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
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.
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
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/)