The recent judgment of the Supreme Court of India that lifted the ban on women in dance bars in Maharashtra once again reminds us about the circumstances of women earning through engagements involving their bodies for entertainment, sex and forms of eroticism. The judgment is being hailed for protecting the rights of women to earn as they wish. However, there are three interconnected narratives that have been less represented historically and in contemporary times.
Firstly, women with limited alternatives for livelihood continue living in cycles of disadvantage. In 2005, a study on the socio-economic conditions and rehabilitation needs of women in dance bars was conducted by Prayas, a field action project of the Centre for Criminology and Justice, School of Social Work, Tata Institute of Social Sciences. The Prayas study was conducted the year after the Maharashtra government had imposed a ban on dance bars in the state. It was based on personal interviews with 72 women. Apart from these interviews, several women participated through unstructured and focus group discussions. The study showed that for some women, working in dance bars came with its challenges – long hours on one’s feet, indecent advances and uncouth behaviour of customers, and high expenses towards travel at night. 50 percent of the women were illiterate and 87 percent of them were between 18 to 30 years of age. A significant percent of women who were married were divorced, separated or widowed. Expenses were high – towards food, make up, bribes to evade police action, loan repayments and rent. Living with stigma brought other challenges. Yet, for 90 percent of the women interviewed, working in dance bars to earn a livelihood was a necessity to meet family responsibilities.
Disadvantaged circumstances of women lead them to negotiate with limited options — in this case, working in dance bars. The assertion of choice in this context must be re-examined.
Secondly, women’s realities and voices are varied. Ascertaining whose reality counts is fundamentally troublesome. For instance, women’s engagements in certain professions are often seen in terms of consent/choice or force. Reality may not just lie at extreme ends of consent and force respectively; but perhaps in between, and involve both. The Prayas report indicated that for some women, the process of entry into dance bars was not necessarily consensual. They were duped by ‘middlemen’, and their entry was marked with exchange of money between middlemen, bar owners and women’s families. Their freedom was curtailed. The study found that even when there may not have been use of overt force in women’s entry into working in dance bars, there were instances of agents luring women to come to the city for employment (without revealing the exact nature of the job), and payment of advances to their families. This made it difficult for at least some of the women to leave the ‘job’ once they joined, due to a variety of factors including social stigma and an inability to return the amount paid as advance to them. However, another study by SNDT University contradicted some of the findings of the Prayas study, especially on the issue of consent. In the process, women’s diverse realities may get undermined in favour of homogeneous, more voiced ones.
A research scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, aspiring to explore the lives of young women in dance bars, recently spoke about how she anticipates challenges in interviewing the women who are always supervised by an ‘escort’. Even though the scholar was familiar with the women’s native community, she expected that the discussion about their lives would be limited in the presence of their ‘escorts’. The Prayas researchers avoided interviewing women in bars, and instead visited their homes or places where women were more likely to speak frankly. A few women who earlier participated in the study later withdrew, as bar owners had warned them against speaking with outsiders. This brings us to the third narrative. Women’s voices of force, constraint, and violence are less expressed and more difficult to uncover. When they are, they must be treated with utmost care and attention.
Breaking cycles of disadvantage requires substantive supportive systems. In its absence, women continue to earn from difficult and aggravated circumstances of risk. It could be in beer bars, dance bars, pornography, commercial sex, massage parlours, etc. The engagements in each of these sites may be exclusive of each other; or boundaries may be blurred or too fine to establish. The Supreme Court of India noted the findings of the SNDT study that shows that women took to dancing in bars to rehabilitate themselves from the exploitative flesh trade.
It is hoped that these women are well and leading better lives. Yet, a disturbing fact remains that they alone carried the onus of getting out of exploitative circumstances.
We need to ask whether working in dance bars is one of the only feasible choices, or one of several options that must be made available to women in difficult circumstances.
While the State may now take measures to protect women in dance bars, a fundamental question that needs asking is: Are the current schemes of the government adequate to help women out of exploitative circumstances? In the absence of these, women may move from one difficult circumstance to another (perhaps more difficult ones). Even in the current context where the ban has been lifted and women are once again able to perform in bars, the question of having alternatives is significant for those who wish to switch earning engagements, and for those who may soon find themselves out of these engagements owing to advancing age. The absence of alternatives questions matters of choice.
The Prayas report lists recommendations that centre around four key areas — protecting women from exploitation, safe shelter, psycho-social and legal counselling, and assistance for training for alternate livelihoods. The imposition of the earlier ban had aggravated their difficulties. Their children’s education was impacted, women had to struggle to meet expenses towards shelter, and they had no way of dealing with unemployment and illness in their families. The women expected that it was the responsibility of the State to offer earning alternatives. Following the earlier ban, they found no substantive initiative from the State or civil society to address these key areas.
A couple of years after the ban, a few women who participated in my doctoral work reminisced that they were offered jobs as security guards. However they left these jobs as they were stigmatised for their earlier engagements in bars. Further, they could not identify with the work profile. In keeping with these women’s voices, it may be about time that we consider a scheme for women that facilitates opportunities to reduce their disadvantage – a scheme designed with participation of women with varied and diverse voices.
Thus, amidst the jubilation of the recent lifting of the ban on women in dance bars, some disturbing questions linger on: Who is responsible for women’s voices of constraint, distress, force, deceit or violence? Do we offer women minimum services, or viable alternatives that convey our intent and commitment for support? Where are the women negotiating with choices? Where are they negotiating with constrained realities? Do we now leave them alone to now manoeuvre their realities? Can we?
Sharon Menezes is an assistant professor at the Centre for Criminology and Justice (CCJ), School of Social Work (SSW), Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). She is also the joint project director of Prayas, a field action project of the CCJ
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Updated Date: Feb 18, 2019 13:56:35 IST