Dance bars gave women izzat and azaadi, says Sameena Dalwai, who researched phenomenon post-ban

  • Sameena Dalwai's recently released monograph Bans & Bar Girls:Performing Caste in Mumbai’s Dance Bars takes a socio-legal deep-dive into the phenomenon that stripped nearly 75,000 women of their source of livelihood.

  • A majority of the girls came from traditional dancing and sex work communities in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, making the ban as much about the state’s own morality and social norms as about upholding law and order.

  • In effect, it sought to maintain the status quo between upper caste men and lower caste women.

“Why the ban?” This simple question set Sameena Dalwai on an ethnographic journey around the legal ban on bar dancing that came into effect in Maharashtra in 2005. The associate professor at Jindal Global Law School began her fieldwork nearly three years after the ban had set in, and over a period of eight months, interviewed (former) bar girls, bar owners, feminists, Dalit activists and lawyers, among others.

Her recently released monograph Bans & Bar Girls:Performing Caste in Mumbai’s Dance Bars takes a socio-legal deep-dive into the phenomenon that stripped nearly 75,000 women of their source of livelihood. A majority of the girls came from traditional dancing and sex work communities in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, making the ban as much about the state’s own morality and social norms as about upholding law and order. In effect, it sought to maintain the status quo between upper caste men and lower caste women.

In early 2019, the ban was lifted but it may have been too little too late. “Most of the women who were 25 then are 40 now. Their careers are over,” says the writer, whose work makes necessary intersections between gender, law, labour, and caste. Edited excerpts from an interview:

While initial discussions around the ban were on the evils of dance bars, this soon shifted to bar girls themselves personifying the forces of evil. How much of this was about class and social positioning?

Class strife always comes out in a gendered way. If I'm jealous of someone's money, how can I show that? I could say he has big cars, but that says nothing. But if I say his wife wears short skirts or drinks alcohol, it becomes something. The upper caste woman becomes the butt of the wrath towards the upper class. When policemen enter pubs, ask for them to be shut down and round people up, they are jealous of the men too. They judge the women and shame them for their drinking or their clothes. It’s not sexuality or labour that comes out in a gendered way, but class struggle.

Bar girls were running the industry. Without them, there was no dance bar and it was possibly the only industry where income brackets for women were higher. So it wasn’t the bar girls’ dance that was considered obscene, but that these particular women — lower caste women — were doing it. It came down to the bar girls because it was caste and labour. When the reality is that these were the women who were traditionally supposed to do erotic dancing, no other women were supposed to.

 Dance bars gave women izzat and azaadi, says Sameena Dalwai, who researched phenomenon post-ban

Bar dancers in Mumbai. File Photo/Reuters

You draw parallels between the temple economy and the dance bar economy.

Some of the writing around the temple economy reveals how certain Tamil regions had 400-4,000 devadasis working there. They are under the management of the priest and have children from the priest as well as with the men from outside. The daughters will become devadasis. In that system, it was all okay because it was an economy controlled by the priest. Some of these women made it out and made it very big. They escaped from the men who were trying to control them and made it to the princely courts, where they became dancers and singers. They were invited by big landlords for weddings and other functions to perform. They had a lot of status, prestige and money and would roam around in open buggies in these cities. People were terribly jealous — these were immoral women who didn’t even cover their heads. The British added to it, even though they had their own prostitutes in garrisons, away from the women in their homes. Thus in the early 20th century, it became a thing that dancing, immoral women should not be in moral spaces of the country. We will cleanse our social milieu of the corrupting influence of these women. Many dancing women shifted to becoming only singers. That shift is quite relevant with the dance bars. In both cases, it was the jealousy of the people.

Also read: Maharashtra's crusade against dance bars replicates anti-nautch campaign of late 19th century

You write of how dance bars were transformative spaces – men could feel like kings and big dons, a poor woman the belle of the night.

I don’t think the men who go to dance bars are evil or bad people out to exploit women. Or stupid enough to be lured by them and use grocery money or sell their wife’s mangalsutras. They are individuals looking for entertainment. Who’s not checking out the opposite sex? There is erotic attraction in human society all the time. And marriage cannot bind us to not look at each other. Sometimes these men would get attracted to the girls and go out with them for coffee or juice. These were men who said women looked down upon them in pubs, while in bars they were noticed and treated as human. I don’t look rich but I have money. These women are my refuge. They also believed bar dancers are good women who had married young, had children, old parents and responsibilities. They didn’t always think of them as virgin young women.

