Recently, a video went viral on social media that showed a woman working out in her building gym being attacked by a man. She put up a fight, managed to break free of his grasp and was able to escape before any serious harm was done. This may seem like a bizarre, one-off incident, but the fact remains that women often feel uncomfortable in the gym: nearly 3/4th of them, in fact, according to a 2021 survey carried out by Sheffield fitness firm DNA Lean.
Finding a safe space, even for something as routine as exercise and sport, is the reason why women-only fitness communities and spaces exist. Take, for instance, Sisters in Sweat, a sports and fitness start-up, that seeks to provide a community for women to feel safe and secure while they enjoy sports, exercises and activities of their choice with other women. Or Pink Fitness, which has multiple branches across South India and Mumbai, also seeks to help women train, meet their fitness goals and get stronger in a safe environment. And yes, let us not forget the women-only race, Pinkathon, organised by Maximus Mice and Media Solutions Pvt Ltd, co-founded by fitness aficionado Milind Soman. The event grew so popular that within just years of its launch, there were multiple cities hosting the race with thousands of women taking to the streets on race day.
Tanvie Hans, a former Tottenham Hotspurs footballer and co-founder of Sisters in Sweat, says, “There isn’t a single woman who hasn’t experienced some form of harassment at least once in their lifetime,” she says, recalling a recent incident where she was whistled at and cat-called while cycling in Bengaluru wearing a sleeveless lycra vest. “A lot of men don’t make women feel comfortable when they are in a sports bra or a sleeveless in gyms too,” says Hans. While she herself doesn’t mind working out in a regular gym, even if there are men around her, she agrees that not all women feel comfortable doing so, a sentiment echoed by Kolkata-based businesswoman Payal Chopra. “Not all men make you feel uncomfortable but there are some who definitely do. And as a woman why would I not seek a safe space to workout, exercise, play sports or, for that matter, anything I do?” asks Chopra.
Another reason that women seek safe spaces like an all-woman gym or workout group is that they feel conscious about their bodies, shape, and size and about being judged. “Not all women who go to the gym are skinny. A lot of women who go to the gym feel vulnerable because they are going there to lose weight or inches. That is why everyone wants to work out in a space where you can look and feel comfortable just the way you are,” says Chopra, adding that there are often men who judge your body, even passing nasty comments about it in many gyms. Safe spaces are important for women so that they can work out and play sports without feeling threatened, belittled or told off. “You don’t want other people’s judgmental eyes on you when you are working out,” says Chopra.
Hans says part of the fault lies in the culture prevalent to this day that has groomed all of us to think of playing sports and lifting weights as not womanly. This viewpoint is changing, and fast: the launch of the Women’s Premier League and the rise of women’s football worldwide proves as much. The reason Sisters in Sweat came into existence was that there was a demand among women to play sports and lift weights. “Back in 2017 shortly after I had moved to Bengaluru from Delhi a friend’s friend asked me if I could teach her and her girlfriends to play football one weekend,” recalls Hans. “My co-founder Shweta and I designed a warm-up, exercise, and football drills routine followed by a short game for the 17 women that weekend. The sessions continued every weekend for about one-and-a-half years and we had close to 400 women. That’s when we decided to make it our business and started Sisters in Sweat.”
Hans believes that it is the controlled environment that women get in groups such as theirs and in women-only gyms that makes them feel safe and comfortable enough to be active; that is what makes such spaces important, she adds. And yes, it isn’t just about safety but about creating communities. “It is a place where women meet other women with similar interests and make new friends. It’s the community aspect of such active groups that also draws women to these spaces,” says Hans.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.