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Last week, the Supreme Court suspended the provision to ban dance bars and directed the Maharashtra government to grant licences to bar owners. While putting the ban on hold, Justice Dipak Misra and Justice Prafulla C. Pant have allowed licensing authorities to regulate indecent dance performances, and the two judges called on the state ensure that the dignity of women is protected.
According to a Huffington Post report, more than 75,000 women are employed in 2,500 dance bars in Maharashtra, which are also a source of jobs for 1.5 lakh people including cooks and waiters.
The lifting of the ban on dance bars has evoked mixed reactions among various quarters with many right wing voices stating that dance bars are not in line with Indian culture. As we wait for a final hearing scheduled on November 5, there is the big question of morality looming over us.
While the court wants to keep the dignity of women intact and uphold their constitutional right to “practice any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business”, will the state be able to regulate the dance bars effectively enough?
Dance bars have given a livelihood to thousands of rural girls who come to Bombay in search of fame and money. Contrary to popular belief, bar dancers are not always prostitutes. In fact, if you have been to a dance bar, you would know that patrons are not even allowed to touch a dancer, a rule that’s followed even in Las Vegas strip clubs. Simply put, it’s a form of erotic entertainment and has nothing to do with sex.
Erotic entertainment is not stranger to this country. For hundreds of years, ‘kotas’ have hosted men and entertained them with mujras. Even conservative Arab cultures have taken joy in watching women do the sensuous belly dance. A Tawaif, akin to a Geisha in Japan, was an independent woman held in high regard; she excelled and contributed to music, dance (mujra), theatre and films in later times.
There was a place in Indian society for this class of woman and she was definitely not an outcaste. A Tawaif would skill herself in the art of entertainment and seduction. She chose her suitors and was in a position of power finding place even in the king’s court, granting her the title of a courtesan.
Times have changed but the need for erotic entertainment has continued. While modern feminism might call dancing in bars as objectification of women, a chat with the dancers themselves will reveal that these women love all the attention and adulation, and not to mention the monetary income that comes without having to sell your body.
Bar dancer Manisha Seth shares in an interview with Indian Express, “I loved dancing, always copied steps while watching TV. Other girls had to undergo training. But I went straight for the performance. There was a time when they (customers) were ready to throw Rs 10,000 for just drinking juice with me. Nobody dared touch me when I danced in bars.”
Manisha is one of the thousands of bar dancers who had to resort to prostitution when the ban came into effect in 2005. She says she had to do it but never wanted it.
What we consider indecent and immoral is for Manisha, a decent and moral way to earn a living without having get into the flesh trade. Who are we to pass judgement on her profession? She loves to dance and entertain her patrons, a job that pays her well.
The Mumbai police has expressed concerns over human trafficking and said that dance bars provide a venue for criminals to hatch new plots. While the latter is baseless and criminals don’t really need a dance bar to do their plotting, the issue of trafficking is definitely a genuine concern.
Instead of banning and pushing dance bars underground, regulation can be used to curb trafficking while giving bar dancers a more respectable livelihood. Issuing identity cards and licences to bar dancers, along with bars, can ensure that no minor is being pulled into the trade. The government can even bring their income to the books by helping them open accounts and file their taxes.
In the name of culture and morality, we have, as a society, sidelined those that don’t fit into our rigid definitions and dogmas. These communities, who now live on the fringes, have become faceless voices that are desperately calling for tolerance, if not acceptance.