Holi Restrictions For COVID-19, But Not For Sexual Harassment?

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As a child, participating in Holi celebrations was always a contentious issue in my house. My parents wouldn’t let me play. I didn’t understand then. Cut to my undergraduate studies, about nine years ago. I went to a friend’s house, where we were guaranteed a ‘safe’ (and fun) Holi. Someone handed me a delicious, tall glass of thandai. Three hours later, back in my hostel room, I was barely able to stand. The drink had been laced with bhang. I was only ‘safe’ because the host perceived the risk and drove my friends and I back home ‘before’ something happened.

Consent was dead. Safety, a relative term. Even among us, the silence around our experience was deafening.

Over the last decade, small holes have begun appearing on the blanket of silence around sexual harassment and Holi. Year-on-year, publications have carried narratives around the issue of safety from sexual harassment during Holi. On the normalisation of sexual violence during the ‘festival’. On shared experiences of being groped, being verbally and physically assaulted. Last year, an organisation began an online petition to end sexual harassment during Holi.

This year, the novel coronavirus outbreak has alerted authorities to step up efforts and ensure safety measures and restrictions. States such as Haryana and Maharashtra, and the whole National Capital Region have issued statements banning the celebration altogether. Other states have banned public gatherings and notified citizens to partake in the festivities keeping all restrictions in mind. All that is as it should be.

Quick question though: why is safety from sexual harassment and violence during the festival of Holi not treated with equal alertness and precaution?

How Safe Do People Feel During Holi, Really?

The Martha Farrell Foundation conducted a Walking Poll in five areas of Gurgaon ahead of Holi, this year: Huda City Centre Metro Station, Vyapar Kendra, Supermart 1, Galleria Market and Harijan Basti, an urban village settlement nestled in the heart of DLF Phase 5.

People were asked to comment on whether they agree or disagree with the statement: Rubbing colour, touching and splashing water during Holi is okay. The poll was followed by one-on-one discussions on consent, safety, and appropriate and inappropriate behaviours during Holi.

Of the 50 people who took the poll, 14 people agreed and 36 people disagreed with the statement. Many were unable to make the connection between the statement and the question of safety of women and girls, until prompted.

Huda City Centre Metro Station, Gurugram: A commuter stops to take the Walking Poll and have a chat with us. Image courtesy of Shefali Shukla.

In a refreshing change of pace from a victim-shaming culture, some participants placed the blame with perpetrators. “Holi is a pious festival, which is being polluted by social ills,” said a 40-something male participant. “Boys see it as an opportunity to do bad things to women.”

Moreover, people were of the opinion that ‘shocking incidents’ such as miscreants throwing semen-filled balloons at female college students are disturbingly common. A woman in her early twenties told the Martha Farrell Foundation, “Holi often clashes with Easter celebrations. I visit the Sacred Heart Cathedral near Gole Market every year on Easter. We don’t feel safe coming back home from church as a lot of people play Holi near Gole Market and try to rub colour on our faces or splash water on us. There have been incidents when people tried to stop a neighbour’s car and asked them to get out and celebrate. When they refused, the goons began banging the windshield!”

Humiliation. Anger. Embarrassment. Those who had been sexually harassed in the past on the occasion of Holi felt all of this and more, particularly the feeling of helplessness. “What can we do with such men [who do these things]?” said another woman in her late twenties.

At the same time, some participants resorted to the done-and-dusted line of victim blaming. “Holi is one of the best festivals. We have been playing it since I can remember. I relive those moments every Holi, and I wish the same for my kids. Girls should be cautious in our society anyway,” said a participant in his fifties.

A 40-year-old male who participated in our Walking Poll shared a similar view, “All issues [of sexual harassment during Holi] are limited to urban cities. Have you ever heard a woman from a village complain about such issues?”

Supermart I, DLF Phase 4, Gurugram: A man takes votes “Yes” at the Walking Poll. Image courtesy of Hargun Kaur.

Huda City Centre Metro Station, Gurugram: Interacting with the first person who took answered our poll question. Image courtesy of Shefali Shukla.

The culture of impunity among perpetrators comes in this shrouding of inappropriate practices in the garb of ‘culture’. “During Holi, no one says anything to men who sexually harass us,” says Seema (name changed), a domestic worker from Harijan Basti. “People are drunk and falling about all over the place… they pull our saris and throw buckets of water on us. If we complain, they tell us ‘bura na mano, Holi hai.’”

This, despite the fact that in 2015, police personnel in Gurgaon took special measures and created a task force to maintain law and order during the festival, presumably to be followed year-on-year. Seema’s anguish is evident. Rules or no rules, Holi becomes an excuse for people to disturb, violate, and sexually harass others, because they have an excuse.

Will The COVID-19 Guideline For Holi Help?

This very same culture of impunity has translated to low confidence in the implementation of the government-issued COVID-19 restrictions. “Unless policemen are at every nook and corner of the city, patrolling regularly, there’s no guarantee that these COVID-19 guidelines will work. People don’t wear masks when it’s a question of life or death; do you think they’ll stop throwing water balloons during a festival like Holi?” says Neerja Sriram, an aviation student living in Gurugram. She continues, “Guidelines need implementation, and following – currently, they don’t make me feel any safer, health-wise, or security-wise. I won’t be stepping out of my house during Holi this year.”

Seema’s resolve is similar – stepping out, or allowing her children to step out on Monday is out of the question for her. The pandemic is one thing, she says, but what if someone breaks the law, celebrates, and then something happens to her daughters? “Kuchh ho gaya toh? Kya karenge?

To Celebrate, Or Not To Celebrate? To Create Guidelines Or Not To Create Guidelines?

None of the people MFF spoke to were of the opinion that Holi shouldn’t be celebrated. None of them were of the opinion that guidelines shouldn’t be created.

The issue lies in the culture of inappropriate behaviours that we’ve gotten so comfortable with. To ignore rules. To ignore consent. To disregard other people’s boundaries. A progressive guideline to ensure safety to health, or the prevention of sexual and gender based violence, or harassment would need to focus in equal parts on enforcing proper implementation as on creating a change in behaviours. That’s the commitment we must hope for (read: demand) from our government, police, Residents’ Welfare Associations and other authorities, for a truly safe Holi.

With inputs from Shefali Shukla and Hargun Kaur.
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