Written by Stephanie Arzate, Research and Communications Fellow
Tomorrow, on March 22nd, most Hindus in South Asia will celebrate Holi, the spring festival marking the change of seasons, and most popularly known for the throwing of bright, colorful powder.
Holi is a holiday that captivates those outside of the mostly Hindu, South Asian countries that celebrate it. One doesn’t need to go far to see the fascination with, what on cameras, is truly a beautiful spectacle. Coldplay’s most recent video, “Hymn for the Weekend”, features a group of children running around the streets of Mumbai throwing colored powder in the air. While the video has been criticized for its unrealistic portrayal of the religious holiday, there is another element that is rarely discussed about Holi—it is often a time of grotesque street harassment for women and girls.
“I hate Holi,” my Nepali coworker, Aparna, recently told me.
“Yeah, my mother doesn’t even let me go out of the house during Holi,” my twenty-year-old intern added.
I recently moved to Nepal to start a job at Women LEAD, the first and only professional and leadership development organization for young women in the country. While I have lived in both India and Nepal before, I was surprised by their aversion to a holiday that I always thought was so mesmerizing. Unlike the romantic scenes we might see unfold in Bollywood movies or on college campuses, I quickly learned of the danger of being a woman during Holi.
Of the girls in our program that I spoke to, all of them told me about the extreme lengths they went to in order to avoid men and boys who might come up to them and hit them with water balloons filled with color. Others talked about unsolicited touching they received from strangers on the street, some of whom they also said were drunk.
“Not a single woman or girl is spared during this time of the year,” one program participant, who asked me to withhold her name, said. “Not unless you’re walking with your father or elder brother and they act as a human shield.
“I was once walking with my sister on my way to school and we knew we were going to be targeted,” she continued. “So we did what we could. We carried umbrellas with us. And if someone were to attack us from the front, we were ready with stones for the reply!”
This is the hidden story of Holi. Instead of the colorful, glamorous images that come to mind, instead of a holiday where both women and men are able to celebrate the upcoming season, Holi has become a day when girls must either shield themselves from physical violence, or choose to stay at home.
But despite the anxiety some women and girls fear each year as Holi approaches, other girls spoke of the opportunities that exist to reclaim the holiday’s meaning.
“We need to start speaking more about this,” said another girl in our program. “All of us have been there. But we rarely talk about it. We definitely need to share more of our stories.”
For Aparna, she believes that men and boys can play a crucial role in reclaiming the holiday for women and girls.
“I think one of the reasons this [harassment] occurs is because of the way society views women and girls. So the intervention needs to educate men and boys. We need to tell them that attacking people on the streets is a major form of harassment.”
Tomorrow, whether we’ll be celebrating in the streets of Nepal or watching dramatizations on our screens, let us mark the changing of the seasons with a change in how this festival is celebrated—and perceived—so that it is a joyful and free experience for all.