When I was in high school (a little over 10 years ago…) I was introduced to the sport of rugby. I’m an active person and have always been interested in sports, but counted myself out for making any of the usual teams (e.g. volleyball, basketball, soccer).
In grade 10 a friend of mine suggested I try out for rugby.
I didn’t know much about the sport, only what I observed as a bystander. Many of my girlfriends were on the team and loved it.
From what I could tell, there were things that made rugby different from other women’s sports. For one thing, the uniform did not include short shorts (volleyball) or short skirts (lacrosse).
At that time it required a big thick long sleeve jersey, a layer of spandex shorts followed by a layer of thicker shorts, socks, and cleats. And the team was huge – requiring 15 players on the field at a given time and, ideally, 15 substitutes. It was also clearly not for the faint of heart. There was a lot of physical contact and no protection besides cleats and a mouth guard. Needless to say, it was primarily my friend’s encouragement and the lure of the community environment of the team that saw me trying out.
Upon making the team I found myself welcomed into a community of equals.
Each player’s position was valued as much as the next on our team. There were no “star” positions, but there were some incredible leaders. One example was our coach, who ran all of our exercise drills with us.
As time went on and I started to get the hang of the sport I became known among my teammates as a fierce and strong player with great tackling skills. My teammates and I spoke freely of our experiences of femininity in rugby as breaking with traditional gender roles.
For us, being a woman meant being strong and fearless; completely unconcerned with the norms that society set out for us. We were muddy and tough and underrated by other teams in our league, who labelled us “the farmers from Elmira.”
With our confidence high (fostered by our strong community dynamic, understanding of our physical strength, love for our bodies, and encouragement from our female coach) we took this as a compliment and relished the idea that others underestimated us.
I also remember with pride the game I received the award of “best tackle” from my team. It affirmed my ability to use my body in new ways that demonstrated strength and beauty redefined.
My confidence in myself and love of my body was growing and spreading into other areas of my life in ways that empowered me to stand up for myself. In my co-ed gym class, during a short unit on rugby, a male classmate and friend of mine scoffed at the idea that I, a woman, could tackle him. I invited him to run toward me and proceeded to throw him to the ground effortlessly. He apologized.
As that particular experience indicates, something else was happening as I became this confident, tough, rugby woman.
I was encountering reactions of disbelief and/or concern from several of my teachers, friends, and church members who saw contradictions between my gender, this sport, and my faith. I was transgressing norms related to what it means to be a woman in our society.
Apparently the fact that I was a young, petite, polite, woman in class made it inconceivable or inappropriate in some people’s minds that I could also be fierce, strong, and brave in a physically demanding sport.
“Really Kim? You? I don’t believe it.”
Not only that, but I frequently heard people ask, “But how do you reconcile this aggressive sport with your commitment to nonviolence? How are you, a Mennonite, also okay with being a rugby player?”
These questions left me confused since I felt no tension or contradiction in my experience. Instead, I felt empowered and confident as a person committed to working for justice by breaking with existing gender norms and rejecting beauty myths. I didn’t see how what I was doing could be considered violent when the purpose of tackling was not to injure and when all involved in the game consented to tackling and being tackled in according to the rules.
How do we define violence?
How do we define peace?
Do Mennonite men receive this much scrutiny for playing contact sports, like hockey?
I carried these questions into my Ph.D. in theology where I had the opportunity to consider even more carefully, and in conversation with feminist theologians and ethicists, how my own church’s peace theology can function in ways to keep women, for example, subordinate and submissive.
The Mennonite emphasis on obedience and submission has often functioned to keep those who already have less access to power in a given relationship, oppressed or excluded. What I have learned from feminist theory and experienced playing rugby is that relationships of power play a key role in understanding whether not something is “violent.”
I am committed to doing theology and ethics by first talking about power – that is, naming existing relationships of power, deconstructing those that perpetuate domination and subordination, and building relationships of shared power/mutuality in community and with scripture.
As I understand it, talking about power is a necessary step for discerning where and how the Spirit is moving and the Spirit is embodied in relationships of shared power rather than relationships of domination and inequality.
Part of what makes something violent or not, then, has to do with whether power is shared or power is controlled.
On the women’s rugby field, physical force and grit have the potential to re-frame notions of what is “feminine” in ways that deconstruct sexism and work towards achieving greater mutuality.
In this way, women’s rugby can be a form of peacemaking.
Kim is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology at the Toronto School of Theology (graduating in November). She currently lives in Waterloo with her partner Dylan, their new son Jackson, and her cat Max. Two of her other loves include coffee and yoga.