Bans & Bar Girls: How the ban emerged from economic reasons, not moral grounds

Ambika Shaligram
Tuesday, 24 March 2020

A new book on the subject, Bans & Bar Girls — Performing Caste in Mumbai’s Dance Bars, says the reason had to do with economics, with women from lower caste earning more. The highly-detailed and documented monograph has been authored by Sameena Dalwai, and it has been published by Women Unlimited — An associate of Kali for Women.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court paved the way for the reopening of dance bars in Mumbai, relaxing stringent conditions imposed by the Maharashtra government on their licencing and functioning. The decision to ban dance bars was taken in August 2005 and the public discourse revolved around the subject of ‘morality’.

A new book on the subject, Bans & Bar Girls — Performing Caste in Mumbai’s Dance Bars, says the reason had to do with economics, with women from lower caste earning more. The monograph (defined as a highly detailed and thoroughly documented study or paper written about a limited area of a subject or field of inquiry) has been authored by Sameena Dalwai and it has been published by Women Unlimited — An associate of Kali for Women. 

In the introduction to the book, Dalwai says, ‘The essence of most academic journeys, like this one, inevitably begins with that inconspicuous ‘why’ — and mine was ‘why the ban?’

We ask if she had certain impressions about the dance bars and bar girls and if they changed while she was working on the monograph? “In that period, the feminists in Mumbai took a stand that this is a hereditary occupation. And that was one of the reasons given for continuation of livelihood. My stand was that sati was also traditional and hereditary, but it’s injurious to people themselves. On the factors of public morality, law and order, you can close down certain operations. But in a right-wing-ish kind of society, this is a very bad, legal gimmick. That’s what I thought earlier,” says Dalwai.

In the book though, the academician has made it clear that what we saw in the dance bars was a twist — in terms of positionality of caste, class, gender of women who were working there. 

“I started to realise that actually by using the traditional occupation, skillset that the women have been able to, in a way, turn their position on its head. They were able to earn far more in the bars. It is a unique space of women earning more than men as it doesn’t happen in an economy,” explains Dalwai.

The women’s employment is actually low and so is their work participation rate (WPR). “Those women from the SC/ST communities, who are a part of the WPR, have no choice of work. They are pushed by poverty into manual labour. “But in dance bars, they are able to twist this result and they are able to actually use it for their gain. That is the reason why they were banned,” she adds. 

Women from the traditional dancing and entertaining communities of north India — Bedia, Deredar, Kanjhar, Nat, Rajnath, collectively known as Bhatu community, and Kolhtani community from Maharashtra comprised the dance bar girls working in Mumbai and Navi Mumbai. 

The Bans & Bar Girls...has also explored the rise of globalisation, liberalisation. But in its wake, we have also seen hardlining of position on what women need to do, the morality discourse and so on. Do we see more hardlining in the future, we ask Dalwai.

She says, “First, I think our society is facing a crisis. Social scientists have in earlier times called this situation an anarchy. Anarchy is a situation where the earlier set of rules and norms, morality sees a shift, a change while the new set of rules are yet to set in. In this time, what generally happens is, there is no belief system and it’s difficult to have faith. The suicide rate grows, people don’t know where they stand, what is it that they should follow. All this usually leads to the emergence of the right wing. Country after country has seen a rise of right-wing in this period. Second, women are the first to be affected by right wing.”
Giving an example of what happened in the sucontinent, Dalwai says, “During Partition, men and women were killed, but women were also raped. It became a matter of honour, of community because women’s bodies, behaviour, the clothes they wear are not their own. In our South Asian patriarchy, an individual woman’s body belongs to the father, the family, the clan. So if you want to insult a community, you rape their woman. Both sides of the communities believe in that. 

“A mother’s main job is to watch over the teenaged girls. In case there is something wrong, the father, the mother-in-law will ask the mother, ‘Tum kya kar rahi thi,’ ‘laksha nahiye ka porikade?’ What does ‘laksha’ mean? To protect their daughter’s vagina, the honour of the family. Her sleeping with someone becomes a huge problem because of that, especially if it’s a upper caste woman with a Dalit man.”

Moving on to the caste question, where traditonally the upper castes have wielded cultural and political influence, the ban on bar girls, who come from lower castes, was not a moral stance. 

“Do we, the middle class people, not like dance? We like to go to places where children dance and sway their hips and we are very happy for Pinky or Pintu. While it is not spoken, the reason for the ban is economic — that lower-caste women are earning more than what we expect them to earn. We have decided by caste, class and gender hierarchy how much each casteperson will earn and we have followed that strictly through domestic and all kinds of labour. We have seen to it that the price of labour doesn’t grow at all,” says Dalwai, adding, “What we see is a discourse on morality, but inside it is an economic gesture, which is connected to caste and gender. The upper caste, political class might wonder why men have to throw their earnings on these women? They are anyway available to us as birthright and gender right. In this situation, those women making money from their sexuality becomes a problem.” 

Even after the Supreme Court’s decision, it’s a no-win situation for the bar girls, feels Dalwai. “The dancers I spoke to, will not be able to make a comeback now. The communities they hail from are still around. Yet this is a no-win situation, until the economy that is based on the sexual labour changes. And, that seems unlikely till the situation of the community, caste changes. In communities like Bedia, the men don’t work, their wives, daughters get into sex work. People outside the caste, community also don’t let these men do their businesses. There is a kind of continuation of that system where women have to sell their sexual labour and earn for their community,” she adds.

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