For Most Men, Holi Is ‘Permission’ To Sexually Harass Woman. Enough!

Despite having extremely supportive parents, I could never bring myself to report it either. Had they heard about it, my parents would have certainly ensured those boys were pulled up.

Trigger Warning: Description of sexual harassment which may be triggering for survivors.

When I was a young child growing up in a small mining colony in Jharkhand, Holi was fun. We kids would run around the colony with our pichkaris, ambushing people and squirting coloured water on them. The Uncles and Aunties, all of whom were colleagues and friends of our parents, would pretend to be caught by surprise. We would squeal with delight, and run off to find the next victim. When there was nobody we could find, we would squirt water on each other accompanied by high pitched laughter. The colours were mostly gulal, which washed off easily. Most of us would be scrubbed and clean when, accompanied by our parents, we landed up at the community club for lunch.

When we were slightly older, we graduated to chemical colours- the ones you put on your palm and add water to make a paste. Those were slightly harder to scrub off. But the fun of emptying buckets of water (or having it emptied on you) made up for the inconvenience. For a few days after Holi, we would all go around with bits of pink and green around the ears which resisted all attempts at being scrubbed off. But it was fun.

I moved from the small town I grew up in to the city. Our flat was in an apartment complex where only employees of PSUs stayed. Holi was still an intimate affair. And it was fun.

Then, we entered adolescence.

One of us matured faster than the rest. She was beautiful and aware of her beauty, and soon became the object of everyone’s passion. To curry favour with his friends, one from our gang invited them over to play Holi in our apartment block so they could play Holi with our beautiful friend.

That year, Holi changed for me

It was the first time I had someone pull my shirt and shove colour under it. It was the first time someone held me tight by the waist while languidly smearing colour on my arms. It was the first time I was forced to put colour on someone I didn’t know.

I went back home early. Angry tears mixed with soap while I scrubbed off the top layer of epidermis. I scrubbed and scrubbed without even looking at what I was doing. I felt dirty long after I the last molecule of colour was washed off.

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I didn’t know it then, but it was the last time I would play Holi.

The next year, I gave the annual exams as an excuse for not playing Holi. Even when my friends came home to call me down, I told my parents to tell them I was studying. It reinforced my reputation as a nerd, but I didn’t care. I did not want to put myself through that experience ever again. If my parents wondered why I was refusing to play Holi, they didn’t ask me, and I didn’t tell.

At some stage, the excuse changed from “I have my exams” to “I have sensitive skin”. But I could neither bring myself to play Holi, nor to talk about the experience.

It scarred me for ever

Like every other victim of sexual harassment, I made excuses. Maybe I was over reacting. Maybe I misunderstood the signals and unwittingly led them on. Maybe…..

But it is not the victim’s fault. Though she blames herself.

Despite having extremely supportive parents, I could never bring myself to report it either. Had he heard about it, my otherwise gentle father would have lost his cool completely and let those boys have it. My mother would have moved heaven and earth to ensure their mothers punished them adequately.

Had I spoken up, I would certainly have been believed. Yet, I didn’t speak out.

I just stopped playing Holi.

I hid away when people came to call me.

I made excuses.

I never stepped out of home.

I stayed away from public spaces.

And I am not the only one who did so.

Socially sanctioned sexual harassment

Holi gives an opportunity for men to harass women. They hide behind the veil of “social sanction” and “culture” and unleash their sexual frustration on unwilling women. Women remain silent because they wonder if they are over-reacting.

This is certainly not what the festival was supposed to be. But sadly, that is what it has become. Mothers of young women just keep their children at home to protect them. How long before we stand up together and say it is not okay? Will we ever reclaim a festival that was meant to be a joyous one?

Image source: a still from the film Patakha

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About the Author

Natasha Ramarathnam

Natasha works in the development sector, where most of her experience has been in Education and Livelihoods. She is passionate about working towards gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. And avid reader and occasional read more...

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