In 2005 when Mumbai’s Dance Bars were shut down, I gladly accepted the invitation of bar dancers’ organization to address their rally in Azad Maidan to protest against the ban imposed by the Government on their profession. My argument was simple; women who dance in these bars are merely emulating what we see celebrated actresses do in every second Bollywood film.
If anything most bar dancers dress far more modestly than Bipasha Basu or Katrina Kaif do while dancing raunchy numbers like Bidi Jalaiye le or Chikni Chameli. Their only fault is that most bar dancers come from miserably poor families; many end up in the profession because they have been abandoned by husbands or are sole breadwinners supporting disabled or sick parents and younger siblings. By contrast most film heroines today come from highly educated and wealthy families.
At that rally, bar dancers who spoke from the stage openly abused the police for their hypocrisy saying: “They say we are immoral. But they have no shame coming and raiding the bars in order to extort money from us. What does that make them? bhadwas?”
Many bar dancers faced destitution when bars were forcibly shut down. However, that did not mean an end of their profession. Since it became fashionable to have young women gyrate to Bollywood numbers on every conceivable occasion--from political rallies to weddings and even functions organized by the police, many found other venues to perform.
Though I wasn't in favour of the ban, I find it hard to celebrate its revocation. It may be a victory for bar owners but not quite so for women. The stigma attached to the profession stays despite the fact that dancing per se is no more stigmatized. For example, women of “respectable” families dance to the same Bollywood tunes in their family weddings, birthday parties and in discotheques. And yet, many of those who wax eloquent in favor of dance bars would never let their own daughter or sister take to this profession.
The stigma is connected to the fact that many of the dance bars are black holes of economic and sexual exploitation. For example, most bar owners don't pay any salary to the dancers. They are expected to earn from tips given by tipsy customers. Those vary from day to day and from customer to customer putting a pressure on these women to appear "pleasing" to the men. What is worse, the bar owners are reported to take away 40 to 50% of the money received by the dancers as tips as their share for letting them dance in their bars.
Dancing seductively before a group of drunken louts who frequent these bars is not a very dignified way to earn a living. Bar dancer turned film script writer Shagufta admitted candidly on NDTV that while bar dancing saved her from the clutches of flesh trade, it was hardly an enjoyable or dignified profession. Most women don’t dare disclose to their families that they are supporting them by dancing in bars because it is considered just a shade better than prostitution.
It is well known that dance bar clientele usually includes underworld dons and other shady characters. The Supreme Court may order tighter regulations to make the working environment safe for bar dancers, but given the high level of criminalization of our police, the so called law and order guardians pose a bigger threat for these women than do ordinary goondas. Police routinely fleece both the bar owners and dancers.
When talking of the livelihood rights of bar dancers, we cannot afford to ignore the fact that even those who may not be hostile to bar dancers per se do not want dance bars in their neighborhoods, just as even those who consume liquor don’t want a liquor shop next to their home. The reason is simple: such places invariably attract lumpen elements who pose a threat to neighborhood safety. Self styled liberals and feminists use the term “moral policing” as a pejorative. But a society which gives up its right to exercise moral pressure on individuals to observe social decorum is a dying society.
Even today in closely knit villages and stable urban neighborhoods crime rates are low; men dare not indulge in sexual harassment or drunken brawls in public places because they face serious social censure. Our cities have become unsafe largely because people live anonymous lives due to breakdown of community life. Neighborhood bonds and community controls have become lax or nonexistent. As a result young people are growing up rudderless and get easily sucked into anti social activities.
Today, we cannot afford to brush away with disdain the concerns of those who oppose the existence of dance bars in their neighborhoods. Thus the right to livelihood of bar dancers is pitched against citizens’ right to decide what kind of activities they wish to keep out of their neighborhoods. For example, thanks to the work of Shetkari Sangathana in Maharashtra the law mandates that the government would have to close the liquor shop in every such village or municipality where the majority of women vote against presence of daru ka adda because it inevitably becomes a magnet for anti-social elements. However, feminists have celebrated militant anti-liquor movements in rural India, including forcible closure of liquor shops only when they were led by leftist organizations.
Are we going to deny the same right with regard to dance bars, simply because demand for their closure doesn't come under the banner of Maoist or Communist parties?
This article was published in The Indian Express on 20th July 2013 (http://www.indianexpress.com/news/my-neighbourhood-s-right-not-to-have-a-dance-bar/1144138/)