Runner Anjana Mohan talks about how running is a tool of empowerment for women.
Empowerment means the ability to make decisions for yourself; to own your choices regarding how you act, dress, conduct yourself, hold your body or define your role in society. Running is a sport that offers empowerment at multiple levels, addressing every one of these choices.
Although societal limitations affect both genders (men are emasculated when they show emotion, for example) women face significantly robust, damaging, internalized and intersectional limitations on a massive scale that manifests in some form in every run.
Women are celebrated as caregivers who create and sustain domestic spaces for their families. A runner takes time for herself regularly and justifies the time away from these demands by actively practicing the belief that she is worth it. Women’s bodies are sexualized and critiqued. Even when allowed fitness, Indian women are expected to keep their moving muscles indoors or safely hidden behind flowing fabric. The outdoor runner takes conscious charge of her own body. With her every appearance in dry-fit leggings, sports bra, or salwar kameez, she creates subtle changes in her own mind and those in her network.
Competition is considered un-ladylike, and femininity associated with grace, poise, and self-control. The runner must engage with her body beyond these expectations. Her determination must manifest in her muscles. The athlete’s sense of internal competition must be cultivated rather than surrendered to graciousness. In her sport, she can be human first: free from femininity, free to sweat, free to grimace, free to cry from the dopamine delight of her own fatigue.
Every run is a rebellion, every step an act of micro-activism, setting new norms for herself and everyone she encounters. Her training is far beyond the miles on her feet. She nurtures and develops her own dignity when she learns to ignore the oglers. She owns her choice on keeping or removing her mangal sutra to avoid a sweat rash. She determines her destiny in deciding to wear shorts despite unwaxed legs. She elevates her own worth in being willing to ask for help packing lunch boxes after her workout.
Men who run alongside women unconsciously offer their own freedoms. Is she running for a personal best or the Ladhak half, they inquire. She was running just to be fit or escape her chores, but new realms of possibilities open. “Improvement in time”, she owns her answer. Neither her smaller lungs, smaller heart, lower hemoglobin count or VO2Max, less efficient hip width, muscle density or muscle building capacity nor shorter stride length matter. She and her male running buddies are on equal footing with respect to the mental capacity they must manifest to conquer endurance.
The woman runner is re-shaping what it means to be a woman. In every decision associated with the sport, she changes herself and society along with her. Somewhere between the start and the finish line we stop celebrating a woman’s superior ability to conform to society’s stereotypes and celebrate instead her ability to break them.