BEIRUT: Julie Davidson wants a pair of running shorts with “aib” (“shame”) printed across the rear.
The 29-year-old, who is currently training for the Beirut Marathon, says the idea arose “from the fact that every time I run past a group of men I can usually see them point me out to one another to make sure they all noticed me, then they all turn and look as I go past.”
Describing this unwanted attention as “annoying,” Davidson fantasizes about sending these men a message, but she and many other female runners like her, allow neither harassment nor the myriad other challenges of running in Lebanon to deter them from the sport.
“We love to run,” says Lily Bejjani, a 32-year-old who since running a 6-km race in Sidon last April has claimed a 5-km and two 10-km victories in her age category.
Bejjani, who is also preparing for November’s marathon, trains six mornings a week with fellow runner Karla Jabbour in the mountains of Broummana and once a week with the Elite Running Club in Beirut.
“Running gives us the boost for the day, the energy to carry on and it makes us accept all the other things that are frustrating throughout the day,” she says.
However, while she loves the sport and has nothing but positive things to say about the running club, on the subject of safety Bejjani is forthright: “Anywhere we run at any time we are putting our lives at risk because drivers have no concept of what we are doing.”
She also lists dogs, nasty garbage smells and exhaust fumes as factors that compromise her safety, and, she adds, “Every car that passes, if a man is inside, they make a comment at us.”
Bejjani deals with these comments simply by ignoring them. “We don’t even listen. We don’t pay attention to anything or anyone,” she says, but she adds that “there are also some very nice people, who work at gas stations and stores, who encourage us throughout the run.”
Jabbour echoes her training partner’s sentiments. “In Lebanon you cannot feel safe [while running],” she says, “except in races when they close the roads.”
Of unwanted male attention, she acknowledges that it is a constant accompaniment when she runs here. Even when she runs with a big group on the Corniche there are men that whistle and comment, she says. But Jabbour adds, “It’s not a big deal.”
However, Jabbour confesses that she is more comfortable running in company. “You feel relaxed when you are with someone, not when you’re alone,” she says.
Indeed, Mariam Haidar Hammouda, a fitness instructor, marathon runner and the senior sports development officer with the Beirut Marathon Association, contends that for women “it is usually safer to run in groups.” And, beyond giving extra security, running in groups is simply “more productive,” she argues.
“You are always challenged and there is someone there to help in times of need,” Haidar Hammouda says. “In addition, running in groups creates friendships and solidarity.”
She is also keen to highlight that “women are always prone to verbal harassment in Lebanon” and it is not simply women who run that are targeted. Indeed, she says that this type of harassment is something that is never mentioned by the women she meets as training coordinator for the marathon association. Haidar Hammouda personally chooses to listen to music while running “to avoid hearing anything.”
She’s also eager to focus on the positives rather than the negatives: “There are a lot of positive factors in running in Beirut. I feel safer running here that I would in Boston or New York. Women should be encouraged to run,” she says.
“When we’re trying to protect women here, we’re often also scaring them off,” she continues, but, she adds, “running the streets of Beirut is not only liberating, it’s empowering.”
For some though, running in the city is less an empowering experience than it is an exercise in avoiding danger.
Heather McGuffin is a noncompetitive runner. She runs alone “three or four times a week, for about 20-30 minutes.”
“I’m not very regular about it,” she says, but adds that she chooses to run because “I feel better when I’m physically stronger and fitter, and it’s the best way I know to reduce stress and clear my head.”
However, in terms of safety, McGuffin says that if she feels safe it’s because she has chosen “a route that allows me to feel that way.”
McGuffin avoids the Corniche because she’s heard from friends that the “staring and comments from men make it uncomfortable.” She also gave up running along the sidewalk by the highway because she felt it was too isolated in places to be safe.
McGuffin has ruled out other routes due to the traffic and exhaust fumes, and now mostly tries to keep her runs to the “small, winding streets in a residential neighborhood not far from where I live.”
“You want to be comfortable or you won’t stick with it, so that means trying different routes and so on until you find what works best for you. Common sense regarding safety is as important here as it is anywhere.”
Haidar Hammouda also seconds this: “As a woman, I take precautions when I run as I would do in any outdoor activity.”
Verbal harassment “is usually avoided when running with a male runner,” she says, as she advises women that it’s “usually always safer to run in groups” and recommends that at night women run in well-lit and crowded areas.
However, Davidson says the most brazen individuals who harass her as she jogs past remain undeterred even if she has company.
“The weird thing is that they do this even when I’m running with a male friend,” she says.
“They will position themselves so that they are on my ‘free’ side and then they will whisper perverted things into my ear as I go past.”