friendly club, creates a welcoming environment to all women; whether they be sisters, friends, mothers, grandmothers etc.
To #BreakTheBias, us, as instructors and karate-ka, can continue to grow and be role models for those young girls and women who may not yet feel empowered, confident or strong.
We can show them that we can be powerful, we can be strong, we can be confident, we just need to take those first steps into the dojo. Everyone has the right to feel safe in this world; women are no exception. We need to continue to educate and spread awareness to our next generation of women to be empowered, to believe that you can achieve everything you want in this world.
Nicola D: Whilst the dojo may seem like a male dominated place, the reality is more and more women are being introduced to the sport. It is awesome to watch our strong female karateka advance through the ranks. When we have young girls who start karate, perhaps just as something to do, or because they watched the latest Karate Kid movie, it is so very powerful to see them look up to older females who perform amazing kata or have incredible kumite skills, and show fantastic muscle control and poise. They suddenly realise that they can be like that too.
To be a role model for the younger female generations is an absolute privilege and it is extremely important to be able to continue to create strong, independent women who believe in themselves and their abilities.
How has your karate training empowered you as a woman?
Jess: The dojo is a place where your results are directly proportional to the effort you put in (both mental and physical). I have never been treated as “less than” by my sensei in the dojo, I have always been encouraged to be the best person I can be. And as I have been in this environment since a young age, I have been able to take this same mentality into other areas of my life.
Karate has given me the physical, mental, and emotional strength to be able to work towards and achieve my goals in all aspects of my life, starting with my schooling, extending into my university studies, and now as the regional instructor for hundreds of karate-ka in Christchurch. I know that I can achieve what I set my mind to, and I have karate to thank for that self-belief.
Charmaine: I have had quite a few challenges with karate that have taken me through greater strengths of commitment and courage. One of my greatest challenges in karate is not only dealing with back problems and arthritis and finding out that I’m 7% disabled is that I have been epileptic for over 30 years. Training in karate has given me the focus, strength, encouragement and muscle memory to prove that you can achieve greatness in karate, regardless of your health condition. It’s easy to come up with a thousand excuses to not do something but you can never come up with a good reason. Your why, has to be the reason you keep moving forward in life. Don’t be afraid to ask yourself the why questions. For example, Why is this important to you? Why do you want to do karate? Why do you want to teach karate? Why do you want to earn your next belt? Why do you want to learn self defence? When you find out what your “why” is, you will be empowered to keep going and nothing will stop you.
Cherie: Being able to have the confidence to know I have skills to protect myself has allowed me to live a free lifestyle on my own terms. I’ve trained in karate since I was a child and I believe that it’s built a strong belief in me that everyone is equal and that we support and encourage everyone, male and female at any age.
As a female I’ve had many role models encourage me to break the limiting beliefs that can be placed on females. They helped me to stop believing I’m weaker, or unable to fight as well because I’m a female. They showed me that karate is a space where I can create a new stronger version of myself and it’s encouraged me to become someone who can guide other people to break the mould as well.
Rebekah: I cannot express in words what being in the dojo has done for me growing up. It sounds corny but it truly has changed my life. I was the shy, indecisive, scared kid who couldn’t even ask for a lollipop at the school canteen…my younger sister would ask for me. I started karate for this very reason. For confidence, resilience, and perseverance. Karate means so much more to me now than it ever has because I truly value every part of it. It’s a beautiful and empowering sport that makes me feel so strong, physically and mentally. It doesn’t matter what type of day I have had or what is happening in my life at that current moment, the minute I put on my Gi and step into the dojo it feels like home. It’s a safe space, a place where I feel comfort whilst constantly stepping out of my comfort zones. The best part is that I can carry this feeling and the tools I learn from karate with me in all other aspects of my life. Karate is more than a sport; it truly is a way of life.
