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I have a very patriarchal human society set in sparsely populated frontier. Think of it as a cross between wild west and Afghanistan minus Abrahamic religions.

There is very little law enforcement and culture of guns and knifes and clan feuds.

One of the local customs is that if the man wants to marry a girl that isn't interested in him he could challenge her in a duel. Only he has to fight barehanded the woman gets a knife.

Is there a chance for the man to win this encounter?

The goal of this custom is to have man to have small but still realistic chance, so it will dissuade anyone beside the most crazy ones (who in other cases might decide to kidnap the girl).

Guns and knives are part of their tools and culture and you could expect that both sexes know how to use them.

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closed as off-topic by Mołot, sphennings, MolbOrg, SRM, Aify May 15 '17 at 5:01

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    $\begingroup$ Do they get to wear clothes in this fight? Clothes can help you in a knife fight. $\endgroup$ – Willk May 14 '17 at 19:00
  • $\begingroup$ unisex society? If there is a chance of that and man didn't weight his chances and lost in the fight - his fault. However, any human with a knife has some advantage compared to when he hasn't the knife. Will it be enough? there is no way to say until a particular situation is presented in all detail necessary for judgment. And it isn't about sex - it is about mass, speed, skill. There is no useful essence in the question, vote close. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg May 14 '17 at 20:06
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    $\begingroup$ Judicial duels in the European middle ages had special rules for man vs. woman. Apparently they tried to even the odds by having the man buried to the waist. Such fights were apparently extremely rare, though. Women were usually expected to have a male relative or paid champion fight for them. $\endgroup$ – Philipp May 14 '17 at 21:13
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    $\begingroup$ Notably, dueling over marriages (or as an intimidation tactic in a legal dispute) was practiced by the vikings, but only between the suitor and a male relative (or the suitor and the poor woman's current husband). You may want a foundational myth or social justification to explain why your culture went a different route. $\endgroup$ – Era May 14 '17 at 21:24
  • $\begingroup$ During the fight, is the man allowed to injure the woman? It makes the fight a lot easier for the woman if she knows she need not fear any bad injury if she gets overwhelmed. $\endgroup$ – gnasher729 May 14 '17 at 22:52
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The general rule for a fight involving short blades and no armor is that everyone involved is going to get sliced up, one way or another. As PipperChip said, knife fights are ugly.

Knives have low reach, but move very fast. A scared person with a knife is going to flail with it. That doesn't require any competence on their part, but it makes a dangerous and unpredictable defense, even against a skilled fighter with a comparable weapon. Without escape, placation, or outside assistance as options, I suspect these suitors are going to have a very bad time.

Consider how one might approach a desperate woman with a knife. Actually disarming her is highly risky -- you can mostly forget about fancy maneuvers, this is a death match not a duel, and the moment the suitor makes a grab she's going to instinctively go for his hand. He'll run a high risk of ending up maimed with nothing to show for it. In a frontier culture, infection and disability will be a profoundly scary consequence for a proud, violent young man of marrying years.

What's likely is that, if this custom was somehow set up, the fear of maiming will be worked into the ritual as a disturbing moral lesson. Men who hesitate or make weak grabs will get their hands hacked up, a symbolic castration if you want to get Freudian about it. It might become common wisdom that the best chance for the suitor is to roll the dice on a blind charge, with the hope of scaring or overwhelming his potential "bride" in one go by tackling her before she gets in more than a good slash or two on his raised arms.

If so, it becomes a test of manliness, endurance, and bravery -- and possibly a way for impoverished men of martial talent to advance socially, by forcing marriages with the daughters of wealthy patriarchs. The suitors that live may become a small, mistrusted group of nouveau riche, showing off their scars for years after the event.

Deaths will still be very, very common.

