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.