When most people think about street harassment, they think about what women wear or about how women should respond to catcalls. But there are other, more subtle, effects of street harassment and how it affects women’s existence in public space. Recently, The Wall Street Journal noted that only 11 percent of the participants in India’s Delhi Half Marathon were female and one of the reasons they gave for why women in India don’t run is the “stares and calls from drivers, cyclists and pedestrians.” In other words, women don’t go outside to exercise when they live in fear of street harassment.
India isn’t alone in this problem: many women in America report similar issues keeping them from running or exercising outside. In urban areas, women who want to run or jog often have to do so down busy streets or past large groups of gawkers. In suburban and rural areas, female runners have to be careful to avoid secluded areas where they may not feel secure. At the college I attended, many female students would only run at an indoor track because a few years ago a student had been raped and murdered while on an early morning jog. Crack open an issue of Cosmo any given month and you’ll probably read a scare-tactic-filled article about a woman who got killed or attacked while out for a run. And how many episodes of “SVU” start with a woman’s body being discovered in Central Park?
When streets aren’t safe for women, they’re not safe for women athletes. Forcing women out of public space and into contained areas “for their own protection” has been a big part of the history of sexism. That doesn’t happen so much anymore in 2012. So it sucks then that women who genuinely want to exercise for their own health (and that’s to say nothing of women who are pressured to get in shape and lose weight in order to be attractive and feel valued) are put off by exercising outdoors where men comment on their workout attire and their bodies. We tend to think of equal rights in sports and by extension, exercise, through Title IX, the law which make sure that mens’ and womens’ sports get equal funding. But we have to broaden how we make women and girls feel included in sports and that begins long before school starts by ensuring girls feel safe running in her neighborhoods. Most athletes discover their aptitude for a sport when they’re young. How many women will never reach their full potential because they had to spend childhoods hiding inside to avoid street harassers?
We still need classrooms, op-ed pages, and dinner tables to suss out the principles we believe in and the change we want to see. But the street has always been the most egalitarian place where that social change actually happens; there’s a reason that protesters use the phrase “taking to the streets.” In Rebecca Solnit’s excellent book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, she delves into the role that the street has played in everyday conversation. Think, for example, of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, who walk in a public square every day to remind people about the atrocities committed during the country’s Dirty War. A simple activity — a walk in public — becomes political activism.
What we need to do now is take to the streets and make it safe for women to run — run, not run away.