Tayebeh Alirezaee runs almost every day around the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn.
She runs for the fitness, happiness and the great outdoors — but some of those runs, and the onslaught of harassment that has come with them, have left their mark.
“[Once] this guy popped out … and was avoiding eye contact with me, few seconds after I looked back and realised that he had changed his direction and now is following me,” she says.
“I ran as hard as I could and called the police as soon as I was in safety — I run to be happy and when it becomes a scary experience it just doesn’t make sense anymore.
“For a few weeks I was scared to go running and I hated the world, once I even cried talking to a friend as I thought I was getting tired of being a woman in this world.”
Bec Humphries, a Brisbane-based runner, no longer exercises after dark by herself.
“I never worried about whether it was dark when I went running until I was out for a run one night around 8:00pm and I got followed by a man in a car,” she says.
“I didn’t even realise until I stopped to tie my shoes and the car stopped and he wound his window down and asked me if I wanted a lift in return for a favour.
“I have never felt so terrified and I ran to a house with the lights on and the family that lived there gave me a lift home.”
Mother-of-three Kim Cayzer has run in Brisbane, Canberra and Sydney and said she had experienced “non-stop harassment”.
“I’ve had guys run alongside me to smack my arse. I have had men run behind me chanting ‘I see you baby, shaking that arse’,” she said.
‘It is a highly gender-based experience’
But the experiences of these women are far from unique.
The study also found that 63 per cent of women ran where they felt it was unlikely they would encounter a person who might harm them, and 41 per cent ran where they thought they would be less likely to received unsolicited attention.
For men, the figures were 23 per cent and 9 per cent, respectively.
Thirty per cent of women reported being followed by someone — and 18 per cent had been sexually propositioned while out running.
The Runner’s World study took place in the United States, but Bianca Fileborn, research fellow at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University, said these intrusions were a problem everywhere, including in Australia.
“I think we do need to need to be conceptualising it as a form of sexual violence and violence against women because it is a highly gender-based experience,” she said.
Although there has not been any Australian research into the harassment of runners, Professor Fileborn said research suggested 90 per cent of women had experienced harassment at least once, with most experiencing it on a weekly or monthly basis.
Harassment often dismissed as ‘a compliment’
Professor Fileborn said harassment — while often dismissed as relatively “minor” — could have a significant impact on women.
“I think that’s something that’s really important to talk about because it is something that tends to be dismissed as some minor or trivial or, you know, ‘it’s a compliment’ or ‘it’s just a bit of friendly banter’,” she said.
Sydney runner Belinda Ramsay said she was yelled and whistled at by a car full of high-school-aged boys while she was running recently.
“[It] made me feel both physically threatened as well as uncomfortable and self-conscious,” she said.
Professor Fileborn said the cumulative impact of harassment over time could be particularly harmful.
“It’s not just that women are experiencing this once … it’s that they’re experiencing it on a weekly, monthly, sometimes even daily basis, so it’s that repeated experience again and again and again that can be quite harmful,” she said.
Other women, like Melanie Zeppel, feel angry and indignant.
“I tend to get angry and just say, f*** you, I’m going to run anyway, you’re the idiot,” the Sydney runner said.
‘If I’m running by myself, it’s like I’m fair game’
But Professor Fileborn said one the most significant impacts harassment could have was the way women accessed public space — and society’s response to that.
The Runner’s World report into harassment came on the back of an essay, The Problem is Not Women Running Alone, which generated a massive response
Meghan Kita wrote the essay in response to the murders of three young female runners
“I’m already doing everything I’m willing and able to do to stay safe on a run — forgoing headphones, avoiding certain routes, exploring others only when I’m with a group,” she wrote.
“But that hasn’t stopped men from honking at me, catcalling me, or following me in their cars. And if those men are disrespectful enough to honk, catcall, or follow, how am I to know that they won’t grab, rape, or kill?”
Professor Fileborn said harassment caused many women to restrict or change their behaviours.
With her runs squeezed between full-time work and family duties, Ms Alirezaee often ends up exercising around dawn or dusk.
“I run in different routes in my daily runs, I change the colours of my clothes, mix my running for cycling and run in different places,” she said.
“I always have my phone with me and for very long, remote places I take a spot tracker for my husband to track me online.”
Ms Humphries said she only ran after dark if she had company, “preferably male or a couple of my female friends”.
“I’ve never been catcalled or harassed when I’m running with my male friend but when I’m with my female friends it’s a fairly regular occurrence having men yell gross things from their cars or honk at us,” she said.
Ms Zeppel echoed this sentiment: “When there’s men in the group, it’s like you’re safe, but if I’m running by myself, it’s like they seem to think I’m fair game.”
‘It’s not up to women to stop men from doing things’
Although these measures may make women feel like they are making themselves safer, Professor Fileborn said actively telling women to take safety precautions merely “puts the onus back on women to stop men’s bad behaviour”.
“[It’s] really, really problematic … It’s not up to women to stop men from doing things,” she said.
“Men are actually quite capable of not harassing women, so we really need to be putting the onus back on the people who are perpetrating the behaviour.”
Ms Zeppel said she experienced a stream of advice after a series of attacks on women near where she lived.
“A lot of my friends were saying ‘be careful, don’t run by yourself, don’t run in the dark, blah, blah, blah’,” she said.
“That just made me angry. I was like: ‘This is my health and exercise. He’s the idiot who needs to change his behaviour, not me.'”
Ms Cayzer, too, said she felt “pissed off” by the advice thrown her way.
And Ms Alirezaee said: “If men can freely run — so many of them with minimal clothing in warm days — what we wear should have no impact on our sense of safety or respect.”
Free To Be connects young women with policy makers
But putting an end to harassment is not easy.
Professor Fileborn said the main efforts to address harassment in Australia had been “informal, activist actions” including Hollaback! in Sydney and Safer Spaces in Melbourne.
“[I’d like to see] some kind of educative and public awareness campaigns that do seek to challenge that idea that it’s not serious — I think that’s really essential because I think that’s one of the biggest problems at the moment, it is just dismissed as trivial and insignificant,” she said.
PLAN International Australia is attempting to remedy this with its website, Free To Be.
“We wanted a tool that didn’t already exist, that would make young women feel like they could speak up, tell their stories, report things that were happening,” the website’s Australia campaigns officer Zoe Condliffe said.
Website exposes ‘layer of everyday experience’
PLAN intends to expand Free To Be — an extension of Safer Cities, which aims to make cities safer for girls and young women — internationally.
“Councils obviously do a lot of surveys but what we were noticing was a lot of the reality of women’s experiences just wasn’t cutting through in those surveys,” Ms Condliffe said.
“The ultimate goal is that it would be an app that girls could use everywhere and that key decision-makers would be involved with so that we could use that continuous data that comes in to make cities better and safer for young women, and that women can use it to inform how they use the city.”
She said the website had “unearthed this layer of everyday experience that most women would relate to”.
“It’s not just one story over here or this kind of anecdotal story that can be rationalised in various ways — it’s actually showing a map and going, ‘this isn’t something that happens occasionally to one women here, it’s actually something that’s happening all the time, in real spaces to all sorts of women’,” she said.
Professor Fileborn said encouraging men to call out harassment was also key to combatting the behaviour.
“A lot of the time there’s guys in their car with all their mates and they’re doing it to show off, so it would be great to encourage those friends to be like, ‘actually, I think you’re a bit of a dickhead’,” she said.
This post originally appeared on ABC News.
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