Holi festival: Delhi women forced into lockdown amid sexual harassment fears

Michael Safi in Delhi

Students attack ‘degrading’ decision to confine them to halls to avoid India’s colourful but sometimes rowdy festival

As India’s raucous spring festival of Holi approached this year, a memo circulated among two women’s dormitories at the University of Delhi.

Undergraduate women would be locked inside the student halls from 9pm on Sunday until 6pm on Monday, it read – well after most Indians had finished smearing each other in dye, dancing or drinking from cups of bhang lassi, a milky cannabis-based concoction.

The decision of the hostels highlights a darker side to one of India’s most joyous festivals: as inhibitions decrease, many women say the street harassment endemic to Delhi life also surges.

“It’s a very sexualised thing. You get touched or hit on your buttocks or your breasts,” said Devangana Kalita, an activist and researcher at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

“There’s a particular targeting of women’s genital parts,” added Shristi Satyawati, who on Saturday tried to lodge a police case against a group of young men who pelted her with water balloons “on my breasts and bum”.

“I was deeply agitated, but the police said they couldn’t lodge a case. They said it was Holi – they couldn’t do anything about it,” she said.

For many Indians, who celebrate Holi with their families or close friends, the festival is harmless fun. Those who complain about being coated in colour are met with a Hindi catchphrase roughly translated: “Don’t be offended, it’s Holi.”

“The idea of consent does not exist during Holi,” said Sabika Abbas Naqvi, the president of Delhi’s student hostels union. She said many women discreetly avoided their usual public outings around the festival, and avoided larger, uncontrolled gatherings.

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

Delhi police announced they had posted around 25,000 officers around the city to prevent hooliganism during the festivities.

Nonetheless, Delhi University’s two female dormitories were locked up for the day, along with several others across the city, to the chagrin of women’s and student’s groups.

“The men can remain free and roam about, but the women who are the supposed victims need to stay – it’s atrocious,” Naqvi said.

Rumblings have been growing against the tight curfews on women studying in Delhi’s student hostels and grew louder last week, when India’s minister for women, Maneka Gandhi tried to defend the restrictions.

“When you are 16 or 17 you are hormonally very challenged,” she said. “So to protect you against your own hormonal outbursts, perhaps a [boundary] is drawn.”

Pinjra Tod, a student group fighting against discriminatory rules for women’s hostels versus the men’s accommodation, said in a statement: “The rise in sexual violence and harassment that women experience around Holi is barely addressed. Instead, women are once again locked up for their ‘own safety’ with arbitrary restrictions.”

Sophie Whitehead, a 21-year-old from the University of Edinburgh, studying in Delhi on exchange, was among the women locked in her student accommodation on Monday.

“It’s a strange feeling to be completely unable to go out,” she said. “I understand that Holi can be dangerous, there’s big crowds [and] probably a risk of groping. And there’s been a lot more men out on the streets over the past few days, so I think it would be better to avoid the crowds.

“But we’re old enough to make our own decisions,” she said. “It’s quite degrading – we can’t even leave to grab a drink or food.”

Men Engage Delhi is one activist group that acknowledges the festival can be dangerous for women, and has teamed with other groups to campaign against the harassment.

“It is important that people don’t brush aside consent on this day,” Badar Uzzama, from Men Engage Delhi, told the Asian Age newspaper. “Holi is no reason to touch another person in an uncomfortable manner. We have had several sessions with college students in Delhi and got a positive response.”

But he said the campaign had experienced some backlash too. “Some feel that we have no right to make a fuss about a traditional festival,” he said.

“But that will not stop us from campaigning for a safe Holi. Consent matters, even on Holi, and people have to be held accountable for such actions.”