How Holi Has Become A Permission For Sexual Harassment

The vibrant hues of Holi brighten India’s streets every spring. Families and friends gather to joyfully douse each other with bright green, pink, and yellow colors. It all appears so good from above.

But behind those vivid powders, an increasingly dark reality has emerged – sexual harassment and violence masquerading under the guise of Holi’s festive nature. For countless women, children, and men, what should be a joyous occasion has become tainted by fear, overstepping boundaries, and public sexual assault.

It’s Holi time again, and examples of such behavior have already begun to appear:

The viral examples are as disturbing as they are plentiful. In 2018, media reports surfaced of groups in Delhi filling balloons with semen and throwing them at unsuspecting women during Holi celebrations. In the aftermath, women came forward with harrowing accounts of being struck with these bodily projectiles in crowded public spaces. It is as disgusting as you’d expect from the lowlives of Delhi.

Mind you, this wasn’t an isolated occurrence, but part of an escalating pattern of harassment and sexual violence plaguing Holi festivities. A 2010 study by Delhi University surveyed over 2,500 women on campus and found a staggering 60% reported they had faced aggravated harassment, public groping, inappropriate touching, and verbal abuse during Holi celebrations compared to other times of the year.

Two-thirds of respondents expressed they felt unsafe simply leaving their homes during the multi-day Holi period due to the heightened risk of being assaulted. Many women opted not to attend any public gatherings during the festival at all out of this justifiable fear for their safety and wellbeing.

There seems to be an underlying societal mentality that the usual rules of respect and consent get temporarily suspended during Holi’s festivities. The “Bura Na Mano, Holi Hai” (“Don’t feel bad, it’s Holi”) attitude normalizes and rationalizes grossly inappropriate behaviors like groping, molestation, and sexual assault under the flawed logic of celebration and tradition.

“There is often an attitude that Holi is a period of ‘allowance’ where men can misbehave with women without any consequences,” explains Dr. Ranjana Kumari, Director of the Center for Social Research in Delhi. “This mindset stems from the same place that blames victims for being out in public spaces rather than holding perpetrators accountable.”

At its core, Holi is meant to be a joyful, communal festival celebrating the arrival of spring and the victory of good over evil. The very act of joyfully decorating others with vibrant colors is rooted in Hindu scripture and theology. But some have perverted Holi’s essence into a smokescreen enabling assault and sexual harassment under the flawed assumption of cultural tolerance for this behavior.

“The hues of Holi represent the colorful beauty of life and new beginnings, not violence and suppression of women,” says Pooja Agarwal, a Delhi University student working to end systemic gender discrimination. “When we allow harassment in the name of tradition, we do a disservice to the very principles Holi was founded upon.”

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Dismantling the culture of impunity and giving cover to sexual harassers during Holi requires a multi-faceted approach at the individual, legal, and societal levels. Public education campaigns to reframe Holi’s meaning as a celebration of color, joy, and life rather than a free-for-all enabling harassment would be an important first step. This cultural reframing needs to come from influential leaders, religious institutions, educators, and public personalities helping to elevate Holi back to its rightful symbolic roots.

Simultaneously, law enforcement must crack down on public harassment and molestation incidents during Holi celebrations. Increasing visible police patrols and enacting temporary zonal access restrictions could help mitigate opportunistic offenses. Most critically, reports of harassment and assault must be taken as seriously as any other time of year rather than waved away as expected festival behavior.

However, beyond new policies and protocols, a societal reset is needed most of all. Communities, neighborhoods, friend groups, and families have to step up as proactive bystanders. They need to visibly intervene and demonstrate zero tolerance for public harassment during Holi, sending a powerful cultural message reinforcing consent, safety, and mutual respect.

According to Dr. Kumari, the collective mentality must shift: “If bystanders start displaying and vocalizing that Holi’s spirit is one of joy, not a blanket permission for abuse, that will be our most powerful tool for curbing these behaviors.”

Bringing Holi back to its essence won’t happen overnight, but engaging all stakeholders – community leaders, law enforcement, families, youth organizations, and cultural institutions – can help reset the narrative that harassment has no place under any circumstances during this sacred celebration.

“Ultimately, the very colors that enliven Holi are vibrant reminders of rejuvenation and renewal,” explains Pooja. “We should use them as inspiration to honor traditions in their purest forms, leaving no room for actions violating the inherent human dignity of women.”

Photo by Aneesh Ans

Holi’s brilliant hues should only represent the most transcendent human ideals – life, joy, equality, and justice for all. Transforming its symbolism away from being a perceived excuse for assault and harassment is essential for reclaiming the true spirit of this ancient celebration of colors in the modern era.


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