Gendered Subaltern Sexuality and the State


First Published in EPW

The controversy over the dance bar girls represents the complex process of the construction of sexuality of lower-caste women by various agencies and how it has emerged as a site for the anxieties of the state to be worked out. It also represents the fractures within the women’s movement regarding definition of work, sexuality and the caste question. At another level, in the process of liberalisation and market-oriented reforms, the state has been considerably weakened as an independent entity and lost its economic and political power. The cultural field has emerged as a major, and probably the only, domain in which it can exercise full power.

Maya Pandit ( is with the EFL University, Hyderabad.

The Supreme Court’s judgment on girls dancing in Mumbai’s dance bars has vindicated the stand taken by the bar girls and their struggle. More importantly, it has also upheld the constitutional rights of women citizens relegated to the margins of the so-called “civilised” world to earn a living and which the state had tried to take away.

In the light of this ruling, I would like to tease out the issues involved in the debate: the perception of the lower-caste/lower-class woman’s sexuality by the state and its agencies such as the police, the legislature and the minister who imposed the ban on such bars, the Maharashtra State Commission for Women (MSCW), the voice of the gendered subaltern, and her rights as a citizen, her autonomy or lack of it, the choice of work, etc. I argue that these issues have been conceptualised and worked out in the public and private domains by dominant ideologies of nation and culture, and their self-serving practices of inclusion and exclusion. Especially important is the question of the use of the lower-caste/class woman’s sexuality in the form of production of cultural services in the domain of cultural economy, where economic activities are embedded in cultural meanings. Since this drama has been worked out in the context of the uncertainties produced by globalisation, it might be interesting to explore the relationship between globalisation and the cultural fault lines it throws up.

The Maharashtra state government’s ban on dancing in bars suddenly made around 75,000 girls jobless and generated a lot of debate. On a micro level, the controversy represents the complex process of the construction of sexuality of lower-caste women by various agencies and how their sexuality has emerged as a site for the anxieties of the state to be worked out. It also represents the fractures within the women’s movement regarding the definition of work, sexuality and the caste question. On the macro level, it is suggested that in the process of liberalisation and market-oriented reforms in India, the state has been considerably weakened as an independent entity and lost its economic and political power. The cultural field has emerged as a major, and probably only, domain for the state, in which it can exercise full power. The debate on lower-caste/class women’s sexuality issues is actually a debate on democracy and citizenship and raises questions about the possibility of social justice in a global economy. I argue that a meaningful analysis of subaltern women’s issues, not only in India but in the whole of south Asia today can be undertaken only in the context of the macro-level developments brought about by globalisation and the market economy and their impact on the role of the state.

I will first briefly recount the events as they unfolded: the state’s action, the legal battle between the bar owners and the state, the intervention by women’s organisations and the protest of the bar girls and the issues they raised. This is followed by a discussion on the socio-economic and cultural history of the bar girls in the changing scenario of progress, development and market economy and its exploitation of the labour of the gendered subalterns in the form of cultural services, the relationship that obtains between the issue of sexuality and the state and the rise of the right-wing ideologies in the climate of globalisation, linking the discussion with feminisation of poverty and increasing rural and urban pauperisation of the subaltern women in the whole of south Asia.

