For years I stopped attending Phagwa celebrations, finding my own experience too full of male aggression for me to want to return. Some, though not all, young men seemed to find an excuse to touch women in ways that they, not the women, decided was ‘fun’, in ways they were unlikely to touch men they don’t know, and in ways that race, religion, tradition or culture seemed to justify as their right, even if it was unwanted.
Unwanted touching for any reason by anyone determines that line between what is acceptable and what is harassment and violence. Males could gleefully romp with their bredren, even grab other men they didn’t know in the same way or to the same extent, but I wasn’t comfortable with masculine norms setting the rules of consent regarding my body.
This, in a society where women, like 34-year-old Jessica Brereton, can’t consent to leave relationships without being harmed, where Magella Moreau and I stood covered in Phagwa’s jubilant yellows and pinks, remembering how consent was denied to Marcia Henville.
This, in a society where hundreds of girls are sexually abused yearly, many within Indian families whose preference for silence over shame teaches girls to live without a right to consent. This, in a society, where we are so undecided about the terms of consent that adult male sex with a fourteen or twelve year old girl constitutes rape unless it is legalized under common law or the Hindu or Muslim marriage acts. This, in a society where no sexual harassment legislation exists to protect women workers’ consent.
I was done with wondering each Phagwa how many men would try to clamp their hands completely over my mouth and eyes. And, as much as women also filled their pichakarees and flung bagfuls of abeer at friends and strangers, none ever left me choking on mouthfuls of powder, desperately trying to stop my eyes from burning or angry that ‘no’, ‘don’t’ or ‘stop’ meant little.
I always wondered why no cultural organisers or religious elders used their microphone to say, listen, those colours are ceremonial gifts, not a threat, and this is a community space where women should feel asked and respected, not attacked or manhandled.
Yes, you can’t play mas and fraid powder, but I wasn’t afraid of the soaking or powder. And I’m a woman who has played many jouvays without anyone’s protection, enjoying a rite where the hands of men and women, including those I didn’t know, left me oil black and devil blue, and without feelings of violation.
I returned to Phagwa on Sunday, not at the Divali Nagar, but this time at the Hindu Prachar Kendra’s celebration in Cunupia, so that Ziya could experience Holi for herself, with her godmother, dad, and friendly children she knew.
It was beautiful. A living canvas undulating over rhythms and melodies of pichakaree singing. Collective art more valuable than anything on museum walls. Men and women, whose names I’d never know, playfully hand painting our clothes, arms and faces. We left, dusty and damp swirls of orange, purple and green, just as mixed circles began joyfully dancing.
I mostly kept Zi with me, because it made her feel safer and because I knew I’d be less of a target with her in my arms, but I know women there who had the same experience I never grew used to.
You learn how to try to stay safe, as all women have to, or to devalue your needs because there appears nothing you can do. Holi could provide one community where we don’t encounter such lessons too.