Karate being mainly a man’s sport is as common of a saying as it is unfortunate, and that fuels the underrepresentation of women in the martial art – in Rwanda and everywhere else.
In most karate classes and clubs, women are notably fewer and sometimes are even treated as “inferior” by non practitionners.
Nonetheless, this gender myth bias never stopped Solange Ingabire Gashagaza from pursuing her dream – in Karate.
When she saw her uncle practicing karate at a young age, she was curious and inspired to learn the sport so she could defend herself when aggressed. But it was not until she went to a boarding school - in senior one – that she enrolled to her first karate class.
“I started karate when I was in my first year of secondary school. The idea came after realizing how much other students could be aggressive towards me. When I went into holidays, I told my mother about it, and she didn’t discourage me,” she said.
Her intention of self-defense changed with time as she gained advanced skills in the sport and contrary, she got more disciplined – which her parents appreciated a lot, she vividly remembers.
Gashagaza started playing karate in Nyamagabe District, but as time went by, it did not take her too long to be called up in the national team.
In Rwanda, it is not very common that a girl plays karate, they even called her different disrespectful nicknames to discourage her – comparing her to boys.
“Even when my mom supported me, my entire extended family and neighbors didn’t understand why I was playing karate. They said I would become a bad woman – without manners – who won’t obey her husband,” she told Saturday Sport in an exclusive interview.
Karate has nothing to do with being rude or harsh to everyone, including the spouses. Instead, it teaches someone to be humble and disciplined despite the defense skills they have, she noted.
“I raise my child with love, as any other good mother. With karate, I learnt to be patient and obedient. I hope my kids will play this sport too because it instills good attitudes and behaviors.”
Medals and awards
Since her first appearance in the national team, the karate sensation has represented the country in various international competitions, and won various medals on regional and continental level.
Gashagaza won a bronze medal at the African Junior Karate Championship held in Tunisia, in 2014, before claiming another bronze during the African Senior Karate Championship in Senegal the following year.
Then a 20-year-old senior six leaver from ES Sumba in Nyamagabe District, Ingabire raised the country’s flag on the medals’ podium after subduing an opponent from Congo Brazzaville to win bronze. At the time, out of the Rwandan squad of 16 players, only one player – Ingabire – won a medal.
In all these contests, she was competing in the Kumite [fighting] contests.
“When I won the first medal in Tunisia, it was a great feeling and I told myself it was just the beginning. I got more motivated to continue playing the sport,” she narrated.
She also won gold medals in Inter University Championships on national level and East Africa regional stage.
“In Senegal, I competed in senior category and I was the only woman representing Rwanda, and the only player who was able to bring a medal back home. I was happy but also sad for my colleagues who had given their best but still failed to be on the medal podium.”
The soft spoken karateka was also part of Team Rwanda that represented the country at the 2014 World Karate Championships in Spain and its 2015 edition in Germany. However, no Rwandan managed to win a medal at any of the two occasions.
No retirement plans
Gashagaza, 24, is a married woman, has one kid and is currently pregnant with her second born, but, she says she still practices karate and has no plans of stopping in near future.
“I am not playing competitive karate at the moment, because I am preparing to have my second born soon, but, I will return in due time,” she explained.
He further underlined that managing a family and her karate career are not ‘incompatible’ and have never interfered.
“You can have a family and take care of it, and continue playing karate or any other sport of your choice. It is all about the mindset, and prioritizing.”
Piece of advice to young girls
The Rwanda international urged young girls, and women in general, to never care or be stopped by what is expected of them from the society, challenging them that they should not bow to the myth that they are not “hard enough” for martial arts.
She also urged parents to support children in their choices, especially when their daughters decide to engage in such sport disciplines that are believed to be for men.