State’s Cultural Anxieties

On 31 March 2005, a call attention motion was tabled by Jayant Patil (Peasants and Workers’ Party), Bala Nandgaonkar (Shiv Sena), Shobha Phadanvis (Bharatiya Janata Party – BJP) and others in the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly on the dance bars in Maharashtra. Home Minister R R Patil, who belongs to the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP-a partner in the coalition government along with the Congress Party), announced the immediate closure of dance bars in all parts of Maharashtra except Mumbai. Subsequently, the ban was extended to the entire state from 13 April 2005. On 18 May, the state decided to issue an ordinance to this effect and sent it to the then Governor S M Krishna for promulgation. However, he returned it on 23 June seeking clarification on the rehabilitation of the bar girls and asking the government to introduce a regular bill in the monsoon session instead of an ordinance. A bill to amend the Bombay Police Act 1951 was thus introduced and on 14 July the law was amended. Both Houses of the legislature passed the amendment. On 9 August the governor gave assent and dance bars all over Maharashtra were banned from 15 August 2005 (to coincide with the Independence Day celebrations). The ban was couched in the language of cleansing the city of sex, sleaze and immorality. The statute exempted the three and five star hotels as well as private clubs and gymkhanas so that they could hold such dance performances to “promote culture and boost tourism”. The bar owners’ associations and the bar girls’ unions went to court against the ban and the Mumbai High Court (a division bench comprising justices F I Rebello and Roshan Dalvi) reversed the ban order on 12 April 2006, declaring it “unconstitutional”. The state moved the Supreme Court which said that the ban on renewal of licences for dance bars would continue until further orders. Before we go on to discuss the various issues that are thrown up, it might be useful to look briefly at the history of bars in the state.

There were dancing clubs/dancing schools/cabaret bars in the pre-Independence period in Mumbai. “Ladies service bars” came into existence at Grant Road and Parel around 1970 and spread to the suburbs in the late 1970s. However, dance bars sprouted largely after 1980 as many restaurants sought liquor permits and the number of restaurants and bars grew. Entertainment in bars flourished first with the orchestra and mimicry artists’ shows, which led to the more attractive “dance plus liquor” ones adopted for survival in the competitive world.1 There are various types of beer bars such as permit rooms, country liquor bars, family restaurants and bars, ladies service bars, dance bars and disco bars. Women work as dancers both in dance bars and disco bars. Legally, there is no difference between the two. They must possess the entertainment and performance licence and pay the daily tax per stage in the bar. Women dancers generally wear the ghagra choli (a flowing skirt up to the ankles and a short blouse) in dance bars and customers are not allowed to dance with them. In the disco bars however, they are allowed to do so.

The Dance Bars

From the 1980s onwards, Maharashtra adopted the policy of allowing musical and dance performances in beer and liquor bars, earning handsome revenue apart from the excise tax, licence fees, etc. Bars mushroomed in and around Mumbai and other towns. In 1986, there were only 24 dance bars in the city but within a year the number reached 32 and climbed to 206 in a decade. By 2005 it had gone up to 1,250. There are varying reports of the number of such bars though. According to a report in the Marathi daily Sakal (31 March 2005) there were 1,715 registered bars in Maharashtra but the same report goes on to say that there are 291 dance bars, 196 employ women waitresses, 1,603 permit rooms and 112 beer bars (this totals 2,202). According to the Marathi daily Lokmat of the same date, there were 1,356 dance bars in Mumbai and Thane, of which 730 were in Mumbai alone. According to another report, there were 42 such bars in the vicinity of Panvel in Raigad district (a Peasants and Workers’ Party (PWP) constituency) alone.2 Registered dance bars are governed by a 1960 law that issues performance licences for “public amusements” other than cinema. In addition, bars employing waitresses are governed by the Shops and Establishment Act. However, it is not clear how many unregistered/private dance bars exist either in Mumbai or the rest of Maharashtra. Several politicians as well as retired and serving police officials are allegedly the owners of many such establishments. The daily collection in these bars ranges from Rs 50,000 to Rs 5 lakh.

It is obvious that the proliferation of dance bars is closely linked to the emergence of the demand for entertainment among the new rich urban middle class in the latter half of the 1980s.