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    $\begingroup$ "it becomes a test of bravery" - that I do not like about the question. Bravery in fight against women, neh $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg May 14 '17 at 21:03
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    $\begingroup$ A fair point, but I'd make the counter argument that a rigid patriarchal social structure can make men more afraid of female violence (in select contexts) rather than less. Consider the ancient greeks, who imagined furies, amazons, and legendary murderous wives. So in a sacralized context, and with the right culture, the ritual disarming of a woman could easily become legitimate and highly symbolic test. $\endgroup$ – Era May 14 '17 at 21:14
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    $\begingroup$ I understand what you mean. I meant OP's Q is rotten at many levels. As low tech society goes. As a ritual, yes I agree, it can take some exotic forms, which might include real fights in particular cases to not to be so much ritual in rare occasion. And yes it can be a test - she may stab one, will she do so, that's a funny question. But OP's means more like M1 fight with knives between humans of opposite sex with the lethal(maybe) ending. In low-tech society, a woman is way too much important to allow her to participate at those activities and Philipp said in his answer about that. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg May 14 '17 at 21:27
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    $\begingroup$ Also, OP implies participants will be somehow equal, how about a man of age 30 against a woman of age 14 or even 12? or even the same guy against 20 yo. The guy have 10+years to prepare, they have no chances against. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg May 14 '17 at 21:27
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    $\begingroup$ And in that kind of society, 12 year old girls would have lots of knife fighting practice. Probably practiced for the last 6 years. And twelve year old girls are quick. $\endgroup$ – gnasher729 May 14 '17 at 23:00
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I practice Historic European Martial Arts. While most historic documents seek to review a system of fighting, daggers are highlighted.

The unarmored man basically wants to be the crowned figure in the following drawing: A Grab!

If the man can control the dagger, he stands a much larger chance of winning. Avoiding and countering these kinds of things is what medieval dagger is all about. Dagger fighting gets ugly very quickly! We're talking pins, twisted limbs, and broken fingers in addition to blood and holes in bodies.

The question of the dagger length and shape plays a role in this: a rondel will be used differently than a bowie knife, which will be yet again different than a steak knife. So here are my assumptions:

  1. Man is unarmored; he has his "thin, everyday" clothes.
  2. Woman has a dagger meant for fighting, and is wearing "thin, everyday" clothes
  3. Both Participants are knowledgeable about unarmored and knife fighting.
  4. Both Participants are in a flat, open arena
  5. Both Participants will start fighting at the same time- no "getting the jump" on anyone else.
  6. Both participants are of similar level of physical fitness: they are both active / sporty people.

Seeing as they're both 'trained,' experience tells me to put my money on the woman with the dagger! I guess the woman's odds are 7/10 to 9/10 of winning.

The man is trying to subdue her, ideally doing as little harm as possible (because he's attracted to her, right?), and the woman can jump right to deadly force! Yes, the man may have some more reach and likely has more upper body strength, but as long as that dagger can move and the woman is smart about avoiding or breaking locks, the weapon wins.

I also expect a marked increase in the amount of wives killing husbands... this isn't a great foundation for a super-stable, happy marriage.

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    $\begingroup$ I love that you brought in western martial arts manuscripts. My first thought was the Talhoffer one for marital disputes. The guy stands in a hole and the woman can move around. She's armed with a sack of rocks. upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/57/… Depiction of a judicial duel between a man and a woman by Hans Talhoffer (Ms.Thott.290.2º f80r, 1459) $\endgroup$ – Mazel May 14 '17 at 20:04
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    $\begingroup$ Speaking of sack of rocks, I hope you get to dress like those dudes when you practice your Historic European Martial Arts. Maybe for this question Marital Arts. $\endgroup$ – Willk May 14 '17 at 20:41
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Sure the man would have a chance. Especially if he courted her or got her parents to convince her, and the duel was a pro forma demonstration of her submission to him, and separation from her parents.

To rephrase: if I want a knife-wielding expert to be my submissive wife, actual combat is going to be the last thing on my mind.

EDIT: what do men do now to get a woman who doesn't want him? Convince her that he's a good catch. Similarly, convince the knife-wielding girl that you aren't that bad.

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    $\begingroup$ Totally. Step 1, court the woman earnestly. Step 2, agree she lets you take the knife off her, and to drop and stay down when you stage-punch her. Step 3, happy ever after. $\endgroup$ – Harper May 15 '17 at 23:53
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The man has a pretty good chance to win this fight. There are various self-defense techniques to quickly disarm a knife-wielding attacker while being unarmed yourself. Here is an example from Krav Maga, but other unarmed martial arts over the course of history had similar techniques:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bljIN6Ra4wE

A very skilled knife-fighter might know how to counter such techniques, but unless knife-fighting is a skill women in your culture are expected to be proficient in, very few would be well-trained enough to do that, especially against an opponent with superior upper body strength.

