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Dancers in the dark

By Freny Manecksha

As three bar dancers commit suicide in Mumbai following the ban on dance bars in Maharashtra, an SNDT study busts several myths about the working conditions, backgrounds and lifestyles of these

The Maharashtra government's controversial ban on some 1,300 licensed dance bars has affected 75,000 bar dancers. Brought in ostensibly to prevent exploitation and "restore morality", the ban has only served to criminalise, stigmatise and push an already vulnerable section of women onto the streets, nudging them towards the commercial sex trade. Three girls, the only bread-earners in their families, have committed suicide since the ban came into effect in Mumbai.

According to Varsha Kale of the Womanist Party of India and president of the Bar Girls Association, around 15,000 women have left Mumbai following the ban. Devoid of an income and unable to pay the rent for their rooms they have been forced to seek alternative livelihoods, most likely as sex workers in smaller cities and tourist destinations.

At a public meeting organised by PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge Action and Research) in Mumbai early this month, several bar dancers spoke candidly about their backgrounds and their bleak future.

Contrary to common perception, the dance bars offered these women the opportunity to earn a livelihood that was much less exploitative than conditions in the villages from which they hailed. They afforded these sole bread-earners the means to live with dignity and bring up their children. Much of what the women said is detailed in a study brought out by the Research Centre for Women's Study, SNDT Women's University, and the group Forum Against Oppression. The study traces the lives of these women and explores their work and migration trajectories. A survey covering some 500 women was conducted at the work site itself -- in 50 bars between Tardeo and Mira Road-Bhayandar on the Western Railway, between Dadar and Thane on the Central Railway and Sandhurst Road and Vashi on the Harbour Line.

The study examines several myths and misconceptions about bar dancers.

No trafficking

The study observes that the women have not been trafficked from neighbouring countries or states. There was no coercion or organised racket. The women interviewed said they had learnt of the dance bars through family, common knowledge or the community. Most had worked in at least three or four bars; there was no compulsion to work in any one bar. Out of the 500 women interviewed, only six were from outside India . (The state claimed that a large number of Bangladeshis were in the trade.)

Sole bread-earners

The study notes that many of the women -- 42.20% -- come from communities traditionally following sex work or from dancing communities. Kale explains how extreme poverty forces women from certain communities into forms of the sex trade. "In many landless communities in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh (like the Rajnaths, Beriya, Dholi, Gandharva, Dhunawat, etc), it is a common ritual for very poor families to sell a virgin girl through the village elders for use by middle-aged men. The practice is known as 'nath utarna'. These women are then forced to earn for their families, including their brothers, and are not permitted to get married. Even if they defy the village elders and seek a partner, he is generally uneducated, unemployed or someone associated with the sex trade. They remain the sole earners for their families."

The women from Maharashtra are largely from drought-prone districts and belong to nomadic or de-notified tribes. Kale says that migrating to Mumbai and the opportunity to dance in a bar gave the women a vestige of confidence and dignity. More importantly, the women have been trying to educate their children to ensure that they don't have to follow the same occupation.

At the PUKAR meeting, many women spoke openly of their anguish in having to pull their children out of school. Or of being pushed out of their apartments because they could not pay the rent. In response to their plight, noted writer and activist Mahashweta Devi, who has been actively involved in the cause of nomadic and de-notified tribes, announced in Kolkata that the royalties from her forthcoming books would go towards the rehabilitation of dance bar workers who had lost their livelihood.

Changing communities

The SNDT study takes a comprehensive view and links the practice of bar dancing to overall socio-economic changes in poor communities. It explains how de-notifying tribes is not enough. It charges the state with abdicating its responsibilities and not helping these communities make the transition into a rapidly-changing world. It notes that folk forms like tamasha and sangeet baris and other forms of dance traditions have existed and been part of Maharashtra 's cultural ethos for centuries. "Entire communities have lived for generations by dancing. Problems have arisen partly because increased urbanisation has rendered the livelihood and culture of these communities largely redundant due to changing demands and cultural practices."

'Cushy' lifestyles and flying currency notes?

