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Meet the Women Runners Breaking Barriers In India

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Photo: K. Aleisha Fetters

In India, "women don't run" is still a common refrain. Take a night in January 2017: Indian women in Bangalore hit the streets at midnight with a goal of taking back the streets and asserting their place in their hometown. The run was a protest against the mass molestation—countless women being groped and fondled, and running screaming from throngs of drunken predators—that had occurred in their city a few weeks prior. (Despite the whole ordeal being captured on video, no police reports were filed, according to the BBC.)

But that run never happened. The police shut them down before it could start.

Milind Soman, the founder of India's Pinkathon—a women-only race that's spread across the country—regularly heard the sentiment that "women don't run" when he was trying to launch Pinkathon in the early 2000s.

And in a lot of ways, it's true. Only about 15 percent of all runners in India are women, according to Ashok Nath, founder and president of the India Amateur Runners Trust. Only 11.76 percent of marathon participants in India are women. That figure sits at 45.15 percent in the U.S. And, according to Running USA, women make up 57 percent (yes, the majority!) of all running event finishers.

So why do so few Indian women run? Because they have every reason not to.

Getting Permission to Run

"Women here are taught that they don't matter outside of being a mother and wife," Soman says.

Many women in India do not have the full support of their husbands or their husbands' families to run. (It's customary for a woman and her husband to live with the husband's family or at least his parents.) "My husband used to ask, 'Why are you doing this?' He wouldn't want me running. He would want me with him and our children," says Anubha Srivastava, 43, a trained lawyer who cannot work because she doesn't speak the regional language of Bangalore, where her husband's work led their family. Now, Srivastava runs early in the morning so that she can return home before anyone's awake and needs her.

When Asima Sultana, 54, started running six years ago, she would also sneak out of the house in the early morning hours so no one would know. She lives with 15 members of her late husband's extended family. And while they now know that she runs, they believe that God judges her for taking off her hijab and running races—especially when they are coed.

Love Through Running

Veena Siyal, 49, always had the overwhelming support of husband, Lalith. In fact, she was the one who got him running. On a walk in Bangalore's Cubbon Park, she saw people wearing numbers on their stomachs and curiously asked them what they were doing. And if she was going to join a running group, Lalith was going to be by her side.

Siyal married her husband, Lalith, through an arranged marriage (India's cultural norm) at the age of 22. "After marriage, the love comes," Siyal says. "From day one, my husband was really loving, caring, but coming into running, it has multiplied again and again." The two do everything together. They travel the country running races hand-in-hand and spend anywhere from 6 to 10 kilometers together every morning before the sun even considers coming up.

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Photo: Mayur Chandranee Photography

"It is my routine. At 3:30 or 4 a.m. every day I get up, whether I went to bed at 12 a.m. or 1 a.m., and go for my run with my husband. It is how I can be with my passion of running and best take care of my in-laws," says Siyal, explaining that they live with her and her husband. "My first priority in life is my in-laws. They are very, very old and sick. Almost bedridden. I need to take care of them."

Her in-laws used to oppose her running. But over the years, they have found that it makes her a better, more energetic wife, mother, and caretaker. (Check out these 11 science-backed reasons running is really good for you.) They still, however, have asked to never see her wearing anything other than a sari—a compromise Siyal was happy to make to get their blessing. But it's rare to see a single Facebook picture in which she's not wearing shorts and running gear. (She notes that her in-laws aren't on Facebook!)

Safety On the Road

Still, safety is the ultimate concern. An average of 350 pedestrians are killed every year on Bangalore's roads, according to reports from the Bangalore Mirror. One study led by Johns Hopkins suggests that pedestrians make up 21 percent of all traffic fatalities in India.

A simple jog can quickly become an obstacle course race: "[Poor] road conditions, potholes on every 10th step, pollution of all sorts," says Bangalore runner Tanusree Dawn, 30.

In many Indian cities, including Bangalore (which is home to more than 8 million people), few, if any, sidewalks exist. Any sidewalks that runners can find? They tend to be crowded with everything from open-air barbershops to old ladies sweeping dirt with homemade hand brooms. And in India's infamous traffic, getting to the local park (if the city has one) can easily take an hour or more.

To keep traffic-related dangers to a minimum as well as to avoid gag-inducing smog (as many as 1.2 million people die in India every year due to air pollution, according to a 2017 Greenpeace India report), runners need to hit the road as early as 3 or 4 a.m., when women face dangers of another sort.

"Getting fresh air is getting more and more challenging nowadays in India," Dawn says. "But as of late, security for women has gotten worse in this city too." Dawn experiences a lot of inappropriate staring and pointing when she runs. "Men aren't used to seeing women running. I keep doing what I do and do not engage. I try to be careful."

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 33,707 rape cases were reported in India in 2013 alone. And if the fact that no reports were filed after Bangalore's mass molestation doesn't make it evident already, it's worth noting that many—if not most—rapes go unreported in India.

Money Matters

Despite all of the dangers women face when running outdoors, taking their runs indoors is rarely an option. According to one report, 0.5 percent of India's 1.3 billion people are enrolled in one of the country's mere 21,000 fitness centers. And according to one supplement company, gym enrollment—even in Bangalore, called "the Silicon Valley of India"—is less than a quarter female.

That's likely related to both the cost and the time involved. An annual gym membership of say, 12,000 rupees, is more than many people make in a year. In India, per capita income only recently crossed the benchmark of 100,000 rupees per year—the equivalent of about $1,500, according to The World Bank. Roughly one-third of India's population lives in slums that are "unfit for human habitation," according to census data.

Pinkathon ambassador Bhumika Patel, 42, notes that for many people in India, buying running attire and shoes is simply not an option.

The Next Strides Forward

Obstacles aside, women's running is growing in India. Take Pinkathon. It debuted in 2012 with 2,000 entrants and absolutely zero sponsors (remember, "women don't run") and has become India's largest female racing circuit. Today, Pinkathon has to cap registration for each of its eight cities at 10,000 women, and sponsors include big-name brands like Reebok. This year, the Bangalore event had its first legit two-day pre-race expo, complete with a good half-dozen stalls and pink goodie bags.

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Photo Flashbulbzz Photography

Pinkathon is also more than a one-off event. It's a year-round community that offers comprehensive training programs, social media outreach and support (the main Pinkathon Facebook page has more than 68,000 likes), and weekly meet-ups to run, learn from guest speakers, and ultimately, teach women the importance of self-care.

"It's all about giving women a safe place to run, and a community in which prioritizing themselves and their health is not only supported, but encouraged," Soman says.

 

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