Holi: a festival of assault

It may appear a little late to be talking about 8 March now – but the tardiness is the result of naivety on the author’s part – the hope that as news was slowly uncovered and police complaints filed, the media would eventually respond to what is largely ignored apart from in traveller’s guide books: the alarming rates of sexual assault and violence against women taking place (yearly) across the country during the festival of Holi. Given that this year the festival of colours (or ‘grope-fest’ as a visitor to the country once put it) corresponded with, out-coloured and spectacularly undermined International Women’s Day, the nationwide incidents of molestation, sexual assault, harassment and violence against women still did not appear to be a matter worthy of reportage within the print media.

For most women living in various parts of India (excluding perhaps the southern states and Goa), stepping out of their houses during Holi and the days leading up to the festival is an excursion to be avoided. As water ‘balloons’ (hard plastic bags filled with at best water and at worst coloured chemicals, causing one to question whether the intent is to playfully douse with water or violently attack) are hurled into auto rickshaws, ladies train compartments and at female pedestrians, the vehemence of these ‘games’ carry none of the playful, class-encompassing inclusiveness that was once a mark of this day. Wikipedia’s entry on Holi states:

‘One of Holi’s biggest customs is the loosening strictness of social structures, which normally include age, gender, status, and caste. The rich and poor, women and men, enjoy each other’s presence on this joyous day. Additionally, Holi lowers (but does not remove completely) the strictness of social norms. No one expects polite behaviour; as a result, the atmosphere is filled with excitement and joy.’

Is it the ‘strictness of social norms’ breaking down as rates of sexual assault consistently sky-rocket this time of year? Whose excitement are we referring to as pawing hands lean inside auto rickshaws grabbing at women’s breasts? The irony of International Women’s Day – a day to reflect on and create awareness of the struggles of women’s rights movements as well as the violence and oppression that continues to be perpetrated against us – as having to relocate itself earlier in the week to avoid the ‘excitement and joy’ of Holi is remarkably telling of the severity of the situation. As one of the few nods to the issue given by the print media, the Times of India reports, ‘International Women’s Day will be celebrated with much fanfare across the world, but in Delhi, no functions will be held this time. The reason – the functions were held a day earlier since many women won’t be too keen to step out of their homes on Thursday. It’s Holi and the women in the Capital will be on their guard. While Holi has, for long, been an excuse for men to sexually harass women across the country, the scene is particularly bad in the country’s rape capital.’ On their ‘guard’. On International Women’s Day. Where, exactly, is the cause for celebration?

The Indian print media’s response, however, has been virtually non-existent. Reports in the Asian Age and Times of India drawing attention to concerns of violence during the festival have focused on the fear of caste-based or communal tensions that surround every exorbitantly showy, taking-over-the-streets Hindu festival (read: nearly all Hindu festivals) that take place throughout the year. The reportage following the festival once again focused on nearly everything but gender-based violence (the only exception to this – after extensive searches through national and regional media – appears to be in the Nagaland-based Eastern Mirror, in its article ‘A Festival Gone Wrong’). In other print media, Holi-related ‘incidents’ included the deadly chemicals of Holi colours, road accidents, and food poisoning. The only story relating to sexual harassment that made national news was the case of a Koltaka police constable who was allegedly murdered after attempting to prevent the sexual harassment of his niece during the festival. However, reports of the incident in The Hindu, Indian Express, The Times of India and Outlook India all treat the event as an isolated incident, rather than indicative of the swathes of violence and harassment faced by women during the festival that ‘loosens social structures’. In fact in that convoluted sense, Wikipedia is correct – the survivors of sexual assault know no age, class, or caste. The perpetrators do not discriminate.

According to data from Must Bol, one in three young women are sexually harassed during Holi each year in Delhi. Given that these statistics from the country’s capital are very nearly replicated in much of central and northern India’s cities and towns, the lack of mainstream media reportage on the issue is indicative of the media’s priorities when it comes to gender-based violence. If a police officer is allegedly murdered in the bargain, sexual harassment indirectly makes a small sized media splash. However, the alarming statistics of assault and rape during the festival remain largely unreported, as are the attempts by various organisations and campaigns to raise awareness around these issues. From Bell Bajao’s vibrant poster campaign ‘This Holi I’ll Show You My Moves’, to Hollaback’s campaigns in major cities including Mumbai and Chandigarh, to One Voice’s national ‘Save Holi’ campaign, organisations, activists and women across the country have been calling for colour with consent. In a climate when rape seems to be the only crime where the victim is blamed, and women in the nation’s capital are being asked to remain indoors post 8pm, it is not just surprising but frightening that the print media have largely failed to respond to these calls for a consensual and safe celebration of Holi. Perhaps they were busy reporting on other women’s issues. It was International Women’s Day, after all.

This piece was originally titled ‘Festival of Assault’ and published on The Hoot on 9 March 2012.


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