Slow Dancing with the Moral Police

[The dancing is] derogatory to the dignity of women [and] likely to deprave, corrupt or injure the public morality or morals’ – Preamble to The Police Amendment Act (2005)

The 16 July judgement by the Supreme Court deeming the 2005 ban on dance bars in Maharashtra to be unconstitutional has reignited a debate around an issue that many have been fighting tirelessly for over the past seven years. Are dance bars good or bad? Leading to rape or reducing rape? Traditional forms of dance or covert strip joints? As these polarisations rage across TV, print and social media, RR Patil — instigator of the original ban — says he will do everything in his power to keep the bars shut despite the ruling. So the question remains: why is the state of Maharashtra so invested in the death of these bars?

The preamble to the Police Amendment Act — the 2005 legislation used to enforce the ban — cites the exploitation of women as a central reason for closing the dance bars. But to what extent is this claim valid? Statistics indicate that less than 6% of bar dancers are minors, women voluntarily move from one bar to the next in a system where no establishment can claim to own them, and that practically none have been trafficked into the profession — a crime that in any case carries its own set of laws and punishments.

Exploitation in dance bars has also been linked to sex work, which continues to be viewed both legally and socially as a disreputable, criminal offence. But the fact that bar dancers indulges in sex work doesn’t necessarily provide enough — or any — causality for the former to be banned. Sandhya Ghokale, a member of the autonomous Mumbai-based feminist collective Forum Against the Oppression of Women (FAOW), says, “Say I’m a construction worker and I do sex work on the side, are you going to ban construction work? The fact that I dance in the bar doesn’t necessarily mean I do sex work — they aren’t linked in that sense.”

Veena Gowda, lawyer for the Bhartiya Bar Girls Union (BBGU), poignantly comments on the claims of exploitation made by the state government, “You can’t really look at women’s work, women’s bodies and women’s exploitation through this very male legislative viewpoint. The state needs to understand that this is not something bar girls have been fighting for on their own. A lot of women’s groups have come forward to say there should not be a ban. If it was only exploitation going on, why would we do this?”

But the issue, as far as the state is concerned, is steeped deeply in the second part of the preamble: public morality and concealing the ‘obscene’, which like Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code, targets ‘persons who are likely’ to be corrupted. Who are these persons? Ghokale believes this is very much an issue of class. “Dancing for item numbers in films is also similar. What happens in Bollywood and what they do in dance bars is not very different. The only difference is the amount of money people have, and because of that, the power that you get”, she says. If the issue is really, as the state government has outlined, ‘the performance of dances in an indecent, obscene or vulgar manner’ ostensibly leading to the commodification of women, why do Bollywood and 5 Star hotels remain so blithely unchecked and unregulated? Money — on the part of both the dancer and the client — is evidently instrumental in determining the extent of moral corruptibility.

Furthermore, the strengthening of the BBGU before the ban meant that dancers and bar owners were able to organise against the regime of bribes, taxes and licenses the government and its police forces implemented. Many therefore believe that the ban was in reality not about exploitation, but the state government’s response to no longer being able to profit from these establishments.

It is undeniable, however, that there are forms of exploitation taking place within these bars. Long working hours, irregular wages, unsafe working conditions and disproportionate levels of violence faced by bar dancers does not render it the ’empowering’ occupation that many journalists are today declaring it to be. But, Gowda says, “When you say that a woman is being exploited, it doesn’t mean you take away her work space. On the contrary, the State must work towards empowering women through laws and rights.” In this respect, despite the victory enabled by the Supreme Court judgement, there is still a long way to go. And if the state of Maharashtra has any say in it, the battles to come will not be easy.

This piece was originally published in The Sunday Guardian on 20 July 2013

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