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In a country steeped in patriarchal traditions, women are taking to the streets and running toward a better future.
The sun rises over Bangalore. Light refracts off of glitzy high rises, dappling the Old World stone structures that are a hallmark of this city. The stores are still shuttered and the traffic isn’t yet the jam it will be in a few hours. Temple bells chime, mingling with the tinny hum of a Bollywood song on a lone radio. The smell of incense swirls in the air with heady jasmine and bougainvillea.
This is the scene that greets dozens of runners as they make their way through the city streets. In a country that still deems sports in general (and running in particular) as largely unfeminine, increasingly, these runners are women. Despite a culture steeped in tradition that discourages women’s rights, an increasing number of Indian women of different ages, socio-economic backgrounds and ethnic and religious communities are now lacing up their sneakers, casting aside convention and forging ahead to break age-old stereotypes as they embrace running as their sport of choice.
“Running is really coming of age for Indian women,” says Natasha Ramarathnam, a 41-year-old mother of two who began running in Bangalore five years ago to challenge herself and soon “fell in love with the sport and the ‘high.’” In the past few years, Ramarathnam has noticed an increase in the number of women joining her in the streets.
India today is in the midst of a sea of change. The massive influx of capital that has poured into the country in recent years has resulted in a host of economic and social shifts. But the country continues to maintain its ancient beauty, as can be witnessed in the perfect architecture of the Taj Mahal and lavish Hindu temples. At the same time, cities like Mumbai and Bangalore are developing into hip, swinging urban centers as shopping malls mushroom across the nation.
While the country is currently rated the fourth most dangerous place for women in the world and 45 percent of girls are married before the age of 18, India elected its first female president in 2007—a sign of progress the United States has yet to witness. It’s in this space between oppressive traditions and an optimistic future that women have began to use running as a means to express their independence.
In cities like Bangalore, Mumbai and the Indian capital New Delhi, a real running culture is developing. Purvi Sheth, a Mumbaibased executive who has been a runner for four years says it’s getting easier for women to find places to run and races to compete in. For example, she witnessed the country’s first-ever women’s half marathon in 2012. This March, the Stayfree DNA I Can Women’s Half Marathon welcomed hundreds of women to enjoy a safe running environment while raising money to reduce female illiteracy, battle sexual harassment and increase awareness about cervical cancer.
Because many Indian women feel unsafe running outdoors, Sheth explains, they consider the sport off limits. Running groups and women-only events give females the security they need to lace up their shoes. Runner Girls India (RGI), a support network for female runners, launched in Bangalore in 2007 with just seven women. Today, RGI boasts over 300 members and has expanded to almost every major Indian city, as well as overseas.
RGI’s co-founder Naina Lal says, “Our members are everyday women of all ages, sizes, shapes and athletic abilities. Our common objective is to inspire women in India to run for fun and for fitness.” Lal explains that running with others is the best way for women to counter any potential safety issues. The relaxed environment also encourages women to share knowledge, experiences and concerns related to running.
Once a month, the group holds girls-only runs that Lal calls “fun, social and non-competitive” events open to women who are experienced runners and those who have never run before. “Typically, we meet at a pre-decided location and members just show up and run with us,” she says.
RGI also encourages its members to form small groups based on running ability that are open to both sexes. Bangalore-based runner Ramarathnam vouches the running groups not only help women bond, but also encourage men to respect their female peers. “Many male runners go out of their way to help women feel safe and they make sure we’re not running alone on lonely stretches,” she says. “All runners, male and female, work together to overcome the challenges we face.”
For Deepthi Prasanna, the camaraderie of the running groups in India proved to be just the right platform to take control of her life. Prasanna, an IT professional, moved to Bangalore from the United States in 2008 after her father passed away. She found running to be the perfect vehicle to give her life direction, and says that it was easy to grow as a runner with the support of RGI.
“I went from running zero to running seven half marathons in one year and one marathon the next year, just with the encouragement and enthusiasm of the runners around me,” she says.
Now that she has moved back to the States, Prasanna continues to run. She admits that while she “misses the social connections and the bonds that came along with running in Bangalore,” she will never forget the lessons she took away from her time with RGI. “Running in Bangalore has created the foundation for me to run throughout my life,” Prasanna says.
Ramarathnam believes strong bonds between women runners will support the growth of the sport. She notes that many Indian women are worried what others will say if they’re seen running. But she is confident that this mindset, will change over time, particularly if women see more females on the roads. “Indian women need role models,” Ramarathnam says. “After I started running in my neighborhood park, at least seven women walkers have switched to running.”
Ramarathnam remembers one day when a young, burqa-clad Muslim woman came up to her in the park. The woman asked, “Can I run with you? I am too shy to run on my own but I would like to try.” Ramarathnam happily agreed.
“We started running together and she was bitten by the running bug,” says Ramarathnam. “She now runs on her own every day, and although she still wears her burqa because she is not allowed to leave the house without it, she makes it seem like a genuine running garment.”