Why Women In India Face Increased Sexual Harassment During Holi

“Women are deleted from public spaces during these festivals because of the fear of harassment.”

Women in India can be subject to increased sexual harassment during Holi, the Hindu festival of colors. And the apparent solution in some cases is banning them from the actual festivities.

While people were out celebrating last weekend participating in the ritual of throwing around colorful powders and liquids, female University of Delhi students were barred from leaving their dorms due to the risk of encountering inappropriate behavior, The Guardian reported. 

Several women and student groups criticized the decision. 

“Women are deleted from public spaces during these festivals because of the fear of harassment,” Sabika Abbas Naqvi, president of Delhi’s student hostel union told the Guardian. Later adding: “The men can remain free and roam about, but the women who are the supposed victims need to stay – it’s atrocious.”

While celebrating the festival, a time when social rules are relaxed, women can be subjected to unwanted touching or may be hit by water balloons on private areas, the Deccan Chronicle pointed out. Those responsible are able to stay concealed by the vibrant powders and liquids.

Reporting this behavior can be difficult as well. Since it is Holi, all actions may be interpreted as “playful” fun, Deepti Asthana, travel photographer who covered celebrations in the town of Vrindavan, told The Asian Age.

The fear of sexual harassment has made many women uneasy about visiting public spots on the holiday and has even led some to sit out on the festivities altogether.

“A festival which was meant for consensual teasing of social rigidities has actually become a tool for bullying women into unavoidable drenching,” Rini Barman, a freelance writer in Delhi, wrote in the DailyO last year. 

But the University’s female students weren’t given much of a choice as to whether they’d leave their dorms during the holiday. A memo from the University’s International Student House For Women (ISHW) decreed that residents in the house, along with any female guests, were to remain in the facilities from 9pm on Sunday until 6pm the next day, The Indian Express reported. And another all-female dorm, the Meghdoot Hostel, sent out a note, saying its main gate would be closed from early morning Monday until 6pm.

While the ISHW claimed that such a move was in the women’s “best interests,” student group Pinjra Tod, which fights against gender discrimination in universities, explained that the rule doesn’t tackle the source of the problem.  

“The rise in sexual violence and harassment that women experience on the streets around Holi is barely addressed and instead once again, women are locked up for their ‘own safety’ and arbitrary restrictions are imposed on their mobility,” it said, according to Indian Express. 

A few other organizations took steps to mitigate the issue. City-based groups Men Engage Delhi and Ek Saath took matters into their own hands and led a joint campaign to promote a harassment-free Holi, highlighting the importance of consent.  

It’s only through raising awareness and discussion, Pinjra Tod member Anjali told the Asian Age, that harassment issues surrounding Holi will be eliminated. 

“It is horrifying behavior that disguises itself as a friendly and socially-acceptable form of sexual harassment that has been going on for years. It derives its strength from silence, at the same time locking women in their rooms, hostels and houses. It has to stop.”