The estimated 75,000 women employed as dance girls/waitresses earned anywhere between Rs 3,000 and Rs 5,000 per month; yet their real daily income after deducting daily expenses would be less than Rs 50 a day. They do not have bank accounts or any source of credit. Since their profession is closely linked to liquor, they are prone to addictions. They do not get regular salaries and their income is dependent on tips, out of which 30% goes to the bar owners towards the rent of the dance floor, daily food and transportation. A lot of money is spent on cosmetics and expensive clothes and they work evenings and late nights, often beyond midnight, since the official bar closing time is seldom observed by the bar owners. In Mumbai, where most of them are concentrated, many are migrants either from other parts of Maharahstra or the rest of the country. (The state government claimed that only 4% are “Maharashtrian” but the basis of this statistic is not revealed.) Many of the women are married and are mothers. Contrary to popular perception, not all of them are engaged in prostitution, but it is likely that some of them enter into relationships with regular customers. The bar dancers are like daily wage earners who can afford to feed themselves only if they work and they rarely have permanent residences. Police harassment is a common hazard, as is being cheated by male customers (including policemen) who exploit them sexually, financially and emotionally. These girls and women are usually in the age group of 14 to 50 years (regardless of their age they are referred to as “bar girls”) and tend to live in secluded localities or suffer ostracisation by the neighbourhood community.3

Needless to say, many of them live in abject poverty, are illiterate or semi-literate and are unlikely to find any other source of regular employment. Corresponding to the growing number of bars, there has been a growing demand for dancing girls and many traditional communities from different parts of India came forward to meet this demand. It is important to understand the relation between the situation of these communities and the patterns of development followed by the Indian state.

On the Margins

The bar girls belong to either the scheduled caste/scheduled tribe/Other Backward Classes/nomadic tribes (SC, ST, OBCs and NTs) or socially backward Muslim communities and castes such as the Bedia, Bhatu, Dhanawat, Gandharva, Chhari, Rajnat and Nat, Chilbila, Kesarvani, Bogum Vollu, Samlighar, Sansi, Kashmiri, Deredar, Jagari, Doli, etc, which are spread over many backward regions in and around Delhi, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Bengal, Rajasthan and even Maharashtra.4 They have always been on the margins of the social imaginary and devoid of citizenship rights because of their lower status in the caste/class hierarchies. The “backwardness” of these regions is a result of many deeper historical processes in India’s modernisation process which have resulted in uneven development. In many communities, women have to play multiple roles of breadwinners, producers of children and caregivers of families which include parents, husbands, brothers-sisters, children, other men folk and the old from the community who are dependent on them. Dancing has been the traditional occupation of many like the “nautanki” which has become obsolete for various reasons like lack of sponsors, the impact of television and cinema, etc. The famous artist Gulab Bai, honoured as “Nautanki Queen” by the Sangeet Natak Akademi for her contribution to the art of nautanki, was from the Bedia community.5

In the dynamics of social change brought about by various developmental processes, these women straddle different worlds simultaneously and their daily lives are ridden with conflicts mainly due to increasing poverty. The pre-market, premodern feudal structures and values demand that their sexuality and labour be exploited as a productive resource for the upkeep of their families. The new emergent structures of capitalist development, instead of allowing them any opportunity for education or employment for self-development, make available new sites for cultural production, where their dance skills are exploited to cater to the growing demand of the middle class for entertainment and liquor. Since they cannot perform in the places where they hail from, they have to migrate to big cities where their sexuality and cultural labour is exploited (through the cultural services they offer) by bar owners to earn profits and the state to earn revenue.

Let us critically examine against this background the ideological and political implications of the various perceptions of their sexuality, citizenship and democratic and human rights, by various agencies, such as the judiciary, women’s rights activists, the state and most importantly the girls themselves.

The Judiciary

Interestingly it was the high court judges, Justices F I Rebello and Roshan Dalvi, who exposed the gaping holes and legal fractures within the state’s position. Asking whether our fundamental rights are so fickle that a citizen has to dance to the state’s tune, they declared the ban as unconstitutional on two grounds: that it was violation of Article 14 which promises right to equality and Article 19(1)(g) which spells out the Fundamental Rights.6

The high court ruled that banning the dancers’ performances at dancing bars was discriminatory and laid bare the skewed logic of convenience followed by state policies:

The State does not find it offensive to the morals and dignity of women and/ or their presence in the place of public entertainment being derogatory as long as they do not dance! The State’s case for prohibiting dance in dance bars is that it is dancing which arouses the physical lust among the customers present. There is no arousing of lust when women serve the customers liquor or beer in the eating house, but that happens only when the women start dancing?

