Newsletter May - Aug 2005 

The recent decision of the Maharashtra Government to ban dance performances in dance bars adversely affects the rights of a large number of women performers and violates the fundamental rights of these women to work and earn a livelihood. Various women’s groups have been raising their voices against this and to this effect a joint statement was issued by them opposing the ban in April 2005 (see Saheli Newsletter, [January-April 2005]). Further in the campaign, a press conference was held in June, where the report of a rapid survey conducted by Research Centre for Women’s Studies, S.N.D.T. University, with activists from Forum Against Oppression of Women, was released. The survey discusses the working conditions and background of women working as dancers in dance bars. The highlights of the report have been provided here.

The survey was conducted with 153 women from 15 bars spread across the city of Mumbai. The survey gathered information on the dancers’ caste, religion, age, marital status and background; explored their work and migration trajectories; their working conditions; average income and expenditure; and also tried to understand their perceptions of their work spaces, the nature of the exploitation they face and the future before them in case the dance bars closed.

The study observed that a large number of women working in these dance bars were found to be from outside the city of Mumbai. All migrant communities who come to the city looking for jobs and livelihood options get opportunities for work through their informal networks of caste, community and region, which usually results in some areas and professions having a larger concentration of some communities.

Most women were above the age of 18 though a large number started work in the age group of 16 to 18 years. The study stated that while the young age at which women start work is a matter of concern, the numbers are no different from the number of women who are forced into early marriages or into exploitative work situations like domestic work or construction work.

Irrespective of caste, religion or marital status, most women had no skill-training of any kind and very little education. Most were single earners in the family or came from families where the onus of looking after the children or younger siblings or older parents was on them. Some belonged to communities where women earn a living through sex work and/or dancing, and most of them are not trained or educated for any other skill or vocation.

The study shows that a large number of the women had come directly into dancing as a profession. Those who changed jobs to come into this did it because the earlier jobs were badly paid and exploitative. While most of them chose this profession because they did not have any other options, they viewed the other jobs they did as also extremely exploitative and not paying enough to meet their needs. They recognise the social stigma attached to the job but they themselves view it as hard work done with dignity. Only one woman did not want to continue in the profession and was feeling trapped in it. The study did not see any cases of trafficking as is being talked about in the media and by the supporters of the ban.

Hardly any woman spoke of the harassment that she or others had faced from male customers or owners or co-workers. The only harassment they clearly mentioned was from the police, especially when they raided the bars or when they accosted them on the roads. Besides this they mentioned some abusive comments made by people outside when they left or came to the bars.

Absence of other options, the pressure of looking after all their dependents and the added pressure due to the uncertainty of their profession in the face of the impending ban, is having an adverse impact on their mental health and many women seemed to be on the verge of breaking down. Asked what they would do if the dance bars closed down, a large number of women said that they would be forced to do sex work on a regular basis. Most women were not happy with this scenario as they did not see any degree of negotiation and security in it which was possible within dance bars.

The study states that since the women are hired on a contractual basis, they do not get any insurance or pension and are vulnerable like many other self-employed workers in this country. There is a constant attempt by them to unionize themselves but because of the official ban the union will not be able to operate legally or effectively. This will render the bar dancers even more vulnerable than they are today. At the same time the harassment at the hands of corrupt police officials, administration and the politicians shall definitely increase making their situation even worse than what it is.

Finally the study highlights the moral argument underlining most of the pro-ban arguments. It is the result of middle class morality that all women working in dance bars are considered evil and/or exploited. The study emphasises that perceptions of what is work, how and in what ways can one sell or barter one’s body, of what is safe and secure, of what is easy money and hard work, what kind of work is allowed and what is not – all of these are not uniform. They vary from community to community, region to region and time to time. It is important to recognise this and also that no one view can be said to be the ‘right’ way.

Although the strong vioces of protest by the dance bar unions and managements, as well as women’s groups did pressurise the Governor of Maharashtra to return the ordinance banning dance bars, the ordinance has since been passsed. The ban on dancing in the bars will have serious implcations for the lives and livelihoods of thousands of women. The struggle continues, with the ban being challenged in court by bar owners as well as the bar girls’ union.