Holi should stop being an excuse to sexually harass women

Published: March 24, 2016

Consent is what needs to be addressed on Holi. Pichkari, gulaal, sexual innuendoes are fine only if the person is willing to play with you. Otherwise, do not bully them. PHOTO: AP

Delhi in the month of March is really a beautiful city – the weather is mildly cool and the sun is not that sharp. One would expect that more tourists would visit the place during springtime for whiffs of fresh air. In short, peaceful sites to travel around, before the hot winds begin. But surprisingly, in this month, you will find anything but peace on the streets.

This is a different kind of war I am hinting at – those who have booked their tickets for the hills to flee from the Holi horror show know exactly what I am talking about. More and more people who have been bullied in the past by water balloons or have memories of the same, prefer to spend their Holi festive weekend far away from the capital.

The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of Holi is not colours. It is a panic preparation manual that my seniors passed it over to me.

“Open your wardrobe of black-coloured clothes”, they said.

“Carry a very sturdy umbrella” they said.

“Make sure not to wear a saree or leave any part exposed”, they said.

Water balloons hurt like hell. When thrown around your ear by hooligans (who have become professional in this trade, thanks to no police action), they can make you go deaf for life. Yes, it is that lethal!

Over the last few years, I have seen a steady rise in safety kits prescribed for women travellers during Holi. This is not to say that only women go through terrible harassment. On Holi, it is too important to rather point out the ridiculous need of these kits. How are these tips any different from what we are traditionally told to prevent from being molested in public spaces, for instance? Most importantly, why can’t we take very serious action against these bullies in the month of March? Why is hooting and throwing a balloon full of eggs and sperms without one’s consent not a criminal offence? Why doesn’t consent matter at all?

Holi hain, madam, gussa kyu karti ho?”

(It is Holi, Madam, why be angry?)

But here’s the hard truth: They want to hit you with a balloon in your private parts irrespective of the Holi allowance card. A festival which was meant for consensual teasing of social rigidities has actually become a tool for bullying women into unavoidable drenching.

Apart from the streets, in family functions, Holi aided by bhang is taken as an excuse to grope women. A lot of Bollywood cinema has depicted the lewd nature of “playing Holi”. In Darr: A Violent Love Story(1993), Shah Rukh Khan (Rahul) uses Holi colours as a mask for his face and grabs Juhi Chawla by the wrist to spread gulaal to utter his disturbing, iconic line,

“Happy Holi, K-K-K-Kiran”.

There is a strong implied message here:

 “Rahul could have done much more with Holi being the license to do so”.

Other films like Silsila come very close to portraying sexual fear and transgression during Holi.

Next is the example of Meenakshi Sheshadri, who is witness to a rape scene in the film Damini (1993) on the eve of Holi. The victim, her maid, (who dies eventually) doesn’t consent to colours being thrown at her by Meenakshi’s brother-in-law and friends.

Youngsters on bhang like the ones in Damini think they are unstoppable on Holi. The terrifying rise in sexual crimes on Holi is due to this factor. Since the common understanding is that rules are relaxed during this festival, bhang becomes a garb to release the monster in you. What could have been a day for women to subvert social hierarchies becomes a festival of fear. The city’s police might not come to your rescue because of the social consent prevalent regarding the festival.

Holi hain, aap bhi khel lo

(It is Holi, why don’t you play it too?)

My question to you is: Since when did Holi become a festival where loosening of social rules only meant sexual harassment? Is it not a violation of human rights to humiliate one physically by throwing colours without his/her consent? Whoever is allowing this Holi mass-bullying with the pretext of mythology surely doesn’t know how to understand myths at all. What is worse, this harassing tradition will very soon become the only version of Holi. The ones who will resist it will perhaps have to hide forever under their beds to escape colours. Holi is after all, a means of exercising uninhabited power on the streets.

In a diverse country like India, the meaning of Holi has continually been transforming. The festivities of Holika, Dhundh, Doljatra differ from region to region. Today, over 1,000 widows at Vrindavan play consensual Holi in Mathura to challenge the age-old parampara of “widows can’t play Holi”. It is important to note that carnival spaces exist to contain socially subversive acts. But, we must be very cautious about its hurried understanding. In Mathura, Holi playing widows form a sisterhood through their festive singing and dancing. However, that doesn’t mean that you force/drag/harass a widow in the street to play Holi, giving the excuse of Mathura.

Consent is what needs to be addressed on Holi. Pichkari, gulaal, sexual innuendoes are fine only if the person is willing to play with you. Otherwise, do not bully them. Simple. Give your kids a tutorial in adult consent. Else, do not produce them!

It is time we had a better understanding of Holi and raise our voices against those who victimise others during the festival.

The post originally appeared here.

Rini Barman

Rini Barman

The author is an MPhil student at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi. Her writings have been published by The Hindu Business Line, The Sunday Guardian, Himal, DailyO and others She tweets as @barman_rini (twitter.com/barman_rini)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Karmanye Thadani

    ET, this post had appeared on an Indian portal DailyO first, but why did you have to share it? I am not a jingoistic Indian nationalist, nor a practising Hindu (though I do culturally identify with and enjoy Holi and Diwali), nor an anti-Muslim bigot, but at a time when more and more Pakistani liberals are coming forward (including on ET blogs) to support a holiday on Holi, which is played by lots of people very harmlessly in localities with entire families participating in India and elsewhere, you had to come up with this exaggerated rant with film screenplays as reference-points, for a Pakistani portal so that negative stereotypes about Hindus can be perpetuated? What is the relevance of this piece to the Pakistani society where Hindus are a miniscule minority and would dare not celebrate with Muslims who are not deliberately joining in the Holi festivities? I am not saying that drunkenness and crimes against women don’t occur on Holi, but they occur otherwise too, and that’s something Indians who understand the context would not interpret it in a hyperbolic sense, but Pakistani Muslim readers can.

    I am sure your intentions were not bad, and you’ve shared some very, very brave articles taking on Muslim extremism and mainstream Muslim ideologies in Pakistan, but I guess someone shared this DailyO blog without thinking of its no positive and possibly somewhat negative implications in the context of strengthening liberals in Pakistan.Recommend

  • Jatt Sher

    Holi has been declared a public holiday in Pakistan, so its very relevant for Pakistanis. What is the point of questioning her writing this in a Pakistani blog rather than addressing the very real issue of harassment/violence against women in India and it’s relation to culture and Hinduism? Recommend