The right to dance has been recognised as part of the fundamental right of speech and expression. If that be so, it will be open to a citizen to commercially benefit from the exercise of fundamental right. This could be by a bar owner having dance performance or by bar dancers themselves using their creative talent to carry on an occupation or profession. In other words, using their skills to make a living…7

In the arguments presented before the apex court, the class bias of the state was obvious. Fali Nariman and Harish Salve, senior advocates appearing for the state government equated the dance bars with prostitution rackets which created law and order problems. Senior advocates Indira Jaising, Soli Sorabji, Mukul Rohatgi and Rajiv Dhavan opposed this saying that the bar girls cannot be denied livelihood by banning their performances.8 But the Supreme Court bench (justice B N Agrawal and P P Naolekar) observed that dance bars cannot be permitted put up indecent performances and that they are permitted to present only the Indian style of dances thus strengthening the equations put forth by the state.9

It is interesting to note that while dance bars were banned on the above mentioned grounds, the bars serviced by women, dancing at pubs, discotheques and the three and five star hotels was defined as “promotion of culture and tourism”. It is another matter as to why the “Indian style of dance on record” is considered “decent” while dancing to the tune of Hindi film songs is “indecent” when the films themselves have been allowed to exhibit the same songs.

The answers to some of these questions can be found in the ideological underpinnings of the state’s position and their alliance with rightist patriarchal ideologies about nation, national identity, family and culture.

State and Its Cultural Politics

The state’s equation can be put forth in the following way: Dance of bar girls = murky sex and sleaze = immorality = prostitution = AIDS = ruin of “normal families”, as estimated from R R Patil’s statements. He justified the ban saying that the dance bars were destroying the moral and cultural fabric of the Maharashtrian society. Refuting the charge that this was moral policing, he said,

If something is ruining hundreds of families and creating law and order problems, the government must step in. We are responsible for people. We are held accountable if things go wrong.10

Inherent in this argument is the erroneous assumption that in Maharashtrian society women have never danced as part of entertainment. The rich lokanatya tamasha form of entertainment in Maharashtra wherein women dancers and singers from the lower castes (like the Mahars and the Mangs) present lavni songs and dance is famous. One wonders why the minister developed sudden cultural amnesia! Artists such as Waman Kardak, Vitthal Umap, Vitha Bhau Narayangaokar, Yamuna Tara Hira Waikar and many others have been felicitated with a number of state and national awards. The lavni artists have always come from an exploited section of the lower castes, and the brahminical/high caste/upper class has always looked down on tamasha as a lowly form of entertainment, as “corrupting sex and sleaze”. The minister and the state were really rejecting the entire cultural history of the folk arts from a brahminical perspective. This also meant making invisible the complex history of the lower castes’ exploitation and suppression as well as creativity and articulation.

Imposing a New Moral Order

The brahminical position of the state, in tune with the cultural agenda of the rightist parties, was reflected in its insistence that there is only one unified, cohesive, moral and cultural way of life for Maharashtrian society as defined by the normative patriarchal brahminical family. The state’s social perceptions completely ignored the multiple roles these women play in their families, which are quite different from that of the brahminical families, and focused only on the women’s nurturing role in the family, which gets projected as a replica of the upper caste, middle class family norm. But the “family” is not an unchanging universal structure; it is embedded within broader social frames, within particular relations of production. Generally it is the lower class family that bears the brunt of changes taking place in the general polity to emerge as a site of conflict when social crises deepen. This is precisely what was evident from the plight of these girls.

