Is Holi Safe for Women?

[NOTE: Thanks to the folks who were kind enough to welcome me and allow me to take their photos.]

So it’s the evening and our great Holi weekend is wrapping up.  The experience has really been unforgettable.  They call it “playing Holi,” and it’s the right phrase–because Holi reminds you what’s it’s like to play again.  Beyond this is the sheer goodwill of strangers towards one another, whether you’re getting smeared with colored powder, soaked by kids on bikes with water-guns, or bombed by water balloons as you walk under balconies.  Hands down, this is my new best holiday.

Truckers taking a break for Holi.

But is all this just because I’m a guy?  Is this why I don’t worry about getting my clothes soaked or getting smeared by random truckers and students and others and not be too concerned about my safety?  Do women feel the same sense of community that I did, at this time when society pretty much sanctions us to bend the rules a bit?

Before you accuse me of holding onto old-fashioned ideas about what women want, or of speaking of women only as victims, let’s clearly acknowledge the mounds of evidence suggesting that women love Holi and cutting loose as much as men do.  I found that to be true in both private and public settings.

A day to celebrate.

Like “carnival,” festivals like Holi allow a temporary inversion of day to day relationships, and could serve to empower women.  Many hold onto this view.  Some people told me that Holi allowed men and women to be free with one another–and while a few people might get out of hand under the influence of alcohol or bhang the men as a whole look out for the women.  Another person told me that in places where Holi is played rough, all bets are off for men or women–and a man surrounded by groups of women is as likely to get dunked in a bucket of water, or even to get his clothes torn off, as is a woman surrounded by men.

Many, many more voices, however, say the opposite: making it seem that outside of smaller, private celebrations in which everyone knows everyone else, Holi is not safe for women.  It’s not that women don’t enjoy the freedom of Holi, but that the very same conditions that make Holi exciting in a group setting–anonymity, the freedom to “attack” strangers, etc.–also give an easy cover for harassment and even assault.

The ripped shirt of the man on the right suggets a rouch and tumble Holi celebration.

A number of incidents in Delhi were reported in the newspapers recently linking harassment against women to Holi.  A Delhi university teacher–harassed by a group of young men throwing water-balloons at passing women–found the police to be quite unhelpful.  Another woman found herself the victim of lewd comments and a slap.

An article on the situation in the Vrindavan and Mathura area, the heart of the Holi celebrations for its link to the god Krishna, gives a sense of how alienating Holi can be for women.

A male shopkeeper said: “You might wear a new shirt or kurta to play Holi at the temple, but you won’t return with clothes on – and at times it holds true for both men and women.”

“It has become a serious concern for us. We feel insecure to allow our sisters or even mother to go out and play because a lot of indecent activities take place. We prefer to have a family get-together and have healthy fun,” he added.

Fifteen-year-old Payal Gupta said: “Bahut ill-treatment hoti hai yahaan…bahut chhed chhad. Ladke idhar udhar haath lagaate hain aur mauke ka faayda uthaate hain [There is a lot of ill-treatment towards women here. Boys touch us here and there and take advantage of the festival to get close to us physically].”

One result of this doubleness around Holi–the possibility of freedom and enjoyment and the reality that limits that freedom–is a confusing set of messages from the media and from celebrities.  The series of quotations from Bollywood stars about Holi shows this ambiguitiy, perhaps best expressed by Nandana Sen’s comment: “As in any festival in the carnival spirit of non-stop revelry, women need to be careful. And why just women? Boys too. However, the risk factor should not prevent us from enjoying the most beautiful of celebrations.”

A Delhi Police Advertisement, appearing in English and Hindi newspapers

The Delhi Police exhorts us to enjoy, but within limits.  A Bollywood actress confirms (in a Hindi-language paper) that playing Holi without getting high is ludicrous, but that one should not get out of control.  A new water park, catering to elite Indians, promises a safe and contained Holi festival.  Each of these affirms that Holi is fun, and yet reveals quite directly that questions of safety are not

Holi is caught between a variety of discourses, those that in turn put forth ideas about the place of women in Holi.  Is Holi a festival that has lost its purity, such that men now break all appropriate boundaries, or has it found a new civility in which Holi parties happen in homes and not on streets?   Is Holi a site that opens up new spaces for public relations between men and women, or is it a brief space of freedom that shuts down once the colors are washed away?

The Bollywood folks put the question directly.  Should we be saying, like Mahesh Bhatt: “Why just Holi? India is and always has been unsafe for women”?  Or, like Jiah Khan: “Women have been celebrating Holi for centuries. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t continue to do so. If taken beyond limits, any situation gets unsafe. Let’s all stay within boundaries. And Holi will continue to be barrels of fun.”

As Shabana Azmi says, in either case, the question is not about what women want or how women are, but the conditions in which Holi gets celebrated today: “The state must ensure safety and protection for women and men must make sure that the day of celebration doesn’t turn into an occasion for mourning.”

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