“So this guy was following you? In his car?”
“What did you do?”
“The usual. Yelled at him. He sped off.”
WhatsApp tells me my best friend is typing his response. I already know he’ll tell me to go to the cops. I just want to vent some more and call it a day.
“I don’t get it, baba! I was wearing running pants and that loose Hyderabad marathon t-shirt.”
“As if it’s ok for some guy to follow you for a kilometre if you wear shorts and a tight tee.”
Fuck. Did I just accidentally slut-shame myself?
When I read The Hunger Games, I thought of women in India. In its own way, on some days, living here can feel like a survival contest. You have to be constantly aware of your surroundings. Know how to defend yourself. Be able to quickly judge who means to harm you and who’s a saviour. When to duck and where to hide. How to dodge groping, pinching, and grazing hands when you least suspect them. Which lanes have street lights and which ones to never, ever walk. The intricate, delicate art of the late-night fake phone call.
I don’t mean to say I get harassed every day. Nobody does. But by the time we graduated school, all of my female friends and I had been through enough incidents to be afraid and jaded. You are a tribute and there is no Liam Hemsworth. It’s a bummer.
So it baffles even me that I ended up becoming an amateur long-distance runner.
Running is opposed to every single rule of being a Good Indian Woman. To begin with, it’s selfish. It’s detached from your husband’s, parents’, and children’s comforts and ambitions. When I run, I’m not benefiting a single other person. I’m chasing a high. Can you think of anything less ladylike? As if that wasn’t bad enough, running means leaving your family and being out of your home for hours at a stretch. It means dressing for comfort, not for modesty or sanskaar. It means sweating, bouncing, and forgetting dignity in public spaces. It means pounding open roads at 6:30am while your mother-in-law stays home wanting her morning chai.
Like every transgression of womanhood, running comes with its punishments.
In the four years since I bought my first pair of serious (read: expensive) running shoes, I’ve been groped, hit, pulled, pushed, stalked, videotaped, and photographed, all against my will. Every incident has ended in rage or tears, never much else.
I was running in the outskirts of Bangalore when a man on a motorcycle hit my butt hard as he passed me. The force threw me off the road. I ran to catch up with my friends, swallowed my tears during breakfast, and later broke down in my bathroom. He’d left a bruise and it hurt to shower.
Another time, a man impersonated a city marathon organiser to talk to me. He had seen me at a race, tracked down my number, and called me when I was attending a friend’s wedding. The call transitioned too quickly from talk of races, to talk of meeting for coffee. When I pressed him about his marathon credentials, he finally copped to the fact that he was pretending to be an organiser to talk to me. Apparently he’d seen me run a race in my Arsenal jersey and decided I was his “soul mate”. When I realised he was an imposter, I asked him to leave me alone. He then yelled at me for “showing too much attitude”, told me to shut the fuck up, and reminded me I wasn’t beautiful enough to be so headstrong.
Once, while I was on a run in broad daylight, a man followed me on his bike, grabbed my breasts and squeezed them hard, and sped away before I could react. I noticed his ID card, the same one worn by many IT employees in the area, myself included. I knew he must work in a neighbouring office. I forced myself through the workday; I didn’t want to make a fuss in front of my colleagues.
I also remember, while I was running up the famous Nandi Hills alone, a group of visibly drunk guys on bikes slowed down, took out their phones, and started video-recording me as I ran. (I pray, to this day, that I haven’t ended up on some running fetish porn site or subreddit.) After that, they tried running me off the mountain. They laughed as I cowered, scared. And then – you guessed it – they sped away.
I’ve cut down my solo runs to the bare minimum. When I do embark on one, I carry my phone and a tiny pepper spray that looks like a keychain, I avoid eye contact, I don’t wear my running shorts, and I make sure I let someone know where I’m going before I take off. I just don’t want to take chances.
In contrast, my male runner friends don’t think twice heading out for night runs, a luxury that’s completely out of the question for their female counterparts. They choose their running clothes based on comfort alone. As far as I know, none of them have ever had their balls groped in the middle of a run, no matter how short their shorts. For a male runner in India, the biggest threat is that dogs sometimes chase you early in the morning. But dogs don’t discriminate. They chase us too.
So it will come as no surprise that male runners far outnumber females in India’s amateur running circuits. A lot of men sincerely want to encourage more women running. But understanding and implementing the change that requires – making the streets, the country, and indeed the world safer for women – is out of their grasp.
I used to talk openly about the harassment, but I stopped when I realised it made people uncomfortable. One well-intentioned male runner even asked me, albeit very politely, why such incidents occur exclusively to me. He reasoned that it must be a problem only I face, because other women he’d run with never spoke about it.
It was a fair assumption. Most women runners, myself included, work to maintain a positive narrative around our hobby. On my Facebook page, I see sweaty post-run selfies, split timings, happy brags about Personal Bests, pleas for contributions towards charity runs, and photos of running shoes on streets, but not much else. I don’t dare talk too much about these incidents to my parents; I know they're already worried and this would push them into a state of more or less constant panic.
In private, the story is different. In quieter moments (and usually in the absence of men), my female friends have opened up about moments when they’ve felt violated during runs. I’ve heard some horrifying stories. But we keep quiet because we have learned to adjust. We don’t want to be seen as “difficult”. We’re just grateful we get to show up.
People in my life who aren’t runners often wonder why I do what I do. My mother often notes that I am a masochist, just like all other runners she knows.
“Who in their right mind would wake up at an ungodly hour just to run for 25 kilometres?” my grandmother wonders.
Maybe they’re right.
But, like all true passions, running becomes an addiction. At every race I have participated in, I have seen men and women of all ages and sizes burst into tears of happiness when they cross the finish line. The run validates us. Our problems don’t go away because we run, but they do feel manageable. In a world where most of us lead nondescript lives, running is our chance to feel like we’ve achieved greatness.
Moreover, in a country where women’s body image is fraught and policed by all and sundry, running is an intensely personal way to get familiar with your own physicality. It does wonders for your self-esteem. Instead of measuring your body’s value by how it looks, you get to feel yourself becoming faster, better, stronger.
Women deserve access to these joys as much as anybody else does.
Hopefully, as more of us hit the streets and claim public spaces as our own, it will become easier for each of us to show up to the start line with our shoes laced up ready for a race. There’s always the hope. There’s only the hope.
In the meantime, if you see a woman running alone, step out of her way. Don’t stare, but feel free to smile or nod. Let her feel the same ownership as you do over her open roads, her country, her world.
Ladies, it’s an honour and privilege to run alongside each and every one of you.