Every year, the festival of colours induces a dread in women, forcing them to lock themselves in their safe space.
You walk the streets hastily looking over your shoulder multiple times — more than the number of times you do when it is dark. Clutching your bag tightly under the nook of one arm, you’d sprint the streets if you could, but walking fast does it. You want to be discreet with your movements so as to not call attention to yourself. Your mind is alert — ready, waiting for a water balloon to hit you in specific places, namely your hips, bosom or your back.
Holi is not just the festival of colours. If you are a woman in India, the celebration brings with it a dread. As the fun and frolic comes to an end, even before the colours wear off from your skin, horrific stories arise from the afternoon of playing.
On one such particular afternoon, performing artiste and researcher Tanvi Nair, now 25, was playing Holi in her society compound with her girl friends. A teenager back then, Tanvi was approached by a then 14-year-old boy. “We were all the same age, but he was much bigger and stronger than us. Before we knew it, he single-handedly held my friend by her wrist and continued to put ten different kinds of colours all over her — her face, her neck, her body. By the time I realised I should run, and so I did, he ran behind me, grabbed me from the back, and put colour on my face, neck and torso,” she recalls. After a minute’s silence, she eerily adds, “I can still hear his breath. It was vindictive,” she spits with disdain.
Even today, the festival brings back mixed feelings for Tanvi. “It felt like men, even young boys, all wait for Holi to vent their sexual frustration out on us. Are perverted boys and men just looking for an excuse to touch, grope or misbehave with women?” she shakes her head.
Holi’s devolution to an excuse for troublemakers to openly harass women and young girls has been happening for years now. It is only now that women are talking about it, points Tanvi. The list begins with groping under the pretext of “bura na maano, Holi hai!” and goes on to balloons being aimed at privates.
A 22-year-old medical student from Bhayandar, on the condition of anonymity, reveals that she was assaulted with balloons when she was out on some work. “It wasn’t even Holi that day, it was Holika Dahan (the day before Badi Holi when Holika, or the evil, is burnt of the holy pyre),” she says, adding that incidents like these are on the rise in the week preceding the celebration on the final day.
“Four boys started bombarding me with balloons the moment I stepped foot out of my complex. And they all aimed the balloons together — at the back of my head, near the ear, my right neck, shoulder, waist, my right buttock, knee and ankle. It physically hurt because the boys were in a building adjacent to my gate,” she says. The following feeling of public embarrassment and anger was one she distinctly remembers not enjoying.
Disability rights activist Virali Modi was in an uncomfortable situation this Holi celebration. Virali uses a wheelchair for movement, and she thinks this was the subject of interest for two unruly elements. “It looked like I was the only person on a wheelchair there. I understand that could be the cause of fascination for many, but these two men started moving me around — while I’m seated on the chair! They were clearly under the influence of alcohol and started pushing and pulling my chair,” she recalls, spitefully. Thankfully, her friends there ensured that she wasn’t taken advantage of. “But imagine if I were to be alone on the streets?” she asks.
Even with women shouting complaints at the top of their lungs, there seems to be no preventive measure for such misdemeanours. Tanvi suggests beginning with appropriate conditioning at home. “Today, it is absolutely necessary to teach growing boys about the importance of boundaries with girls and women,” she says.
Perhaps one the biggest issues with Holi is the nonchalance of the festival. The idea of “it’s just fun and games on Holi” allows miscreants to misbehave, and for others to brush serious issues off casually.
“It’s time we completely abandon the concept of bura na maano, Holi hai. Any kind of harassment or misbehaviour, no matter how small or big, should be treated with the same seriousness,” suggests Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association.
For those hosting parties, Virali suggests implementing tight security. “Keeping it a single sex event won’t help. People have their friends and family to celebrate with. But celebrations like these calls for proper and strict security,” she says. The activist adds that Holi should be a festival for women too.
— With inputs from Namrata Srivastava