SAYS EXCLUSIVE: An Important Discussion On Women's Safety With MMA Fighter Ann Osman

Being bullied and tailgated on the road was what spurred Ann Osman to take up martial arts. Malaysia's first female professional mixed martial arts fighter talks to SAYS' Mei Mei Chu about the issue of street harassment faced by women.

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Malaysia's first female professional mixed martial arts fighter Ann Osman was at TEDxYouth@KL to talk about the bullying and stereotypes she faces as a woman in a male-dominated industry

SAYS' Mei Mei Chu joins Ann Osman for an important girl-on-girl talk about the issue of women's safety on the streets

Mei: The whole fanfare about you being a professional mixed martial arts fighter is that you are a woman, a Muslim, and from Sabah. Has it been hard for you to start your career with so much negative perception and stereotypes?

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Ann: I don’t really let it get to me. Of course, I’ve been hearing all of the criticisms. My coach is one of the best person to talk to when I feel down because he has been in my shoes. He’s a fighter as well, and he’s still fighting. He knows how it feels to be out there, how it feels when people who don’t know you suddenly put titles on you. They don’t even know how good you are, your weakness or anything like that. I just thought about the stereotypes for a second, and I just let it go and keep doing what I want to do.

Mei: During your TEDx presentation, you mentioned that you first got involved in martial arts to learn self-defense after getting harassed.

Ann: I was tailgated a few times and was bullied on the road. That situation put me in the spot where I felt like I needed to defend myself. My mum was also nagging me to take up some sort of self-defense. But I never thought it would develop into something bigger than that. That harassment incident was what spurred me to take the first step to learn Muay Thai and then MMA. I’m a Gemini, the kind of person who would get involved in something and get bored two days later. But martial arts was the only thing that stuck. I thought I had found my true calling. It was that single step that got me hooked, and the rest was history.

Mei: Tell us more about the incident.

Ann: It happened a few times when I was working in Sabah. The worst incident was when I was tailgated. These guys were following me in a Hilux. I was still far from home, so I stopped at a gas station pretending to pump fuel. I was looking at those guys, and they were waiting for me in the car. I was really scared. I didn’t know what they were going to do. I was 5 km away from home, it was 11pm. It was kind of stupid of me, but at that moment I told myself: “Let’s just go. It’s better for me to reach home as fast as possible.” So I went into the car and continued to drive, and true enough, they continued to follow me. They would shout and bully me on the road. I kept thinking to myself: “I’m almost home, I’m almost home.” After a while, a garbage truck came up behind me and after 2 km, the Hilux stopped following me. I think they just wanted to bully me and after a while they just gave up. I was lucky that they decided to drive away.

Luckily, I had never been put in the situation where I had to go toe to toe with an attacker, except in the cage.

Mei: I'd like to explore this issue of women facing harassment on the streets. Did you see the viral video of a lady walking on the streets of New York for 10 hours and facing all kinds of harassment?

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Ann: Yes, all those catcalling and harassment, even if those are just words and they don’t really touch her. It’s in broad daylight but it puts you in a dangerous situation. That situation would have freaked you out, wouldn’t it? We’ve seen so many cases where women were attacked in public areas. Who else can defend them? I’ve seen also videos of women who have learned martial arts, who were able to defend themselves. Because it gave them the confidence. They know that they are able to defend themselves.

However, having said that, even if I have some kind of tool of self-defense, it doesn’t mean I 'cari pasal' (look for trouble) or walk around in dark areas that I know is dangerous. I still encourage women to take precaution. You wouldn’t want to face those kinds of situation. It’s always precaution first, tell people where you are going, park your car in a well-lit area, you don't want to put yourself in an unfortunate situation.

Mei: One of the issues with the New York video is people are debating whether the guys were paying her compliments or was it harassment. Where do you draw the line between a compliment and a catcall?

Ann: It’s a grey area. If you’re walking down the street, you can’t share the same “mind wave” with someone else, right? It could be a compliment from his end, but she could feel harassed from her end. If someone wants to pay you a compliment, why not come up to you and be more polite instead of just shouting at the side and say “Amoi, Amoi cantik!” It makes the woman feel uncomfortable. I think that’s when it leans towards harassment, as opposed to a compliment.

Mei: How practical is it for women to learn martial arts as a form of self-defense when they are faced with danger on the streets?

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Ann: Mixed martial arts is a combination for different disciplines, it combines ground skills as well as striking. For me, I think it’s the most practical tool for self-defense because it teaches you how to defend yourself when you are standing or even when you are on the ground. I've been training Brazillian Jujitsu and Muay Thai. I think it’s really practical. I used say “Who’s going to protect me?" Now, I’m like “Who’s going to protect you from me?”

Mei: You are speaking from the perspective of a professional fighter. How about for the average woman? As a victim of harassment myself, I can testify that your mind goes blank when you are suddenly forced into that scary situation.

Ann: The thing is, martial arts does not only come in skills and techniques. It boosts your confidence. Not many people actually understand what I’m saying, especially people who don’t train martial arts, but learning martial arts trains your alertness. You feel more alert and aware of your surroundings. When you know that you are able to put those physical skills in practice, especially when you train every day, that actually boosts self-confidence. It becomes a reflex. When someone comes and attack you, you would instinctively know what to do.