As Kumar Ketkar (2005) observed,11 this was the first time in the history of Maharashtra that the cultural nationalist Sangh Parivar and the self-styled liberal/secular democrats joined hands to create a new moral order. Under the pretext of protecting “culture” as defined by them, the various fascist saffron organisations organised violent campaigns, targeting the vulnerable lower castes, the poor and women. The BJP’s Sushama Swaraj threatened to jam a fashion channel; the Shiv Sena beat up prostitutes and demolished “immoral rooms” in Mumbai, college girls wearing skirts were threatened in Baroda by the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) activists, girls visiting bars were beaten up by the Sri Ram Sene in Mangalore, and young boys and girls have been systematically terrorised by members of the saffron brigade on Valentine’s day. Progressive women’s organisations argued that the state was subsuming the diversity of cultures into a monolithic idea of society. The SNDT Women’s Studies Centre carried out a study of 500 bar girls in Mumbai to refute the charges of the state and argued,

Patil’s statement is an attempt to subsume the diversity of cultures that form this country into a monolithic idea of society…It is apparent that the agenda of the State is to cleanse the city of its poor – be it slum dwellers, workers and or women working in the dance bars. The government is resorting to a contradictory stand, on the one hand of ‘sexual exploitation of women working in the bars, and on the other accusing them of morally corrupting the youth and society. Morality cannot be determined by the dominant and privileged section of the society. ….The State is using the language of women’s movement without sharing either our concerns or understating women’s realities…Instead of creating spaces and conditions that ensure that women are not sexually exploited and their rights are respected, the state has targeted their very livelihood which might have lent their lives independence and autonomy and thereby their freedom. The state is making them more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.12

The citizenship rights of these girls were systematically eroded. Some NCP and Shiv Sena leaders (including the Shiv Sena Member of Legislative Council Neelam Gorhe) charged that bar girls were “foreigners” (read Bangladeshi) and R R Patil simply echoed them. First he washed his hands off the state’s responsibility to rehabilitate these girls, because they were “foreigners”. Then he said they are paraprantiya (from another state) and announced that a rehabilitation package would be constituted for only the “4% Maharashtrians” among them. Finally he gave up even on that and said that a few of them could perhaps work as home guards. One could see how the citizenship rights and identity of the working class, lower-caste women were being erased. Only those from the middle class and upper castes are citizens, and their way of life becomes “pure and moral”, their well-being of paramount importance while the bar girls are the “other”, perceived and projected as a threat to the unsullied, pure, untainted and moral middle-class upper-caste women and patriarchal values. This was nothing but complete exclusion of the other from all citizenship rights even though many bar dance girls had been staying in Mumbai for many years.

Issues like pauperisation of the disadvantaged communities in the new economic processes of development, their resultant migrations to more urbanised spaces, exodus of rural populace to urban metros, displacement of the poor through being uprooted, all result from the processes of “development” that intensified after globalisation. Here the sexuality of these bar girls itself becomes a symbol of all that is dirty, impure, profane, corrupting and vile as they get excluded from the state’s agenda of cultural purification, and their sexuality itself became for the state the root cause of the “law and order problem”.

The MSCW a statutory and independent body mandated to act in the interest of all women, also toed the line of the state and backed this agenda of highlighting the “fractured purity” of the middle-class family. It argued that the performances of the bar girls were nothing but promotion of sex tourism, prostitution and flesh trade as in countries like Sri Lanka and Thailand which led to the moral ruin of thousands of families.13 Some women’s organisations too supported the state and equated the bar girls’ dancing with violence done to minor girls through trafficking and said that dancing in the bars was a violation of human rights. They declared that the ban was a major step towards ending the violence done to thousands of minor girls who are made to dance in the bars and become potential or actual victims of commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking which are the grossest violation of human rights in general and especially of child rights.14

But neither the MSCW nor these women’s organisations ever questioned why Chagan Bhujbal, a minister from the same ruling party, had granted permission to the dance bars in the first place. As Flavia Agnes (2005) asked,