A number of newspapers and the electronic media have harped on scamster Telgi's connections with a bar dancer, perpetrating the misconception that bar dancers enjoy a 'cushy' lifestyle and earn huge amounts of money. According to the SNDT study, the vast majority of dancers worked from 8 pm to 1.30 am . They spent at least half-an-hour putting on their make-up and their chhaniya cholis. The dances were vigorous; in some places mujra was performed, in others 'item numbers'. The work was similar to the huge dance units in Hindi cinema, except that these women had to dance for long spells with no breaks.

Says Kale: "Many of them have been taught mujra from their childhood and have a professional approach to their work in the bars. They touch the floor in a namaskar before they perform. Many have demonstrated the chumkar or whirling step to me and asked 'Aap isko kala bolenge ki nahi?' ('Wouldn't you consider this a form of folk art?').

Kale claims that a TV clip portraying a woman dancing as hundreds of currency notes are thrown her way has done immense damage. "It is a huge exaggeration, possibly one that took place in a South Mumbai bar on a rare occasion. Many bar dancers in the suburbs earn just Rs 40 a day in tips."

The media too pounces on salacious details such as the income tax department raiding a bar dancer associated with bookies, and seizing assets worth millions. Most reports fail to mention that these are the few exceptions and that many women are struggling to pay off loans taken from private moneylenders to help educate their children.

Researchers of the SNDT study also visited some chawls near Congress House where many of the women live along with their families in cramped conditions with some 10 women sharing a space of less than 150 square feet.

Dancers are not minors

An argument in favour of the dance bar ban is that it will protect minors. However, the SNDT study notes that only 6.80% of women were under the age of 18; only three of the 500 dancers interviewed were under 16. More significantly, the study pointed out how women from this vulnerable section had been forced to work in other sectors long before they turned 18; 45.30% of them started working before they were 16, and were domestic workers or rag-pickers when they were as young as six or eight years old.

Sexual harassment or safe spaces?

The women interviewed in the SNDT study said they faced little sexual harassment and abuse from bar owners and customers. Whenever there was any verbal harassment, male co-workers or their own fellow workers would help get rid of the customer. Customers were not allowed to touch the women during performances, or dance with them. Often, transport was provided by the bar owner at night. Significantly, the women commented that they saw a degree of negotiation and security possible within their work that would cease once the ban came into effect.

Police harassment

Many women expressed anger against the police. The study notes that the police was viewed as naked power/male power and state power. Many policemen not only frequented the bars but also took away their earnings. One woman described how, when a customer offered her and her co-workers a lift, a policeman stopped the autorickshaw and commented that the customer was "having fun alone". The women were abused until they gave him money.

Public morality

The study observes that despite the claim that dance bars are ruining the lives of men and breaking up homes, many women who came to the Women's Centre complained of domestic violence and abuse, but none made this charge.

Lawyer activist Flavia Agnes, who is representing the bar dancers in court, argues that the ban is a class issue. She asks: "How is it that you can allow belly-dancing in five-star or three-star hotels, pubs, discos and gymkhanas but not in beer bars?" She also questions the notion that dancing in a beer bar is more exploitative than, say, modelling or the fashion industry. "Women's bodies have been used to sell anything and everything for a long time. Earlier, one looked down upon modelling until Aishwarya Rai and Sushmita Sen became national icons. How can you say it is exploitation when men gaze at a woman's body in a bar, but it is all right for them to go to sex workers in Kamathipura? Why ban bar dancers but not sex workers? These women have a right to choose their means of livelihood."

The SNDT study points out that most of the women possess no skills other than dancing; the suggestion that they work at call centres is totally unfeasible. Forty-two per cent of the women are illiterate; only 12.80% have studied up to SSC.

While Flavia Agnes believes that the ban has been brought in by vested interests, under the guise of political morality, Kale feels that the ban is just another example of a society that prefers to heap its guilt and crime upon women. "This attitude has come down through the ages. It is all right for a man to gamble, to drink or even to sell a woman. But if she dances in a bar she is accused of debasing their values."

The SNDT study concludes: "We need to map the changes taking place in the economy and society and the transition taking place in certain communities and work areas. If every time there are changes that seem to threaten middle class morality, and the ruling elite is going to go into moral panic and announce a ban, the livelihood of large sections of people will be jeopardised."

(Freny Manecksha is an independent journalist based in Mumbai)

InfoChange News & Features, September 2005