NEW DELHI — Holi, a holiday known around the world as a festival of colors, is an important event in the Hindu calendar of north India. It signifies the end of winter and the arrival of spring, and is filled with revelry, camaraderie, food, drink — usually lots of it — and color.
But the physical nature of the festivities — in which people smear colors on each other — infuses the celebrations, in some contexts, with a sexual charge. The commoditization of Holi — especially in Bollywood and Western media — tends to play this up, usually depicting interactions at Holi as harmless, innocent flirtation. In reality, the celebrations can give tacit approval to unwanted attention that may easily cross over into assault and sexual violence. Women in Delhi have described persistent street harassment by strangers, and an unwillingness on the part of authorities to hold men accountable.
However, women have long pushed back to reclaim the festival. Urvashi Butalia, a feminist historian and publisher, now in her 60s, recounts one Holi a few decades ago, when feminists in Delhi “decided that they wanted to have nothing to do with aggression.” They organized a Holi gathering where they came together, put color on each other and exchanged flowers. An evening of music and bhang (a cannabis-infused drink popular during Holi) followed for the all-women gathering.
Over the years, the pushback has adapted as mediums of protest have changed, too. Recently, students have been speaking out on social media about the harassment they’ve faced; women have started petitions online to address harassment; and others have taken to TikTok to spread awareness.
Butalia says that an evolving understanding of ideas like consent, comfort and bodily autonomy means that women of all ages now have a better vocabulary to speak out than when she was young: “The things that happened to us, we did not know how to articulate,” she says. She also believes the larger women’s rights movement in India has had a big role in normalizing public discussion of sexual harassment and violence.
Ankita Anand, now a journalist and editor, was a student at Delhi University in the early 2000s. She recalls spending her Holis running around police stations to report harassment directed at her and other women. It was a struggle to get the cops to take her seriously, but she persisted, she says. The narrative of harassment being “harmless” because of Holi “is used to dismiss anyone who tries to protest,” she says. “But if someone is enjoying themselves by doing something bad to you for sport, you don’t need to feel bad about reporting them.”
This is a legacy that younger generations continue to build on, including finding ways to address the harassment that occurs at Holi celebrations.
Jasmeen Patheja, founder of Blank Noise, a movement to end the silence around sexual assault, aims to start conversations about reimagining the kind of Holi women and nonbinary people want. A fun and pleasurable festival, she says, can only be possible if it’s consensual: “Or else, it is harassment.”
Blank Noise, launched in the early 2000s, was one of the first campaigns to address this public sexual violence referred to as “Eve-teasing.” Using the tagline “I never ask for it,” the movement uses public interventions, personal testimonials and exhibitions of clothes women wore when they were sexually harassed to shift the climate of silence, shame, fear and victim-blaming around everyday sexism.
In 2007, Blank Noise organized an event in which a group of participants put up “Safe Holi” posters in streets, markets and lanes of Delhi. The posters featured a young woman with the caption: “We like colors, not humiliation,” and pointed out that touching without permission was a crime. “We publish this poster on social media every year,” Patheja says, “[to] remind and affirm that Holi is not an excuse for sexual harassment and add #INeverAskForIt.”
Breakthrough, an organization that works to end gender-based violence, advocates for bystander intervention as a critical factor in interrupting acts of violence. Their broader campaign, called “Dakhal Do” (“do intervene” in Hindi), urges people to demand public accountability for violence against women.
A recent study from Breakthrough found bystanders in general hesitate to intervene because they are not sure how to help. But intervention is not about swooping in heroically to save the day, says Barsha Chakraborty, a senior manager at Breakthrough. Sometimes, just standing nearby other women is enough to prevent unwanted harassment: “It can be as silent as that,” she adds.
During Holi, Breakthrough contextualizes their messaging to highlight the kind of harassment specific to the festival. “We try to … talk about how violence is normalized [in a festival setting],” Chakraborty says. This includes educating people on the signs of violence during Holi, and giving them options on how to intervene or offer support without putting themselves in danger.
Sexual harassment in the workplace also sees a spike during office Holi parties, says Sairekha Sureshkumar, a lawyer at Cohere Consultants, a firm that works to ensure inclusive and safe workplaces. She refers to a complaint from a client in which a woman alleged she was assaulted by her manager under the justification of “Don’t mind, it’s Holi.” This statement, in Hindi, is often invoked to justify sexual contact during festivities.
India has strict laws around the reporting and handling of sexual harassment complaints made by women in the workplace — popularly known as the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) Act. Cohere works with companies as their POSH consultants, providing gender sensitivity and diversity training and advising on sexual harassment policies. Part of their work is ensuring a safe environment around Holi, Sureshkumar says, by making sure internal messaging is “respectful” and that the companies’ events are inclusive and safe.
Despite laws to protect women from sexual violence in the home, in public spaces and in the workplace, internal barriers of fear, confusion and shame continue to prevent individuals from seeking help, says Sureshkumar, adding that larger systemic change is necessary to make women feel safer to come forward with allegations of harassment. “Movements like #MeToo are great examples … where people feed off each other’s courage to call out and speak up,” she says.
Indeed, the #MeToo movement forced global society to confront the reality of male violence against women, as well as the tacit impunity afforded to abusers. But it also signaled a shift, the ripple effects of which amplified voices of women in India calling out their abusers, including during Holi. It’s all in an effort to reshape the festival as one that embodies, as Butalia says, “the spirit of liberty, of camaraderie, meeting people and [celebrating] across communities.”