Bloody karate – the fight for equality

The impact of period anxiety on women’s participation in sport at all levels is well recognised. Research and discussion has resulted in positive steps to address this issue, but is enough being done and is insisting that women wear white unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act 2010? 

5 March 2024

Woman in karate training wearing white gi

The House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee has today published a report on “Health barriers for girls and women in sport” which warns that sport “must do better” to ensure that women and girls at all levels have kit and equipment that’s properly researched and designed for their health, wellbeing, and performance needs. 

The impact of period anxiety on women’s participation in sport at all levels is well recognised and is confirmed in this report:

YST’s research shows that issues around periods are the most commonly cited barrier to participation among secondary school girls, with 38% of those surveyed raising periods as an issue. Of those who raised periods as a barrier to PE, 68% said they were concerned about being in pain or discomfort; 60% worried about leaking; and 57% said low mood while on their period was their main concern.”

The report does not specifically address issues relating to the colour of the kit, but insisting women wear white sportswear has been increasingly recognised as a significant issue in women’s sport.  Could insisting on white clothing also amount to unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act 2010? 

As a practicing black belt in karate, I am particularly interested in this issue from a martial arts perspective.

Periods and karate

Recently Karate Scotland issued the “Periods and Karate” report by Dr Chloe Maclean, an academic in sociology at the University of the West of Scotland and Karate Scotland Director of women and girl’s interests. 

Dr Maclean completed research into the impact of periods on women and girls in karate, the key findings of which were that:

  • 72% of respondents have missed a karate class due to their period, with 16% missing karate classes almost every period;
  • 64% felt that their enjoyment of karate slightly worsens when on their period and 15% felt that it significantly worsens;
  • a key factor impacting attendance and enjoyment was worries about leaking blood onto the karate suit – 95% of respondents worried about this, with 43% worrying about leaking at every class;
  • 61% had experienced leaking blood onto their clothing at karate; and 
  • 2% felt supported when they had leaked blood. 

The experience left women feeling embarrassed, and worried that others in the karate classes – particularly men/ boys – might feel uncomfortable or disgusted.

The white “gi”

What the report does not do is address the elephant in the room: the white gi (karate suit). 

The research is clear that anxiety about leaking is a particular issue in karate and, naturally, few women concerned about leaking would choose to wear white while participating in an active sport – to put it bluntly, it is the worst possible colour to find yourself in should a leak spring. 

This is particularly challenging in karate where the nature of the movements means there is nowhere to hide if such an unexpected issue arises. Kicking in particular, if done well, exposes the area where leaking is most likely to occur. 

White clothing in other sports

There have been several high-profile cases of women challenging the requirement to wear white in other sports as well, resulting in positive changes. 

In 2023, female players at Wimbledon were able to wear coloured shorts and underwear rather than white for the first time and at the Women’s World Cup last year a number of countries, including England, replaced their traditional white shorts with coloured shorts. This comes off the back of many professional football clubs, such as Manchester City, Stike City, West Bromwich Albion, Bristol City, and Swansea, all introducing dark coloured shorts for their women’s teams. 

These changes, while welcome, have been seen as optional. However, it is also arguably a legal requirement under the Equality Act 2010 (“the Act”).

The Equality Act 2010

The Act prohibits discrimination in specific areas, such as employment, services, and public functions. The most relevant in the sporting context are: 

  • certain sports clubs and associations are subject to the Act in relation to decisions about membership and the benefits and services provided to members;
  • where sports clubs and organisations are “service providers” under the Act (e.g. where individuals pay for training or the use of facilities), they will be subject to the Act’s prohibition of discrimination; and
  • employees of sports organisations will be protected by the Act.  

The most relevant type of discrimination here is indirect discrimination which, in broad terms, applies where there is a provision, criterion, or practice (PCP) that applies in the same way to everybody but disadvantages a group of people who share a protected characteristic.   

The Equality and Human Rights Commission guidance for gyms, health clubs, and sporting activity providers identifies clothing requirements as an issue which may result in discrimination:

Obviously, sometimes you will require specialist or safety clothing or equipment to be worn by participants in your activities. If you make this a condition of participating in your activities, and a person says that they cannot comply with the condition because of a protected characteristic, and can show that the condition has a disproportionate impact on people who share that characteristic, you will need to objectively justify the condition you have put in place.”

The requirement to wear white shorts, bottoms, or trousers, is therefore likely to be a PCP under the Act. The research would support a conclusion that this PCP places women at a particular disadvantage and therefore is discriminatory. 

Can the requirement to wear white be objectively justified?

The Act says discrimination can be justified if the requirement is a “proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”. There are two elements to this defence: 

  1. There must be a “legitimate aim”. This requires identifying the reason behind the discriminatory practice. For example, some PCPs may be necessary for health and safety reasons, such as a requirement to wear a riding helmet in horse riding. 
  2. The discriminatory PCP must be a proportionate means of achieving that legitimate aim. This requires a balancing exercise to assess whether the importance of the aim outweighs any discriminatory effects of the PCP.

Applying this test, it is difficult to see the circumstances where a requirement to wear white could be justified. 

When I have discussed this issue with martial arts practitioners, the most common reasons given to retain the white gi are:

  • the importance of tradition; 
  • the symbolism of wearing white; and 
  • the costs of changing existing practices. 

Tradition and symbolism alone are not likely, in my opinion, to meet the test for this defence. Case law has, however, been clear that if the aim is simply to reduce costs because it is cheaper to discriminate, this will not be considered legitimate reasoning.   

Time for change?

I recently discussed this issue with a male Sensei (karate instructor), and posited the need to change the gi bottoms to a dark colour. The quick response I got? “That’s never going to happen.”   

I did not challenge this, mainly because there is a good chance he’s right. It’s unlikely that the sport will willingly change the colour of the gi, particularly when those at the top of the governing hierarchy remain predominantly male. But I do regret not speaking up, because change will not happen if people like me sit silent. What I wish I had said, and will say when given the next opportunity, is: “Why not?  Why is wearing white more important than comfort, accessibility, and equality?” 

Commenting on the report issued today, the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Rt Hon Caroline Nokes MP said: “While there are positive signs of progress in the sports and exercise research sector, fundamental change is required to achieve equality of attention to health and physiology-related issues affecting women in sport.

Changing the colour of a karate gi would be a radical move but I would argue that it’s exactly the type of fundamental change that we need to achieve equality.