By Sowmya BR & Priyanka Sutaria
'Come on man, it's Holi! Lighten up! Loosen up!' Except that when you've been groped and molested under this garb of festival merriment, you really don't want to lighten up.
It seems that any excuse will do to intrude on women’s personal spaces and our right to consent, and Holi provides the perfect opportunity. ‘Bura Na Mano Holi Hai’ is the battle cry that establishes the festival as a space for all-male enjoyment, more so than other Indian festivals, and unapologetically so.
Those of a certain generation will remember the eventful scene in Damini, where the pivotal gang rape occurs against the backdrop of Holi merriment. With the bhaang flowing, the anonymity afforded by the milling mobs and coloured faces, and the ready excuse of colour, there is no escape for unwilling women. ‘Stay home’ is the only advice that works for women who do not want to be molested on Holi. Want to reclaim your space? Welcome to groping and semen-filled balloons.
Which is why for many women, Holi brings back terrible memories. Four women recount their experiences of being violated on this festival of colour:
When I was a kid, I really loved Holi. We would go to the Naval Club in Katari Bagh, Cochin, and play with my parents’ friends and children. This innocent love ended abruptly when I was about 11. A group of girls was playing among ourselves outside a building in Navy Nagar, Bombay, when three much older boys descended on us. “Bura Na Mano Holi Hai,” they said, as they grabbed our budding breasts and young vaginas as we squirmed and screamed. We scattered as we ran away; I hid behind a car where they found me. “Dekho, rang bhi nahi hai,” one said showing me his colour-free hands as they continued this violation for a few minutes, before they moved on to another girl.
For many years, I would lock myself up in my room in the days leading up to Holi, refusing to let anyone even put a tikka on me. I was convinced to resume playing only ten years later, at the insistence of a group of friends who were organising a party in the golden cage of a Delhi farmhouse, with reassurances of protection from my then-boyfriend. Since, I only play with friends, in safe environments, and manage to have a good enough time, despite the trauma. Big girl though I am, this fear of Holi in particular and mobs of men in general will never leave.
Growing up, I was lucky to be in an environment where no lines were ever crossed. Under the protective watch of my parents, we grew up hearing about how it happens to other people, but I only became one of these other people when I stepped out, went to college, started working — that is when the reality of how the festival had been twisted hit me with full force. It was really unsafe, and as a journalist, I had to work on Holi as well, which meant stepping out of the house and risking exposure. I am lucky, so far, to have not actually faced molestation in name of splashing colours, but I have been attacked by balloons — colleagues have had worse experiences. My mother, when she was pregnant with me, was not spared either; the same happened to a colleague as well. People have no concept of boundaries, or consent. There is a fear associated, perhaps with women more so, of being subjected to something one does not want. We should be able to go through life without thinking about this, but unfortunately, it isn’t so. You have to take precautions at your own end, because the other person is unable to take this seriously. I don’t like the festival anymore, the manner of celebration is of great importance, and this manipulation of what was supposed to be a fun festival has made s difficult for so many people. I don’t play Holi, but the fact is that people who enjoy playing Holi have to limit themselves to their societies, because the moment they step out, they have to to be wary. Films should also avoid romanticising such behaviours, and they have the responsibility to not promote a bad precedent for the youth. That’s where the problem lies, because what is fun for you is not always fun for the other. This portrayal must change.
My incident is not gender-specific, but it is something where I was made to feel comfortable. When I was a child, Holi used to be a fun experience, but that changed for me as an adult. I was out of India for quite a while, and I had gotten out of touch with celebrating it by the time I returned. Last year, I was in my house minding my own business, when the bell rang and when I opened the door, I was ambushed with colours and my clothes were ruined. It was a huge invasion of my privacy, I was not asked if I wanted this and they did not take my consent. These were neighbours, people I knew but had not seen in a long time. I just felt like they should have wished me, and asked if it was okay to put some colour on me. Sometimes, we are pressured into feeling socially obligated to accept these things, even if we do not enjoy them. I had heard several stories about people who have been pulled in without their consent, but nothing overly violent. But these incidents definitely cross a line. I was never really fond of the festival, I found it excessive, but I would say that the more this kind of the stuff happens, the more wary I become. I don’t think I will be opening my door for the next two days if I didn’t know the person on the other side!
Growing up, I used to really enjoy Holi; we used to stay in a gated SBI officers' colony and we knew all the parents and kids in the locality, we all used to play Holi together. Even then, one year when I was returning home from playing Holi with my friends, a group of watchmen tried to put colour on me. This was back in the early 90s, before we knew about good touch/bad touch. I felt wronged. That still stands out, the feeling of wanting to push someone away. They asked if they did something wrong, because for them perhaps I was just a child. Growing up, boundaries increased — you’re not with the same people, you’re not in that colony any more. Now as an adult, it makes me uncomfortable, because I don’t want anyone to put colour on me. I remember how in a couple of offices I have worked at, people have wanted to put colour on my face — even as a friendly gesture— but I don’t like the idea of someone touching my face. When you step out, there is a sense of fear because in Mumbai, people don’t buy balloons in some areas; they use plastic bags which hurt a lot more on impact. The closer Holi comes, the more you are worried about having to dodge these missiles, because I have had these thrown into my rickshaw. I would rather not step out. It is self-preservation to do so. The last time I played was 2007, but it was because I went with friends and it was safe.
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