Why for the MSWC does alcoholism and moral ruin occur only when there is an element of dancing and not otherwise? The MSWC has no objection to drinking in the bars… How does dancing spread AIDS when the sex trade itself doesn’t? It almost condones brothel prostitution.15

Voice of the Gendered Subaltern

Two major points that emerged in the debate were: whether the dance bars were sites of a form of prostitution and whether prostitution itself was “work” where the sexuality of the girls becomes a means of production. Many bar girls, interviewed by the media, protested against their work being equated with prostitution, and articulated their fear that the ban would now push them into prostitution. There were some feminists who had argued that the bar work was sexual labour and the bar girls had a right to choose this work in a democracy. This argument was strongly criticised by the Dalit Bahujan Marxist Women who argued that dance bars constituted a sexual entertainment industry that had emerged as the inevitable part of the market economy where women’s labour was exploited for the consumption of sexual activity/labour through their dance gestures.16 They argued that the dance bars represented a process of reinforcing the caste system in new forms where the lower-caste women were pushed into exploitative market structures and hence defended the ban and asked for an all inclusive sexual entertainment regulation bill. Varsha Kale, the leader of the bar girls and founder of the Womanist Party, took up the issue of trafficking of women through dance bars, and their indirect influence on increasing violence in the society and submitted a detailed note to the governor drawing his attention to many facts about the girls’ plight:

If Patil is worried about trafficking in women, why doesn’t he arrest the 3000 traffickers in Mumbai? The fallout of this is pushing women back to the brothels….there is no prostitution inside the bars. I’ve conducted a study…most of the bar girls come from traditional dancing communities where women aren’t supposed to marry but are supposed to bear children and support their families through their dance…the relationships (they form) are among consenting adults…Why should the morals of Mahasrashtra’s chief minister be offended?

While it is true that many bar girls are victims of trafficking, it would be wrong to equate their work with prostitution as the state and organisations like the BJP and Shiv Sena do. They have never thought of banning Hindi cinema or regressive social ideologies and cultural practices shown in the films and TV serials. This selective cultural policing ignores the overall sexual exploitation and commercialisation of lower-caste women’s bodies, skills and sexuality in the market economy.

State and Globalisation

All over south Asia the orthodox middle class and/or religious moralities and fundamentalist/patriarchal ideologies seem to be pushing women back into normative patriarchal upper-class/upper-caste ideologies and upper-class morality, even as women negotiate fresh openings alongside the ravages of the modern world. Why is there such a strong element of fear of the sexuality of the lower-caste girls, why does their sexuality become a threat? Where does this phobia spring from? Why are the upper castes and classes obsessed with a monolithic and pure culture in the first place?

One way to answer these questions would be to study the process of globalisation and the role of the various agencies dominating this process. For instance, recent reports have indicated that the US may impose sanctions on India for not taking effective action to stop trafficking of women and children.17 This threat has perhaps prompted the state to ban the dance bars only to make a statement internationally that “effective action” has been taken to curb trafficking while in reality no action has been taken against traffickers. A new paradigm seems to be emerging, based on the definition of “good governance” as per the International Monetary Fund-World Bank (IMF-WB) norms since the aid given by them depends upon adherence to these norms. This indicates that the state’s right to policymaking at the national/state level is curtailed. It is under pressure to withdraw from its commitment to the welfare activities as has been evident from the manner in which expenditure on health services, water, food subsidies and rural employment has been reduced. Studies have demonstrated that even while the state gives up on these “welfare” commitments, it continues to intervene on behalf of capital to maintain and provide an environment suitable for investment and production.18 The state has little control over the entry and exit of capital in the country on the one hand, and on the other it finds itself too weak to carry out its responsibilities towards its citizens on the fringe as has been evidenced amply by the tremendous exodus of women into the unorganised sector and their increasing poverty and pauperisation.19 The cultural domain is possibly the only domain in which it can exercise power.