“Karate has given me the physical, mental, and emotional strength to be able to work towards and achieve my goals in all aspects of my life” – Sensei Jess
Dee: I started originally for school sport – it helped me fit into a group, helped with coordination, it was fun exercise. Then I started karate outside school – this was for self defence and it helped me with mental strength, inner confidence, it was my own thing, I’ve always been a shy quiet person karate has helped me through every stage of my life.
As a mum of 3 karate empowered me with weight loss and getting back into exercise with a goal to lose weight after having my children. Helped with raising my children. Karate helps me as a mature age woman to stay in shape feel fit and healthy, it improves my strength, flexibility, cardio and strengthens my core. Nothing more empowering then feeling strong body and mind connection. Pushing through, breaking limits and fears – whether it’s when I’ve competed in tournaments or made it through training sessions – that I once thought I couldn’t get through. The confidence that I know I can get through anything life throws at me because of my never give up daily routine through karate changes your life. That’s the key to empowering you as a woman – doing something that you are passionate about yet challenges you daily.
Nicola B: When I first started karate it was all about improving my own self-confidence, I was a very shy person, who rarely stood up for myself. Karate has given me the confidence both in the dojo and in my work and personal life to voice my opinion and stand up for what I believe in. But I think what empowers me the most is that as an instructor I get to see so many women and girls of all ages and walks of life, grow through their own journey and that I have a part in that. To hear a woman say that Karate has changed her life for the better and given her strength both mentally and physically is inspiring.
Jenna: Karate training has given me the confidence that I can protect myself in any given situation if necessary. Not only this, but karate has given me the confidence to stand up for what I believe in, and to not give in to negative thoughts, beliefs and pressures of others.
Karate training has empowered me to become the best I can be by pushing past my comfort zones. It has also empowered me to teach this resilience and confidence to all generations of women and girls. Being a part of my children growing up and learning these same principles is one of the biggest rewards of our training.
Nicola D: The dojo is an extremely empowering place to be as a woman. Not only in the physical sense of being able to hold your own against different opponents, but possibly more importantly, in the confidence it provides outside of the dojo. As your karate journey progresses, karate becomes much more instinctive, so confidence in your self defense abilities naturally grows, which in turn shows in your overall confidence whilst out in public. As we all know, a confident person is much more of a threat to any attacker.
Aside from the physical side of karate though, training in the dojo has taught me to have a “never give up” attitude. This translates into my work, family life and relationships. As we say in karate, the belt around your waist is just a piece of material…your true karate is what you develop in your heart and soul.
If you could have dinner with two or three inspirational women, dead or alive, who would they be and why?
I would love to meet Princess Diana. I have heard that she was such a kind and caring person who would always lead from the front, particularly with her work on removing the stigma around HIV and AIDS.
Taylor Swift is also a huge role model for me. She has an amazing work ethic, and isn’t afraid to stand up for what she believes in, even when the backlash against her is huge.
Finally, it would be great to meet Sandra Sanchez – she is an incredible karate-ka and I would love to get some training tips from her!
Mother Teresa. After a life dedicated to charity and humanitarian work, she is regarded as one of the most selfless people to have ever lived, Mother Teresa wasn’t doing it for the recognition – she spent nearly 30 years of her life helping others before anybody even knew who she was. She believed in doing whatever was possible to help, whether big or small, with her philosophy being; “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”
Keiko Fukuda. Keiko Fukudo was promoted to 10th dan by USA Judo – the highest rank possible. It was highly unconventional for women to practise martial arts when Fukuda was growing up in the early 20th Century. She set up multiple schools in the process. She never married, but was lovingly known as Mrs. Judo. When she died at the age of 99 years old in 2013, Fukuda was rightfully recognised as a martial arts trailblazer. Her motto, ‘Tsuyoku, Yasashiku, Utsukushiku’, translates in English to ‘Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful’.
This is a tough one, I haven’t really thought about this before, but from my own personal experience within GKR and martial arts I have been inspired by quite a few ladies, but one whose strength has always inspired me is Claudine Chicheportiche.
