In January this year, the Supreme Court struck down a Maharashtra government law that prevented the reopening of dance bars, shut since 2005. The judgment by the apex court, however, has not been able to revive the culture that many believe is dead. A new book, Bans and Bar Girls (Women Unlimited, Rs 595), by Sameena Dalwai, 42, argues that it wasn’t gendered oppression alone but its intersection with caste that led to the closure of dance bars, where more than one lakh women in Mumbai worked.
A professor at the Centre for Women, Law and Social Change at Jindal Global School in Delhi, Dalwai comes from a family of writers and academics — she is the daughter of professor and activist Shama Dalwai and the granddaughter of Marxist intellectual Nalini Pandit. She explains that the book, while looking at the birth of dance bars and their success as magnified by globalisation, is essentially an ethnography of the ban. Excerpts:
The common argument is that the ban was the direct result of these women transgressing society’s expectations of how they should earn and live.
I agree with feminists that women should be able to use their bodies to earn a livelihood. I also agree with Dalit feminists that dance bars were a continuation of caste patriarchy, that the lower caste women were made to dance for upper-caste men all through history and dance bars were an institutionalised form of the same. But I believe there was an added angle of ‘new markets’. Dance bars became a space where men had to earn the respect of the woman. They couldn’t do it just by throwing money at the women. The girl would pretend to not care for the money and her arrogance was supposed to be her dignity there. Dignity came out of not bowing to money, but by money bowing to her.
Was it a new space for men as well?
Yes, because these men, who went to dance bars, were not traditionally upper class. They came from new money. If these men walked into a high-end bar, looked at the upper-class women there and smiled, they would get snubbed. Instead, they could go to a dance bar where prettier girls were willing to engage with them and they would think, ‘These women wear more clothes, don’t drink, are forced to work here to earn a livelihood and are hence more respectful than the ones who snub me.’ So while the law viewed them as ‘bad’ women, customers considered them ‘good’ women.
The call for the ban was chiefly led by upper-caste, upper-class women.
Bar dancers, daughters of women who came from weaker sections of society, were seen as making easy money. We refused to acknowledge that we, too, are earning much more than our mothers did. For the bar dancers, it was not only less work but also less humiliation and exploitation. But we were not able to handle their ability to move upwards in society.
What is your legal view of the ban?
The state used the protesting women as an excuse. The argument that they are running prostitution rackets under the guise of dance bars doesn’t work, especially when we are unable to stop children being thrust into sex trade. The law could have regulated the space instead of banning it altogether. If they had ensured girls below the age of 18 do not enter the dance bar industry, it would have also helped women in their 30s to continue to have a career in this business, who, in turn, would not push their young daughters into the business.
The dance-bar culture is gone but dancers have lived on in popular culture. What makes them attractive?
Women have always been attractive, especially to men, who also largely control the film industry. But most of their representation, especially in books, doesn’t view them with compassion. I like how Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City (2004) portrays them, though. He is almost in love with them, which makes it interesting. Fouzia Saeed’s book Taboo: The Hidden Culture of a Red Light Area (2001) also explores their world with humour. It doesn’t dismiss the fact that they are con women with projected lives but it also humanises them. For instance, Fouzia speaks of how women in erotic labour worry if their daughters will get work and then compares the situation with her own relatives who wonder about her future, who she will marry. Patriarchy is putting pressure on all women to make sure their daughters accept the culture of patriarchy, and this is true for both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women.