Written by Meenakshi Nair
Across cultures, human beings come together to celebrate and make merry in public spaces, which are meant to be equally accessible to all. Whether it be the Coachella Music Festival in the US, the Carnival in Brazil, or even Holi in northern India, these celebrations offer not only a sensory spectacle but also allow for a suspension of the usual social hierarchies. In school, we’re taught that these festivals are about togetherness and love. These celebrations are seen as important cultural events. A quick Google search erases any such rosy pictures.
Coachella? Ten Tips for Women Travelling Alone. Carnival? Tips for Surviving Carnival, or even Turning an Infamously Sexist City Into a Safe Space for Women. Holi? Seven Ways Women Can Feel Safe During Holi.
As part of the University of Delhi’s English undergraduate degree, we study The Rover by the female Restoration playwright Aphra Behn (1640-1689). This play, set in Naples, contains a carnival as an important feature of the plot. For the two main female characters – Hellena who is being pushed into joining a convent by her father and brother, and Florinda who is being forced into marriage to an old man – the carnival becomes a space where they can explore their freedoms. Hellena wishes to find love at an equal platform with her partner, while Florinda wishes to spend time with her beloved, a young soldier. Clearly, for them this is an opportunity to explore themselves and the world, away from male familial diktats.
What is telling is how the male characters treat the carnival. Upon arriving at Naples, the titular Rover, Willmore, describes the carnival as a period of ‘legal, authorized fornication’. As Florinda waits for her beau, to whom she has expressed consent for amorous activities, Willmore stumbles onto the scene and takes Florinda’s consent (to one specific person in one specific context) as though she has ceded all autonomy over her body – he attempts to rape her, desisting only when he is frightened off.
Nearly 400 years later, attitudes do not seem to have changed. The Carnival in Brazil is a time for colourful revelry that marks the beginning of the austere period of Lent. It involves vibrant costumes and dancing in public streets. Men dominate these activities, and according to a 2016 survey by the Sao Paulo-based research firm Data Popular, 61 percent of men think single women attending Carnival should not complain about sexual harassment, while 49 percent agree a Carnival block is no place for a decent woman.
Public spaces in north India, Delhi in particular, are much the same. Roads are populated by men, whether as pedestrians, hawkers, or mere loiterers. Male eyes follow any woman – whether she is alone or in a group, whether she’s old or young, irrespective of attire or time of day. The gaze isn’t merely sexual entitlement, it signals a power dynamic that has existed in some form or other, for centuries. The gaze suggests that in social consciousness, women’s bodies do not belong in the public sphere, and women’s bodies that do venture into public are seen as as objects to be looked at.
Festivals such as Holi, traditionally celebrated in public spaces with friends and strangers alike, pose a whole host of concerns. Apart from the toxicity of chemical colours and the wastage of water, women have to contend with their bodily autonomy being violated which is excused by the pithy phrase ‘bura na mano, Holi hai.’ Don’t be upset, it’s Holi.
So colour is smeared on women, even if they don’t want it, by complete strangers. Women are drenched with water mixed with substances ranging from egg yolk, mud, tomatoes, and even, purportedly, semen. Of course, these horrifying (yet sadly, normalised) incidents are not limited to the day of Holi. Women commuting to and from work, educational institutions, or even just exercising their right to public spaces are pelted with water balloons in the weeks leading up to the festival.
Specifically, water-ballooning does several things. Apart from the physical pain and shock, and the discomfort due to being drenched with foreign substances, women learn that they are not equal citizens, they are not welcome in public spaces. It is reinforced for women that their bodily autonomy means nothing. And men – ranging from elementary school boys to old men – are told yet again that they may do as they please, that their actions do not have consequences, and their ‘fun’ has more value that a woman’s feeling of safety in public spaces.
In March 1981, women students of St. Stephens’ College, University of Delhi were attacked and molested within their own college premises by a gang of nearly 40 men on the pretext of playing Holi. In late February 2018, several women students of Lady Shri Ram College have been pelted with water balloons filled, reportedly, with semen, on the same pretext. In 1981, they filed complaints, no action was taken, and women students feared that their parents would withdraw them from college.
In 2018, over 30 years later, these fears do not seem unfounded. Complaints have been filed; reportedly, the sale and use of water balloons has been banned around Lady Shri Ram College, and police patrolling has been increased. In 1981, the women initiated awareness campaigns in schools and neighbourhoods and set up Vigilance Committees across colleges. In 2018, protest marches and discussion groups have already been organised. Social media has been utilised to highlight the frequency and volume of such incidents. There are plans for awareness workshops in schools and colleges in the locality, and to engage private residents through the RWAs of the region.
Of course, social media is seen by men as an extension of physical public spaces. Women using it to share their views and speak out about inequalities are, very ironically, likened to white supremacist groups. Slurs against women are thrown around casually, and men quibble over insignificant matters such as the substances in the water balloons. What does it matter what the balloons contained? What matters is that women were pelted without their consent and their free access to public spaces was violated. What matters is that women (and indeed other non-majority groups) are made to feel unwelcome in public spaces. What matters is that women need to worry about their physical well-being instead of being free to celebrate.