The state needs to find ways to support women’s rights and prevent exploitation. Banning dance bars is not the answer.
Maharashtra is not a liberal state by many measures. The Shiv Sena came to power on an agenda of kicking immigrants out. The BJP government banned the sale of beef in the state because it offended the sensibilities of a section of Hindus and Jains. But there was some opposition to the government’s plans in these cases.
Bar dancing, however, has done what no other issue could: it has brought together the government and the opposition parties. The politicians stand united and proud, having taken away the livelihood of thousands of impoverished women – all in the name of decency and morality.
The background of the ban
On August 15, 2005, the Maharashtra government banned all dance bars in Mumbai to “prevent immoral activities, trafficking of women and to ensure the safety of women in general”.
The ban was challenged in the Bombay high court on the grounds that it was an infringement of Articles 14 and 19(1)(g) of the Constitution, which guarantee, respectively, the right to equality and the right to practise any profession. The court ruled that the ban infringed both of these rights and overturned it.
The matter was then heard by the Supreme Court, which upheld the high court’s decision and ruled that the ban was unconstitutional. The case was decided on July 16, 2013.
Yet, for two-and-a-half years after the Supreme Court’s verdict, the Maharashtra government did not overturn the ban. This forced the court to step in again and give directions to the government to issue licences to dance bars by early March of this year. Four licenses were issued, which were then revoked. For now, the number of licensed dance bars in Mumbai stands at zero.
Against this backdrop, the Maharashtra government is working hard at drafting legislation to ban dance bars, only this time in a way that would prevent it from being struck down as unconstitutional.
Violating constitutional right to livelihood
The ban affects the right to livelihood of female dancers and of the bar owners, and jeopardises the livelihood of many others. A vast majority of bar dancers have people relying on them for sustenance, with some women supporting up to ten dependents. A ban on dance bars pushes these women and their families further into impoverishment.
It is here that one must understand the concept of sexual labour. For a long time, women’s rights organisations have been trying to separate ‘trafficking for sex’ from ‘sex work’ – if a person is engaging in work that involves performing sexual acts for money it need not necessarily mean they are being exploited. This linear understanding of sex work takes away any choice a person may have exercised in doing such work. Many women took to dancing in bars because it offered them a way out of other informal sector jobs (such as cleaning houses) and it paid well. Most were, in effect, self-employed, and even though they relied on the bar owners for protection and infrastructure, they could negotiate their terms, as they were the prime attraction in bars.
Certainly, it is not unthinkable that a woman might prefer dancing for money to doing manual work like cleaning houses. But this choice was completely taken away from the women when the ban was put in place.
One of the reasons for the state government to pursue a ban on dance bars is the possibility of women being exploited. By such reasoning, the film and modelling industries should be banned as well. But, the mere possibility of a risk is not enough justification for a ban. The effective response to such a fear would be to regulate the industry and introduce safeguards to reduce, and hopefully eliminate, the danger.
Where sexual labour is concerned, a ban never eliminates the profession altogether; instead, it pushes those concerned into conducting their business with no protection of their rights by the state.
The effective way to tackle trafficking for sex is by recognising the workers’ rights. This is not to downplay the problem of trafficking of women or claim that it does not exist. However, research studies have shown that the majority of bar dancers are in the business due to economic conditions or simply because they like doing it. Bar dancing has helped them come out of impoverishment and provide better living conditions for themselves and their families.
More problems than solutions
Dancing in bars has allowed women to use the male gaze to their advantage, much like women in the entertainment industry have done. The ban not only did away with such empowerment, but also pushed many women back into impoverishment – nearly 75,000 women lost their livelihood. These women then flooded the informal sector as they sought work as domestic workers, rag pickers, factory workers and salespersons. This in turn pushed down wages in these sectors and resulted in further impoverishment.
Additionally, as usually happens when something is banned, some dance bars continued to function. The chances of dancers being exploited in these bars increased manifold as the places were illegal to begin with.
A ban on bar dancing causes more problems than it solves. A ban is simply not the answer. The state needs to recognise the right of a woman to earn a living in a manner of her choosing. While it also has the responsibility of skill building to ensure that no one performs in dance bars due to economic stress, it cannot ban women from earning money from dancing if they so choose. There is a need to regulate the dance bars, but not in a way that punishes women. Their rights must be recognised and cannot be sacrificed at the altar of vague and subjective concepts like obscenity and immorality.