While she was one of GKR’s highest ranking females, what really inspires me most about her is that she doesn’t allow any limiting belief to stop her from achieving her full potential.
Whether performing Kata or kumite, she always demonstrates the same strength and finesse. When facing a female or male opponent, it is always the same level of confidence and determination on display.
Outside of Karate I think Eleanor Roosevelt is a really inspiring woman. She took the opportunity as First Lady to initiate change. She encouraged women everywhere to break the mould that society had put on them and challenged everyone to do one thing every day that scares you.
I would love to be able to sit down and have dinner with both of my grandmothers. They both passed away when I was young, so I never really got the opportunity to talk to them about their lives. They lived in England during World War II, and I would talk to them about how they coped with raising their children during the war with food rationing, constant threats of bombing raids and their husbands away fighting the war. I’m intrigued by how different people cope with different situations and just how resilient the human spirit is to just get things done.
Sarah Breedlove – Madam C.J. Walker; African American entrepreneur, philanthropist, political and social activist. First female self-made millionaire. True life story of an inspirational woman overcoming gender roles in the work place and at home. Imagine being able to chat over dinner about the hardships, lessons learned and battles she fought with the first female self-made millionaire!
Sensei Nadine Champion, speaker, author, martial artist. I loved her book 10 Seconds of Courage, inspired by her martial art journey and how it impacts day to day life, her personal cancer fight. Her concept of beating fear with moving one millimetre towards facing it.
Olivia Newton John; singer, songwriter, actress, entrepreneur, and activist. I loved her music growing up music plays a big part in your life. Her advocacy for breast cancer research and her own personal cancer fight. Her fundraising and forge on women’s health.
If I could have dinner with two inspirational women, the first would be P!nk (Alecia Moore). Not only is she one of the most successful musicians of my time, she has achieved this without comprising her beliefs.
Stereotypically, being in the music industry in the 2000s etc, women had to have a certain look, otherwise they ‘wouldn’t be successful’. P!nk has defied social norms and shown women that they can be successful and strong with a voice. She has shown that confidence, kindness and standing up for what’s right is more important than what you look like.
The second and most important to me, would be my grandma. After over 92 years on this earth, my grandma is full of amazing stories and wisdom from all of her life lessons and experiences. Despite the expectations of women through her era of living, my grandma has always been strong minded and has never been afraid to be heard. She is a mother of 5 daughters, who have all grown up to be strong women who are not afraid to have a voice, and have all become successful in their chosen fields.
She has raised my mother to be strong, independent and confident, which has then passed on to my generation.
My grandma is one of the most influential women in my life and every minute I get to spend with her, listening to her amazing stories of her life are an absolute pleasure!
1 – Dr Libby Weaver. Dr Libby is a nutritional biochemist and holistic health specialist who focuses on Women’s Health. Her extensive knowledge of the human body and in particular the female anatomy and physiology is awe inspiring. Her three pillar approach to health looks at the biochemical, nutritional and emotional factors behind what might be driving the body to behave in a certain way. I have learned so much from this amazing woman about how to truly take care of myself to experience true health and wellbeing. I have attended many of Dr Libby’s seminars and weekends, and each time I learn something new about how truly amazing the female body is and what we really are capable of! My wish is for more women to learn how miraculous their bodies truly are instead of focusing on any negatives they feel about themselves.
2 – My Great Grandma Smith. I was only 12 years old when my family left England to live in Australia. That was the last time I saw my Great Grandma Smith. At the time I didn’t quite understand the enormity of her life and what a strong woman she truly was!
Born in 1893 she witnessed so many things in her life, including her husband being sent off to World War 1, and then her sons being sent off to World War II. 3 of her 7 children passed away as infants and of course battled to survive in war-torn England.
If I were able to have a conversation with her today, I could only imagine the things I could learn from such a strong woman. Her ability to never give up I liken to the karateka never give up attitude!