Thai boxing β€” also known as muay Thai β€” is a popular sport worldwide, but has taken off recently for females in Thailand, reports the International Herald Tribune. "In a country where femininity is highly prized and girls are often told by their parents to be discreet, obedient and gracious, female boxing is now a surprise hit," writes Thomas Fuller. Girls start as young as 13, but often stop boxing before they reach 20. "When they grow up they get a boyfriend or they get married - their career cycle is not very long," one "delicately built" female boxer said. "Their husbands don't want them to come home with bruises."

Girls like the cash they receive for fighting, but women face many obstacles in the culture of muay Thai.

Until recently, it was considered very bad luck for a girl or a woman to enter the boxing ring. Muay Thai is a sport steeped in superstition, where gold and silver talismans, blessed by Buddhist monks and engraved with words and symbols, are sometimes imbedded under the fighter's skin. The presence of a woman, especially if she was menstruating, was thought to cancel the invulnerability conferred by these and other charms and blessings.As a concession to tradition, girls these days enter the ring by crawling under the bottom of four ropes. Boys can climb through the ropes any way they want.

Still, at a camp in a small town called Nern Maprang, girls show up and train hard: they do 30 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, 10 pull-ups and 200 dumbbell curls each day, skip rope 1,000 times and run barefoot on dirt and pavement (sneakers are too expensive).

In addition to self-defense and discipline, the girls are earning money, fight by fight and blow by blow. One boxer and her twin sister box to pay for school fees, books and pocket money. They get about 300 baht ($8) per fight, whether they win or lose. But an older boxer can make about $260 for a bout, like one 17-year-old show who says she fought a foreigner on the resort island of Phuket.

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Unfortunately, girls' matches are not as popular as the mens', for which placing big bets and gambling is part of the point. "Women are weak. It's no fun to watch," said Apichai Chanchailerk, a Bangkok taxi driver. "I watch all kinds of boxing but I can't gamble on the women."

Femininity, With A Sharp Jab, In Thailand [International Herald Tribune]