I have friends who took up Muay Thai and say it has really changed them. One girl told me stories of how she felt like she was being followed, and she actually said: “Immediately, I feel like I’m going to punch this guy if he comes to me.” That shows that how much martial arts have made her more aware of her surroundings and confident in protecting herself. Some people who never train martial arts, they feel inferior, they feel clueless on what to do. Knowing martial arts gives you a sense of confidence to be able to protect yourself.

Mei: So it’s not just about the physical skills?

Ann: It’s not just about the skills, it’s also here (points to heart) and also here (points to brain). Especially when you train every day and every week, making it second nature to you, it’s become like a reflex. The survival instinct kicks in, you learn how to use anything and everything around you to get out of the situation.

Mei: So it has to be something that is consistently practiced?
Ann: Of course, practice makes perfect. You can’t just learn something today and remember it for the rest of your life.

Mei: And then there is the concern that if a girl fights back and provokes the attacker, it could lead to even more dire consequences.

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Ann: The first thing is to get away. Number one, I would say it to get away if they keep holding onto you and grab you. Then you would probably punch their face or do anything to make them let go. Even though I practice martial arts, I wouldn't face them like I would in the cage. I would say try to protect yourself. Get yourself in a safe spot. Try to run until you reach that safe spot. But what happens if they get you? That’s when you need those skills. You cant just let them do that to you. If they've been holding you, you should say no.

For attackers, some would immediately attack you, but some would try to test the water. They would try and touch you and see your reaction. If your reaction is fine, they would try to push the line and the limit. So from the start, you've got to say no.

Mei: Which form of self-defense would you recommend women to take up?

Ann: Any form of self-defence. From the word “self-defense” we know it gives women skills and techniques, but practicing it is the most important part. For myself, I think Muay Thai is great, the most important thing is knowing how to defend yourself in every situation. It doesn’t matter if it’s taekwondo or kung fu, pick up something that you can use.

Mei: Would you also recommend other girls to pursue professional fighting?

Ann: Why not? It’s great. To tell you the truth, the women’s mixed martial arts scene is growing but it’s still kind of new. The fact is that MMA is a heavily male-dominated sport and we don't see a lot of women, even globally. It’s always like I’ve already fought her, who’s next. There’s only a handful of women fighters. It would be great if we could develop the women’s mixed martial arts scene. It would be great to develop the female roster even in One FC. One FC established itself three, four years ago, but the female division is still very small as compared to the male division. It’s starting, but it’s not enough. If there are female fighters, women who are interested to join MMA and fight in MMA for the right reasons, why not?

Mei: Have you faced any harassment from your male peers in the industry?

Ann: I don’t think they dare. (Laughs) No, but apparently some of them are intimidated by me. My coach would be like “Okay, roll with Ann,” and they would hesitate. I don’t know why.

Learning martial arts have taught me humility, to be humble, to be patient. So I wouldn't go like all gung ho on someone and just be like “Yeah I’m going to female fight, I’m going to kick your butt, I’m going to bite your head off.” I’m not like that. It's about sharing knowledge among your peers, and that’s important. I think that is what the guys in my team do too. I’m just so grateful for my team, Borneo Tribal Squad, and the people I have worked with from other teams. They see me as a professional MMA athlete, and they don’t stereotype me based on gender. If they feel like they need me to share how to do a certain move, they would ask me. If they feel that I could benefit from a certain skill that they know, they would teach me. I do get an equal level of respect.

But I do know that there are people from other teams who don’t get that kind of support. There are mixed reactions [about female fighters]. Some still see female fighters as eye candy. Or that we’re not as skillful, or that we’re only always complaining. There are still some male fighters out there who see female fighters and they would think “They don't have any skills." And sometimes we feel like we need to prove ourselves. I put in the hard work, I get burnt under the sun from all the training, I’m willing to do that because of the passion I have for this sport.

Mei: You mentioned your mom was the one who encouraged you to take up martial arts.

Ann: She nagged me. (Laughs) She encouraged me at the beginning of my career, to be honest. She did expect this to go out of hand. She was like “You have to learn some self-defense, you are always working late.” She doesn’t stop. Now, she’s like “Ahh your organs, don’t let them [hurt you]. Your core, your face.” So of course I had to educate my family about how we are taught not only skills like punching, but how to defend ourselves. It doesn't help that my family are watching reality TV shows where they see female fighters being punched in the face. But after seeing me being okay after a fight with just a few bruises and scratches, now my mum's like “Yeah, you’re gonna be okay.” Now they are my number one fan. When I go back home, they are on any sports channel that I don’t know of, they actually watch my fight.

Mei: If you could tell our SAYS readers one thing, what would it be?

Ann: I’m a true believer in passion. Once you have a passion for something, go for it. You can’t just talk the talk and just wish but not put in the hard work. You always have to put in the hard work. If you have a goal, work towards it. Don’t let anyone define who you are, just ignore them, and just go for what you want. If people around you don't support you, try to seek for support. There might be someone out there who believes in you. Surround yourself with positive people.

TIME magazine named Ann Osman as one of their new class of Next Generation Leaders

TEDxYouth@KL 2014 was held on 22 November

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