On Days Like Holi, Can Offices Become Safe Spaces Free Of Harassment?


There is a certain dread that bubbles up in the days leading up to Holi.

At first, that may sound odd. What could go wrong on the ‘Festival of Colours’? But even a week or two before, you might start looking over your shoulder for pichkaris and water balloons. And sometimes, it’s not water in those balloons. What should be a happy celebration feels more like an ambush.

When I spoke to Tariqa Farrell Tandon, Governing Board Member of the Martha Farrell Foundation, she tells me about what her friend once had to go through: “She’d be begging people to leave her alone, saying ‘Mera presentation hai, please aaj nahi. Waapas aate samay kardena (I have a presentation today, please don’t. You can do whatever you want when I’m on my way back).’”

Incidents like these are widespread in New Delhi. And if you’re not outside dodging balloons and louts and hands, you’re hiding at home for Holi. Even at the time of writing this story, a friend is asking me not to take a cab or auto on the day of.

Tariqa’s brother Suheil, also on the Board of the Foundation, points out there’s a big gender angle. “A lot of my non-male friends would never play Holi because they never felt safe.”

Two young men pose for a photo with colours rubbed onto their faces. Image Source: wellbredkannanclicks/Flickr.

Growing up, Tariqa and Suheil have had a markedly different experience of Holi. “It’s always been fun,” says Suheil, and I can’t help but feel a little jealous. Instead of fond childhood memories of colour-soaked t-shirts and wet chappals, my festival-time anxiety has travelled well into my twenties.

As the three of us sit and talk, we unpack the source of these anxieties. It’s Tariqa who points out that there’s a style of playing Holi that’s purely based on power. “If you’re going to play, it can’t be one-sided. If you’re playing and you throw a water balloon at someone, you also get water-ballooned. That’s fairplay.”

She continues: “You can’t just be sitting on your balcony and trying to ‘get’ people.” There’s no better visual representation of the power imbalance than how many metres above other people you’re standing, poised to attack. “People treat it as some kind of battle.”

Move over “All’s fair in love and war”, because we’ve got “Bura na maano, Holi hai.”

Having a safe Holi doesn’t come easy. It takes effort. The siblings recall how their parents actively create the right kind of environment in the family home on Holi – an “unwritten code”, as Suheil puts it, of asking for consent, reading the room, reading body language, and respecting personal boundaries.

And it had a lot to do with their mother, Dr. Martha Farrell. A feminist activist and civil society leader, she was killed in a terrorist attack in Afghanistan five years ago. Her children set up the Martha Farrell Foundation in her honour, keeping alive her work for gender equality. Dr. Farrell authored India’s first book on ending sexual harassment at the workplace, an issue to which she had dedicated much of her professional life. The ideas of consent, respect, and safety were not just public-life concerns. They formed a big part of her personal life. It’s to be expected when Tariqa says, “We were just brought up with it.”

As someone who worked on gender mainstreaming, Dr. Farrell was also adamant on having a workplace that walked the talk. The rules that applied at home also applied to Holi celebrations in the workplace.

“Colleagues told us their families did not play Holi because they didn’t have a safe space,” Tariqa recalls. “They didn’t want their children to be roughed up. We would make that safe space. We’d provide transportation to and from the office so people could have a good experience.”

This was one of many institutional practices to ensure safety and comfort, not just for employees but anyone visiting the premises. Another was the Committee on Gender Awareness and Mainstreaming in PRIA (CGAMP), which was addressing workplace harassment, over a decade before India’s PoSH Act was passed. “I knew when CGAMP workshops were happening even before I knew what CGAMP was,” says Tariqa. Suheil also points out that, unlike the law, PRIA and MFF’s policy on sexual harassment recognises that a perpetrator can be of any gender, and so can the survivor.

Two women sit at a computer in a worksplace. For representation only. Image Source: FOSSASIA Team/Flickr.

There were other changes that Dr. Farrell brought in. Acknowledging the needs of PRIA’s women employees takes something as simple as installing hooks on the doors in the washrooms, a place to hang a bag or a dupatta. Even having sheaves of newspaper you can use to wrap your used pads or tampons in before disposal.

Her efforts to make the workplace a conducive environment has today become the basis for the Martha Farrell Award, instituted in her memory by PRIA and the Martha Farrell Foundation. In partnership with the Rural Development Trust (RDT), based in Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh, the Award brings to light people and organisations committed to looking within and sustaining practices that make a workplace gender-just – as Dr. Farrell believed all workplaces should be.

Since the PoSH Act came into effect in 2013, having an anti-sexual harassment policy is simply complying with the law. There’s loads more that workplaces can do.

While the Martha Farrell Award attracts many nominees from the development sector, it goes beyond as well. “We get nominations of legal firms, consulting firms, the service sector, and beyond. Gender equality is on the agenda for so many for-profit organisations,” says Suheil. “They want to do better.”

Video reporter Nadiya Shafi accepting the Martha Farrell Award in 2018. Image Source: Nadiya Shafi/Facebook.

Suheil and Tariqa stress that this participation is important. After all, not every woman works in the development sector, which is in any case only a small part of the formal sector in India. The Award’s purpose is to get all workplaces thinking about these changes and instituting.

“Even for-profit companies,” Suheil says, “If they have good internal strategies for gender equality, then they deserve to be recognised. Companies making billions in profit – are they paying the women the same as men? That’s what matters.”

In the long run, these changes will count. Tariqa draws attention to the state of women’s participation in the Indian workforce, “Their numbers are plummeting even as women are becoming more educated!”

It makes sense when you think about the realities of working Indian women. There are countless barriers to deal with – late hours, an unsafe commute, the career-family clash, hostile office environments, being alienated by the Boys’ Clubs, and just the plain exhaustion of dealing with all this day after day after day. And when you just can’t handle it anymore? There’s the door. No one wants to feel cornered into a decision like that. “It’s not a qualification issue,” says Tariqa. “If workspaces lead the change in this, it’ll change mindsets.”

Changing mindsets has always been a big component not just of the Award, but of the work that Dr. Farrell did, and that MFF does now. In fact, the Martha Farrell Award has been applying its own criteria of introspection to itself. “Even the Jury Meet has brought in interesting conversations,” says Tariqa. “When we began getting LGBTQ nominees, we began moving beyond the issues of cisgender women, and start talking about equality and empowerment for people of all genders.”

It’s exciting to think of where next the introspections will lead all of us, at the Martha Farrell Foundation. But it’s most exciting to know the journeys that our nominees are on in their mission for gender equality.

And who knows? Maybe we could even learn a thing or two from this year’s winners.

Featured Image Source: Lingeswaran Marimuthukumar/Flickr.
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