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Society

Why many in India don’t celebrate festival of colors Holi

Aditya Sharma
March 10, 2020

Holi, a spring festival that marks the end of winter is celebrated with bright colors and water. But for many women, the day has a darker side.

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Indien Holi Mumbai
Image: DW/A. Bharmal

When Arushi was 13 years old, she celebrated her first Holi in Delhi — it turned out to be a turning point.

She recalls running down the stairs from her house in a middle-class neighborhood in India's capital, rushing to mingle with children from neighboring houses on the streets, splashing bright colored powder and water at each other aswell as the adults, amid giggles and laughter. 

There was a middle-aged neighbor, she recalls "to whom I was like a daughter because he only had two sons. As I applied powered color on his cheek, his hands came diving down into my clothes and before I knew it, they went all the way down to my waist." 

It was then, 13 years ago, that Arushi decided to stop participating in the festivities. She claims to be allergic to the colors and stays indoors, away from large crowds of mostly men.

Read more: Is India the worst place in the world to be a woman?

"The last time I played Holi, 14 years ago, a bunch of boys surrounded me, held me down, and smeared grease on my face. When I managed to escape, one of them smashed a balloon on my back and remarked 'kya body hai' (what a body!)," wrote Suhasini Krishnan, sharing her experience with the festival on social media.

"I went home immediately after this happened," Suhasini told DW. "My mom was annoyed at the boys. I didn't tell her about the sexually colored remark about my body, but there was also an understanding that this kind of thing is expected to happen on Holi. I didn't think of it at the time as harrassment — I just felt violated. It's only now that I'm beginning to realize there's something I can call it," she said. 

A woman who said that as a child, she faced sexual harassment during Holi.
Many women in India say they have stopped participating in Holi festivities.Image: DW/A. Sharma

"I was expecting it to be rough on the day of the festival. But I didn't expect to be held down and manhandled in the way I was. They took advantage of the festival and I became fair game."

Read more: What is behind India's rape problem?

Shachi Nelli, a Mumbai-based activist, also took to social media, raising the issue of Holi in the context of consent. "I don't play Holi for the simple reason that from the ages of 6-13 years where I did participate in the festivities, I got molested. It scarred me," she said. "To this day, 'Holi hai' (it's Holi) sounds like a war cry to me, a justification to attack me in any way they wanted, with no consequences."

There's a popular catchphrase that goes around during Holi: "Bura na mano, Holi hai," which loosely translates to, "Don't take offence, it's Holi." But many women see the day as being used by men as an excuse to sexually harass them without consequences. Shachi described it as "an annual anything-goes fraternization party." She believes the festival is a "symptom of a sexually repressed society."

While Shachi said she began using menstruation as an excuse to not take part in Holi.

Harassment in the name of Holi

While incidents of sexual harassment are highly common in India, there's a significant spike in such cases around the time of Holi. In 2018, hundreds of female students in Delhi took to the streets protesting against harassment during the festival. The protests came after several women complained of being attacked with "semen-filled" balloons.

Read more: Nuns fight sexual abuse in India's Catholic Church

A report released by Delhi University's Gender Study Group from 1996 found that about 60% of the women staying on campus faced aggravated harassment during Holi that year. Many female professors have said that the situation hasn't changed in all these years.

Women who have voiced their concerns have said they also faced pushback from people, both in-person and on social media. Arushi said her complaints were met with accusations. "Nobody would talk, and when one did, they questioned me asking 'Why do these things happen only with you,'" she said.

Shachi too faced insults and abuse from people in response to her post. "The denial, accusations, slut shaming and insults that this thread received (has) been tough to deal with," she said.

The role of Bollywood

Indian feminists point out that Bollywood movies play an important role in shaping ideas around the festival. Holi songs in Hindi movies often feature suggestive lyrics while the female lead is chased by the male protagonist. Critics say these Bollywood  show the objectification of women, who face sexual harassment until they relent.

Indian women exploring freedom on wheels

Bollywood has also contributed in promoting the non-consensual actions under the garb of Holi, Shachi noted.

"All acts are acceptable because there is divine blessing. We need to seriously reconsider Holi in the context of consent," she said.

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