Surabhi Srivastava is a 28-year-old intersectional feminist, program Manager at Love Matters India and founder of Voice Your Abortion project, a platform for women in India to share their abortion stories and experiences.
Out of nowhere
It was like any other Friday morning. I took the usual cycle rickshaw on my way to the metro station. I was enjoying the crisp morning wind and looking forward to the day. It was the beginning of the long weekend due to the festival of colours aka Holi.
Five minutes later, I was jolted out of my daydreaming. Out of nowhere, a small object struck my breast. It caused me acute pain and drenched my scarf and jacket with cold water.
I looked around in panic to make sense of what had just happened. In a jiffy, I realised that I had been struck by a water balloon.
A common ritual
Throwing water balloons at young girls and women is a very common and socially acceptable ritual leading up to Holi. Mostly strangers and young boys throw water balloons at passers-by on streets (often women).
The moment I realised that it was a water balloon, I wanted to find out who was responsible. The moving rickshaw and my state of shock couldn’t really help me figure out anything. But as the rickshaw made a turn at the street intersection, I caught a glimpse of young men in a group around the park, looking at me and laughing.
I could barely see their faces. In a state of utter frustration and helplessness, all I could do was fume with outrage and frustration. I sat on the rickshaw for the rest of the way with a grumpy face, cursing the men and my luck.
Once I got on the metro, I wrote about my experience on Facebook to grapple with all the mixed emotions I was feeling. I was still wearing my damp scarf and jacket.
My post was not just an outburst of emotions. I also wrote about how such incidents have been normalised as part of Holi tradition. People think they can harass women (and anyone else, including stray animals) with water balloons and colours. All of it is tolerated and brushed off as something that normally happens.
This doesn’t end on Holi. It is to be expected during the week preceding Holi, on the day of Holi and post the festival. In fact, such behaviour isn’t even viewed as harassment and thus usually garners little to no censure or backlash.
Objects of pleasure?
As girls and women, we are simply expected to not be so uptight and be receptive of the festive mood and fun times. Even if that fun and enjoyment come at the expense of our consent and bodies being violated and ridiculed.
Also, let me just reiterate that these water balloons cause actual physical pain. I would not be mistaken to assume that our body parts are targeted with these water to reduce us to sex objects. This means men think we are supposedly walking around merely for their titillation and pleasure. Thereby erasing our identities, feelings and humanity.
Many other women, in response to my Facebook post, shared similar experiences. They publicly expressed the unease and frustration with being in public spaces during the time of Holi.
Stop and start
Women already face all sorts of harassment on a regular basis in public spaces across different cities in India. It’s no surprise then that public spaces during Holi become even more hostile for women and other vulnerable groups to navigate through.
This, of course, implies that as equal citizens of this country, we can’t access and enjoy the public spaces. They are meant for everyone, regardless of your gender identity, sexual orientation, caste, class etc.
So it’s about time we stop tolerating and start voicing our disapproval and despise for such behaviour.
Enough is enough!
Acts that normalise harassment and abuse of women in the garb of celebrating a festival should be reconsidered. We ought to emphasise the importance and absolute need for consent during Holi. Moreover, it would be fantastic and super helpful to have the law enforcement agencies on our side in terms of regulating and punishing such harassment. All this needs to be done without restricting the freedom of women, which unfortunately becomes the first casualty in the name of protection.
Read more about sexual harassment here.