From a 55-year-old gentleman in formal trousers and shirt to groups of chatty teens, hundreds turned out to reclaim the night at Bandra-Kurla Complex on Saturday night.
The Urban Feet – Run for Women’s Safety event was organised by not-for-profit organisation Akshara in association with Hindustan Times and fitness app UActiv from 11 pm onwards, to demand the right for all women to access public spaces at any time.
What was most heartening was the number of young men in the throng.
“What happened in Bangalore was painful. When I first heard about this run, I knew I had to participate because this is like a drop in the ocean of change that needs to come about. Let our voices be heard,” said Sheldon Rego, 27, fitness trainer from Andheri.
Most of the crowd echoed his sentiment, with women saying it was ‘not done’ that they could not run when they pleased.
Actors Shabana Azmi and Rahul Bose flagged off the run and expressed similar strong sentiments.
“The problem starts with parenting, when children aren’t taught that she and he are the same,” Bose said.
Azmi added that technology may help with our daily lives, but asked, “are we changing as humans?” “It needs to start with changes in the patriarchal mindset that says we need permission before stepping out,” she added.
Also present to run, or walk, in support of the cause were joint secretary (GAD) Suraj Mandhare, former additional chief secretary Chandra Iyengar, actor-singer Monica Dogra, and brand consultant Geeta Rao.
“The turnout has been overwhelming. The girls and boys from Akshara who ran said the experience has been more than enriching,” said Akshara co-founder Nandita Shah. “This is not the end of our fight. There will be more occasions and more voices will be heard.”
Akshara and HT have been campaigning consistently for women’s safety, starting with the Make Mumbai Safer for Women series of 2011, which included a comprehensive survey of sexual harassment of women in public spaces.
Four round-table discussions and a safety audit followed. By 2013, an online petition calling for well-lit spaces, more police chowkies, public toilets and other women-friendly measures had gained 30,000 signatories. It was submitted to the chief minister, and a number of the suggestions acted upon.
Saturday’s run was another step towards that effort, and for many, the cause was an urgent and straightforward one.
“We should fight for gender justice by first recognising that we are both equal,” said the gentleman in formal dress, 55-year-old Prashant Chavan.
Volunteers have a blast till 5 am
The run was completed by 2 am, but the night was just beginning for 90 Akshara volunteers who helped plan and execute the event.
A drive to south Mumbai — a first for many — selfies at Marine Drive and a talk on gender justice were on the cards.
It started with a session at the MMRDA pay-and-park in Bandra Kurla Complex, where former corporate communications manager Rakesh Singh, 44, from Delhi spoke about his journey cycling across rural India for the past 34 months to spread the message of gender equality and justice.“There are schools that make you an engineer or a doctor, but show me those that make rapists or molesters,” he said. “Education does not guarantee humanity.” After the 45-minute talk, they all climbed on board a double-decker BEST bus, sang Bollywood songs and, with special permission, drove across the Bandra-Worli sealink . They hooted and danced on the Marine Drive promenade, taking pictures of each other, forming a human chain and holding up banners on women’s rights.
Stragglers stopped to clap along, and later to watch an impromptu garba session.
At 5 am, they headed back to the Akshara centre in Lower Parel. “It was an experience I will never forget,” said Vidyawati Verma, 20, a Commerce student.
“We need to make Mumbai safe. I want to help,” said Aditya Singh, 21, engineering student.
‘Will I own these streets tomorrow too?’
These streets are mine. To run, walk and pose for selfies as I please. At least, for one night, they were mine. And, boy, did it feel good to run around an empty Bandra-Kurla Complex on a nice, nippy night — without having to worry about men staring at my legs or calling me names, pinning me to the ground, attacking me and probably getting away with it.
Tomorrow, there will be no kind policemen to stop traffic for us; no fellow Mumbaiites who’ll stop everything to cheer us on. And these streets won’t be mine any more.
I won’t be able to go for a midnight run after a long day at work. All the ineffectual rules that our society forces women to follow will be back.
Akshara’s run to reclaim the streets for women was a strong statement made by hundreds of women and men who came together to dream of a future when women would be able to walk about freely.
It’s a beautiful goal; a goal we need to seriously work towards. Because enough time has gone by. There’ve been enough excuses. Our daughters must not think it remarkable or unique. They, at least, must run whenever they feel like it. And take the road for granted. — Vishwadha Chander (email@example.com)
‘Yes, you can do it’
As soon as I’d signed up for my first-ever midnight run, I had second thoughts.
Running 7 km after work while still recovering from a Christmas-New Year binge seemed over-ambitious. But it was for a cause — to demand for all women the freedom to move around the city at any time. And I couldn’t say no to that.
At the meeting point in BKC, I got all the motivation I needed from the cheering of the crowds. And all along the way, there was quiet encouragement — ‘Hey, great going!’, ‘Just a few kilometres more’ and also ‘Speed up if you want to get home early’.
Random security guards clapped softly; they seemed confused, but all for it. Zipping cars slowed and sometimes stopped to let us pass.
We were a community — groups of chattering youngsters jogging in sync, some like me running solo, serious runners timing every kilometre.
Just when I thought my legs would give way, an elderly woman jogged past me, murmuring breathlessly, ‘Yes, you can do it’. She may have meant it for herself, but it kept me going.
I wish there were more people to say that to Mumbai’s women. I wish there were more yeses, and fewer nos.
As I jogged, then walked and finally staggered across the finish line, I wasn’t sure I’d want to do this again any time soon — but I was certain that I wanted any woman who wanted to run, jog, walk or sprint, to be able to do so. And for that, I’d enlist again tomorrow. — Shobha Surin (firstname.lastname@example.org)