Keep in mind that when it comes to preparation, the instigator of a duel has an unfair advantage. They can train as long as they want, and not announce their challenge until they feel ready. The challenged then only has until the duel to catch up with training. So unless you want any halfway decent fighter who comes around to snatch your daughters, you better keep training them in knife combat as soon as they can hold one.


By the way, you described your culture as "very patriarchal". Such a custom would then be very out-of-character. In the patriarchal mindset, men are considered the guardians of the women in their family. If there is something like trial-by-combat for marriage, a patriarchal society wouldn't have the woman herself fight. They would expect her father, husband or brother to fight for her. The only situation where a patriarchal society might expect a woman to fight for herself in a sanctioned duel is if no male relative of her is available.

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  • $\begingroup$ "the instigator of a duel has an unfair advantage." - very good point. They can select the target, select time, stage some events to weaken the opponent before the main event. There a lot of strategies. Most important of which not to bite thing bigger than they can. "They would expect her father, husband or brother to fight for her." - oh yes, that is a way much better strategy. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg May 14 '17 at 21:11
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    $\begingroup$ You are correct about another male defending her if duels were scheduled: "I challenge you to a duel next Friday." But if they are a modern version of the caveman knocking the woman on the head and dragging her back to his cave, then either (1) a male relative would always have to escort a female, as with Islam, or (2) unmarried women train to defend themselves, and never travel alone. Such training could be a "secret rite of women". $\endgroup$ – RonJohn May 14 '17 at 21:28
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    $\begingroup$ I would think that in such a culture knife-fighting would very much be part of women's upbringing, at least for well-off families. $\endgroup$ – jcm May 15 '17 at 4:04
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for the realism, just a note/disclaimer for readers of the answer: in a duel a physically stronger/fitter fighter can indeed easily win bare-handed against a knife-wielder, but this is not true for real life knife attacks on the street: if an attacker wants to stab you, he won't get into a fighting stance, but will hide the weapon until the last moment. A mugger won't take out a knife when he is still far away, he will attack when you don't expect it and press it to your stomach so that even being a world champion in martial arts won't make you win. So in real life, you must run away! $\endgroup$ – vsz Apr 25 '18 at 4:43
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There are so many variables here. Size of the opponents, skill with blade or unarmed combat, reach, the type of knife, clothing, agility.

It is indeed possible for an unarmed opponent to defeat a knife-wielding one, especially when there is no element of surprise.

I have worked in Corrections and know well how this one plays out!

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A random unarmed man vs a random woman with a knife, my money would be on the man actually. Imagine the man wildly charging you. Unless you are trained in martial arts, you wouldn't know what to do. You may swing the knife which may, say 10% of the time, cause an incapacitating injury. The other 90% of the time, the physically stronger fighter has knocked you down and it is over. I imagine some women in your setting are fitter than average and maybe practice with the knife. Those would of course be favorites against an untrained unfit man. Still, anything can happen. Unless one of the fighters is a martial arts expert, the odds will be close to 50/50, I would take the physically stronger fighter.

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  • $\begingroup$ According to the question, women are expected to know how to use knives. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn May 14 '17 at 23:35
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    $\begingroup$ @RonJohn Perhaps "knowing how to use a knife" equals martial arts training, I am not sure. You can use a knife for many purposes. Still, there would be a normal distribution of level of skill and training. $\endgroup$ – Solanacea May 15 '17 at 1:13
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    $\begingroup$ sure, any young non-noble woman would know how to use a knife to dice vegetables and chop chickens, but the clan nature of the society, plus "you could expect that both sexes know how to use them" indicates to me that girls would be trained how to use them, since otherwise, any old piggish lout could drag off a rich/pretty girl. Even in a patriarchy, mothers would soon remedy that ("Do you want your son-in-law to be that swineherd Cedric MacFergus? Of course not, so either follow her around, or let her practice with the knife.") $\endgroup$ – RonJohn May 15 '17 at 1:48
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    $\begingroup$ Your assumption that in most matchups the man will be the "physically stronger fighter" vastly misunderstands the physical differences between men and women. It's true that the outliers on the strongest side of the strength of curve are men, and it's true that the peak of the curve is stronger for men, but not by that much, and general many completely normal women are much stronger than many completely normal men. $\endgroup$ – mattdm May 15 '17 at 4:34
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    $\begingroup$ @mattdm 1% of women can overpower the average man. $\endgroup$ – Piomicron May 15 '17 at 16:25

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