Holi. The festival of spring, colours, and sharing love. A chance to colour-bomb the neighbourhood kids in (secret) retaliation for their singing “Let It Go” at 6 am outside your window. A chance for them to whip water balloons back at you in (not so secret) retaliation. The streets are full of happy people covered head to toe in every shade of tikka powder trying to avoid the surprise buckets of water falling from the rooftops above, while dodging the water pistol attacks from below. I had been looking forward to Holi for a very long time, seeing it as the epitome of fun Nepali festivals. And I wasn’t wrong. As I went through my GoPro footage at the end of the day, all I could hear was laughter. My own. My friends’. Children in the street. Men in the square. Old didis chuckling at how ridiculous we looked. All you have to do is watch the video above to see how much fun we had.
That being said, going through the footage from my camera revealed something else too. Something I hadn’t expected and wasn’t really prepared for. The looks of displeasure and discomfort on the faces of women (both Nepali and foreign) as the vastly male mass of celebrating people used the excuse of the holiday to grab and grope at will. Myself and almost every single one of my female friends had at least one extremely bad experience at one point during the day. The festival itself facilitates lots of touching as the customary celebration is to smear coloured powder onto the faces of others. Sometimes this is done gently and innocently, but often it’s in aggressive excitement, and occasionally accompanied by attempts to grab other areas. At first I was sure this was just part of the festivities and that everyone was treated this way. I mean, spirits are running high and there are thousands of people packed into the streets and it’s just how Holi is, right? But as we got into the more crowded areas of the city, it was blatantly obvious that women were the targets. A lot of Nepali men were using the excuse of the festival as a mask to harass and feel up any woman they could get their hands on. Since you’re having fun and full of colour and enjoying an amazing festival, you can ignore the aggressive face grabbing to an extent but when you have to throw elbows to get hands off your ass or spray bottles of water to remove someone’s hands from your chest, it’s hard not to come away with a bad taste in your mouth. I feel like Holi is held up as his amazing cultural event, and it is. Really. It’s beautiful. It’s exciting and fun and I recommend it to everyone. But I also feel like sweeping this type of harassment and blatant sexism under the rug is not okay. I’d been planning to write a post of this nature before Holi anyways, and the experience at the festival really solidified the need to for me.
Whenever someone asks me what the hardest part about living abroad is, they always expect answers like “squat toilets”, “not speaking the language”, or “homesickness”. And I’m not going to lie, those things can be difficult. But for me, they don’t take first place. When I’m back home in Canada, if someone grabs by ass on the street or at the bar, I will smack their hand away and tell them off. If someone cat calls me on the street or tells me I should smile more often, I will proudly flip them the finger while creatively insulting the misogynistic douchebags. That’s not so easy to do when you’re a woman living abroad. There’s a huge cultural and language barrier holding me back from defending myself in these ways. I can’t explain (and shouldnt’ have to) to a bunch of Nepali guys who don’t speak English why what they’re doing is degrading and wrong.
Last weekend, my roommate and I went dress hunting. We were out and about on the streets (both in local and tourist districts of the city) all day. In those few hours, I was actually run off of the sidewalk by a man trying to grab by ass. He succeeded, but also got a good backhand to the chest and some insults he probably didn’t understand. An hour before that I was chased down and stopped in the street by a group of male tourists who wanted to take a photo with me. Every shopkeeper we passed yelled out “beautiful ladies, come look in my shop” and so many of the men we sat next to on a bus, passed on the sidewalk, or waited to cross the street with felt they had a right to our attention and it was our duty to have a conversation with them. It’s exhausting, trying to ignore all the advances. This is not to mention all of the stares. I mean, I get it. I’m way taller than the average Nepali person, translucent white and have flaming red hair. I’d stare at me too. But I wouldn’t stare at my boobs on the bumpy bus ride in the morning. I wouldn’t stare at my hemline as I climbed stairs. I wouldn’t make me feel like a piece of meat on the dance floor of the local club.
I love living in Nepal and the Nepali people are incredibly welcoming and friendly. This country is beautiful and I’m so thankful I have the chance to explore it over the next year. I just can’t disregard the difficulties of being a woman living abroad here. To do so would be a disservice to all women in all parts of the globe.