India’s Holi festival is known as the “festival of colours”, and is associated with fun, laughter, song, and dance, as Hindus celebrate in honour of the god Krishna. The usual depiction of celebrations is one of colour and life – people sporting shades of pink, yellow, red, and blue; dancing to Bollywood songs with water guns in their hands.

After Diwali, it is the biggest festival for Hindus in northern India, while it also has the rare honour of crossing the boundaries of community and faith.

Internationally, it is romanticised as exotic and vibrant, a celebration of good over evil and a space for people to be united as one in a carnival of colour. It fits well into the romanticised vision of India as a land of diversity and many shades.

But recently, Holi celebrations have come into question by various sectors of Indian society, as a worrying pattern of sexual harassment amidst the celebrations has begun to emerge.

Cause for concern

Although this isn’t the first instance of a festival coming under attack as an unsafe space for women, Holi celebrations have become notorious for crossing lines of consent and harbouring inappropriate behaviour for decades.

Such behaviour is reinforced by the popular saying “bura na maano, Holi hai!” (“don’t be offended, it’s Holi!”). The words have been known to lift barriers, leading to breaches of consent. On the other hand, young boys growing up with such normalised harassment that they feel that it is “okay” to behave inappropriately during Holi.

Many Indian women have stories to tell of uncomfortable and unpleasant experiences during Holi, but as talking of sexual harassment is taboo in public life, victims rarely find an outlet.

However, with growing consciousness of gender inequality in India’s media, a forum has emerged for some of these issues to be discussed without shame. This was seen recently when students held a protest rally in Delhi to raise awareness of sexual violence and antisocial behaviour during Holi.

However, such discourses against the normalisation of violence on Holi are yet to trickle from India’s metropolitan heart to its smaller towns and rural populations.

Backlash

In Barsana, a small town related to the mythology of the Hindu god Krishna and goddess Radha in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, a more radical version of Holi has emerged: Lathmaar Holi or ‘Holi with stick-beating’.

The unusual variation of the festival is celebrated by girls in Barsana, during which they beat boys from the neighbouring village of Nandgaon with sticks. While this may seem superficially to redress a heavily weighted gender imbalance, the logic behind Lathmaar Holi is deeply patriarchal.

holi celebration india men harassment
Men celebrate Holi by covering themselves in brightly coloured powder. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Tradition dictates that the boys tease the girls so mercilessly that they are forced to take up sticks to defend themselves. While this practice is more of an oral tradition than one exercised in practice, in such rural areas of India as Barsana, women and girls rarely have anywhere to turn.

Unpleasant experiences

India’s cities have also proven themselves to be difficult places in which to celebrate Holi. Even Delhi’s upmarket neighbourhoods bear witness to hooliganism and eve-teasing (a predominantly Indian term describing unwanted sexual advances) in the days around Holi.

Women of all ages have been targeted by men throwing water balloons – not a crime in itself – but the practice has been interspersed with incidents of women having glass powder thrown at them, injuring them.

Recently, this phenomenon dropped to a new low when balloons filled with semen were thrown at university students in Delhi. This sparked wide outrage on social media and led to protests around Delhi.

Some were quick to rubbish claims by the young women who had opened up about the incidents, but Hindu nationalists went a step further and cried of a liberal-communist conspiracy to ban Hindu festivals and destroy Hindu culture.

By brushing problems under the carpet with a cry of “bura na maano holi hai!” and failing to have an open conservation about the darker face of Holi, it’s reputation as an open and diverse festival could well be threatened.

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