A magnifying glass into the world’s oldest and most controversial profession
Whether it be to feed themselves, their children or to support their aged parents back in the village, women in Maharashtra take to the serious profession of bar dancing as a slightly less inflated version of working for sex. While these dance bars have evolved to become preserved spheres of their own, the government has taken grave steps to ensure the curbing of the world’s oldest profession, seen as dishonourable in the eyes of the larger public view.
Despite the Supreme Court stating it to be unconstitutional in 2013, the Maharashtra government has been following up with carefully worded legislatures and ordinances post implementing a ban on dance bars in 2005. This includes the Maharashtra Prevention of Obscene Dance in Hotels, Bar Rooms and Protection of the Dignity of Women Act, 2016. The outlandish highlights of the act include a detailed definition of ‘obscene’ dancing, maintaining a 3-foot-high wall between the dancer and the audience, prohibition on serving and consuming alcohol, disallowing customers to shower money on the dancers and a mandatory distance of 5 feet between the two.
There is a need to accept that sex is a basic biological urge by members of society and most crucially, by the lawmakers. Bar dancers don’t sell sex so much as they sell fantasy. As stated in Kautilya’s Arthashastra, there was a well organised sector established for the buying and selling of sex and minimum wages for prostitutes, dancers and singers. Seemingly, our ancestors were more liberal than us. This move has led many to question the nature of item songs in the film industry which are enjoyed freely without experiencing any shame or mortification.
The state government emphasised that the intention behind its stringent ban was to put an end to the vicious sex trade nexus between gangsters, the bar owners and the police. Pravin Agarwal, owner of Ellora Bar in Mumbai stated, “The police have been harassing us from day one. They would scout our areas, falsely claim we were forcing our girls into the sex trade and then misuse Section 110 of Bombay Police Act, IPC Section 294 and Prevention of Immoral Traffic Act.” Former Nationalist Congress Party Member, R.R. Patil enumerated the sound logic of the state assembly on passing the bill, further adding how the middle-class groups were becoming alcoholics.
Au contraire, statistics refute the former claim made by the legislature. Post the legalisation of prostitution in the Swedish capital of Stockholm, rather than witnessing a marked increase in the rate of sex trafficking, the number of women involved in street prostitution has reduced by two thirds whereas the number of clients or johns have reduced by a dramatic 80%.
The years following the ban on dance bars have witnessed the exodus of former dancers into the prostitution ring. The outlawing of dance rooms following the subsequent constraining act was evidently passed on the accord of the prejudgment of the state assembly members on a delicate matter such as the one at hand. Looking beyond the concealed truth of the much-speculated going-ons in these dance bars, one would see the safe, well paid, functional and professional work environment the dancers operate in.
Most acclaimed dance bars, like the Ellora Bar, White House and Topaz in Tardeo, Mumbai, have well integrated security provisions in place for the safety and well-being of their employees. There are usually 10-20 muscled bouncers present in the vicinity of the dancers at all times during their work hours. The bouncers ensure that no minors work in or enter the bar. No customer in the dance room has permission to touch the dancer. Upon violation of this fundamental rule, the guest will be forcibly removed from within the bar premises and not allowed entry again. Payment can be made directly to the dancer or the bartender and tips can be left with the bouncers. With this arrangement in place, the bar dancers feel that there was little need or reason for the government to impede their trade.
Opposing current social norms, the devdasi tradition of ancient west and south India revered and respected women who danced in temples as a form of worship to the deity. The practice was seen as obscene by the British who were unable to place it in their domestic background and were quick to ban it by justifying it as a move towards the validation of prostitution. Even after 69 years of independence, the British mentality continues to be ingrained into our Indian system which is reflected by the shunning of bar dancing and can be juxtaposed with the rejection of the devdasi pratha in the British colonial period. When faced with a predicament such as this the law makers, law enforcers and the nation need to reflect and really judge, is this truly the way ahead?