At the book launch, someone asked me just how it was the men’s fantasy to be dons, was it the women’s fantasy to be Umrao Jaan. It wasn’t. It did give them a chance to wear makeup, beautiful clothes and feel like an apsara but there was more to it. Their fantasy was izzat and azaadi. And they got both in dance bars. Azaadi by earning money, being able to eat and wear what they liked, while paying money for children’s education and building homes for old parents in the village gave them dignity.

Dalit feminists supported the ban, believing that dance bars perpetuated caste patriarchy.

BR Ambedkar was against this. He asked Dalits to leave all undignified occupations. And people did slowly try to leave them but it was the same dilemma — if we leave it, what will we eat? This aspect came out when Dalit feminists said they bar girls don’t need to do all this. While others feminists thought it was a livelihood issue, they thought of it as one of dignity. So were all these parallel movements of self-respect, which was unknown to mainstream feminists too. Women born in Bedia families do sex work and don’t do any of the domestic work, which is done by their sisters-in-law. And the men do nothing apart from pimping. And how will this change? If they try to do other work, they’re not going to get a loan. There is a system in place within the caste system too.

The pro-ban campaign presented bar dancers as Bangladeshi illegal immigrants, but the majority of them were from traditional performing communities from north India. REUTERS

Bar girls ran the industry. Without them, there were no dance bars, and it was possibly the only industry where income brackets for women were higher. File Photo/Reuters

You mention how most journalistic accounts focused on the identity of bar girls, rather than making truth-seeking an enabling process. How could the coverage have been different?

When you document something, you are often asked that if you are on the outside, why are you writing about this, what are your stakes in this matter, as a non-Dalit why are you writing about Dalits? My answer is look at what is written about it. It’s true that I'm not a bar girl. But till bar girls start writing, who will? Outsiders will. Truth seeking for one person is not my mission — what’s her story, whether she’s giving me the correct facts about her life is not my concern. Let people tell me lies. That’s the way they deal with the world. It’s not my place to look into whether they are lying. My finding is that this is the way of survival for a community that is hidden from society. What kind of life is this community living? What kind of lives or entitlement do poor people in this country have? Where will these people figure in the NRC? They have nothing. They have no papers. South Africa did this, sorting people out on the basis of skin colour by packing them neatly into boxes. It’s the beginning of how you create apartheid governments.

What kind of questions should journalists have asked?

Many of the bar girls have gone through so much — as children they were abused, as teenagers they were sold off, as pregnant women they have no access to healthcare. As mothers to young children, they have no access to milk or food. In all of this, never did the state come in to help them. And other states in more developed economies do. The only time she needed the state in its omnipotent presence was during the bandh, where they stopped their livelihood. That should have been my question as a journalist. But nobody wrote like that. Where are they from, who are they sleeping with, how they stash their money — in the pillowcases or under the floors, this is what they wrote about because it makes interesting reading. Why did they not get an education? What are their chances of employment? Where do they send their children to school and do they have a chance of generational mobility? These questions would have made such interesting stories.

Feminist ethnography is to make women and their concerns central to the questions, not the focus of rabid entertainment. The role of feminism is to make their lives, aspirations, struggles and dreams the focus of your enquiry. Your writing is supposed to empower that.

While Article 14 and Article 15 were both invoked from a gender and class discrimination angle, caste was left out even in the SC judgement last year lifting the ban.

We’re sadly very behind what black legal theorists have done in terms of incorporating race in court. It’ll take us a long time to have caste jurisprudence. A Bangalore-based lawyer who works on human rights asked me if some of the women are not Dalits, how is it a caste issue? I think it’s not about the person’s status, but the oppressor and what he thinks that person is. The oppressor who thinks a certain kind of treatment of people is possible because of his caste entitlement.

Only a handful of scholars are attempting to write about it. Prof Upendra Baxi always mentions caste in his human rights cases. Pratiksha Baxi has included a chapter in her book. It’s preliminary work and none of us can say we’ve come to some kind of a breakthrough. You have to be a lawyer to be able to do that writing. Courts are positivist in their outlook -- the lawyer will say it’s a caste matter but the court will ask where is caste in this. Remember the Surekha Bhotmange case? They made it about land rights but in reality the women were Dalits and the villagers didn’t like them owning land. The way they were paraded naked is very particular to Maharashtra’s tradition of treating Dalit women. It’s a common thread. But I'm not a judge and none of my students are yet. I'm hoping by the next generation we will teach enough of the intersection between caste and law to address this gap.

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Updated Date: Jan 30, 2020 09:53:52 IST