The festival of Holi has become a convenient reason for street harassment of women, what with the licence to misbehave that men take.
Holi is a festival that is traditionally celebrated to end and rid oneself of past errors, a day to forget and forgive, a day to begin life anew. It marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring – it also falls in the middle of the last month of the Hindu lunar calendar, Phalgun/Phagun, and is also called Phalguni Poornima. So, it clearly signifies the end of all things bad, and looking forward to a new year, a new beginning, the new life that comes with the spring.
Traditionally, too, we have the mythology behind Holi – to commemorate which, we burn the Holi (Holika Dahan) – the fire which is supposed to burn away all evil, every bad thing that has happened in our life, and give us the strength to go forward in our life, a life full of the joyousness and colours that are are associated with the Rangwali Holi which falls on the day after the Holika Dahan.
It can be a fun festival for families and friends to celebrate together. A wonderful festival for sure, a bringer of hope in the future. Except that it has deteriorated over the past many decades into a festival of fear, at least for one half of our population. The women. It is just one of those symptoms of a rape culture that considers women as just bodies to do with as one wishes, as ‘belonging’ to the men in their lives, as beings without any real agency.
I remember that as a kid, growing up in Mumbai, I loved playing Holi with my friends. When I see little kids in the complex running around, I remember those days. Nothing better than running around drenching friends with coloured water and getting drenched in return, on a hot day. One Holi, though, when I was around 10 years old, one of the older boys in the complex threw oil paint on me. Oh, it wasn’t just me who got covered in oil paint – the sadistic moron had ‘played Holi’ with oil paints, throwing the fast colours on many of the girls around. When there was a hullabaloo about it later, his only defence was that “he had thought it would be fun”
It was quite a job getting that colour out of my hair. I stank of kerosene for many days after, I developed contact dermatitis, and there was a lot of hair fall – my hair never recovered from that assault, thinning and graying prematurely. I refused to go out and play Holi ever again, permitting only my close family to apply a little colour on my face for Holi, since. It was not just the angst over the loss of hair, (of which there was plenty), but also the memory of being pawed, that had made such a deep scar on a mind just getting into adolescence.
Over the years, my worst fears have been confirmed. It has become a festival for louts and hooligans, who think nothing of molesting women in the name of festivities. They get drunk (culturally sanctioned on this day in many places), shout out obscenities (also culturally sanctioned – in Maharashtra, you shout out someone’s name, and speak out unmentionable things about that person, and ululate loudly, called ‘bomba marne’ in Marathi) Most places in India where this is a major festival become horrendous places for women to be out in public spaces. This is especially true of the northern parts of India. A friend wrote about a family member, a woman, who was to go to Delhi a day before Holi, and was to be there until after the weekend. The one question she posted on Facebook was – “Could anyone tell me how safe it would be for her to be out alone in the city, considering it is Holi time?”
It is almost as if there is a cultural acceptance of bad behaviour on the part of men. A sort of licence to misbehave. Just a few days ago, I read this article that speaks of how school girls often have to gather all their courage just to be able to go to school. And it is not just the younger girls who are at the receiving end of lewd actions and comments – one just has to be woman.
I have no experience of Holi in the northern part of the country, but if it is worse than that played in Mumbai, a city otherwise known to be safer than others, it must be horrendous. Even in Mumbai, one might not step out of home in the few days that are around Holi without the fear of being hit by a balloon filled with water – coloured or not – I remember being hit by a balloon that was flung at the ladies’ compartment of a fairly empty local train on an afternoon a couple of days before Holi. I was standing near the door, ready to get down at the next station, and was suddenly covered with muck, that was filled in the balloon. And that is still better than being pawed by someone who takes the opportunity, because, after all, “Bura na mano Holi hain!”
In a country that has generations grown up on a steady diet of Bollywood movies that glorify street harassment as wooing, and have umpteen songs on the background of Holi, men and women gyrating to lyrics that are often written by masters of the double entrende, it is no wonder that this is the unholy state of affairs!
So – grow up, boys! Become men who recognize that women are not here on the planet for you to have your fun. They are equal human beings in all aspects, who have their own wants and wishes, pain and joy, their own agency in this world. Treat them as such.
So yes, by all means go out and enjoy yourself, have a happy and joyous, colour-filled Holi. But while having your fun, be respectful of fellow human beings (yes, women are fellow human beings).
And while you’re at it, try and conserve water. Happy Holi!
Image source: Holi crowds by Shutterstock.
In her role as the Senior Editor & Community Manager at Women's Web, Sandhya
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