As Appadurai (2007) argues, in the climate of globalisation, ideas of a sovereign and stable state come unglued, the uncertainties and anxieties about the loss of the so-called “national” character among the “we” against the “they” get exacerbated and this produces new incentives for cultural purification.20 The upper-caste/upper-class morality becomes the cornerstone of the nation. This is what is happening here. The socially deprived and gendered subalterns are perceived as a threat to the (illusion of a) fixed identity carved out of the patriarchal Hindu upper-caste/class family norms. Dancing gets equated with sex work and the girls’ voices of protest are silenced. The double exploitation of, and violence done to, bar girls help maintain the patriarchal illusion of an unsullied pure and untainted womanhood. Yet the privileges of the male customers remain intact as the bar girls get pushed into prostitution as the only source of livelihood. In the dominant conceptualisation of the work of the bar girls, questions about the compulsions in their “choice of work” are easily obliterated.

Thus the weak state and retrogressive political ideologies combine with right-wing patriarchal ideologies to make this violence in the cultural domain acceptable in the social imaginary and insensitivity to the growing violence against thesubaltern women flourishes in the environment of consumerism. Even the media whose role is touted by the ideologues of globalisation has no place for these women in its coverage and representation except as titillating bodies. The corporate world uses female film stars as brand icons in the media to promote consumerism, but the plight of the gendered subaltern remains outside its ambit.

The Khairlanji case in Maharashtra21 where an entire dalit family was brutally murdered for the so-called transgressive behaviour of the women, or the honour killings in communities in Pakistan and India, or Afghan tribal women under the Taliban, or the plight of the Indonesian maids working in Malaysia, are cases in point. Today there is a visible paradox between the claims of “development” (“It’s a level playing field for all!”) and the growing violence against women from deprived sections. Even though the links between economic policies, violence and fundamentalism are complex, it would be difficult to overlook them. This has significance for feminist politics. As Menon (2007) argues, the identity of woman is no longer unproblematically available; it has to be the subaltern woman as the subject of feminist politics. Also it is from her perspective that the patriarchal family that is emerging as one of the main source of cultural identities will have to be questioned. The political task before the women’s movement is therefore multifold: to extend the scope of understanding “family” and challenge and change both the normative and so-called radical perceptions of sexual exploitation of lower caste women’s sexuality, stake claims on the state for recognition of the citizenship rights of the gendered subaltern, question, and weave ties with similar movements across south Asia to begin with. Drawing attention to the closures, fractures, marginalisations and silencing that abound in the climate of globalisation and market economy may be the first step in that direction.


1 Varsha Kale’s letter to the governor of Maharashtra, Shri S M Krishna,, accessed on 13 June 2009.

2 AIDWA Statement.

3 See note 1.

4 Varsha Kale’s letter op cit.

5 Gulab bai, a famous Nautanki dancer, singer and actor was from the Bedia caste. She was felicitated by even the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award. For information about the cultural history of the community, see Gulab Bai: The Queen of Nautanki Theatre by Deepti Priya Mehrotra, Penguin, 2008.

6 The two grounds were explained by Flavia Agnes (2006).

“The exemption (given to certain categories of hotels as well as clubs, etc), has no reasonable nexus to the aims and objects which the Stature is supposed to achieve and hence it is arbitrary and violative of Article 14 of the Constitution of India (this is about right to equality). Regarding the exemption given to star hotels, clubs etc. the Court held: “…the financial capacity of an individual to pay or his social status is repugnant to what the founding fathers believed when they enacted Article 14 and enshrined the immortal words that the State shall not discriminate.”

The second ground was: “It violates the fundamental freedom of the bar owners and bar dancers to practice an occupation or profession and is violative of Article 19 (1) (g) of the Constitution. (This is about fundamental rights) (Flavia Agnes: The Court also laid bare the skewed logic of convenience followed by the State policies: “The State does not find it offensive to the morals and dignity of women and/or their presence in the place of public entertainment being derogatory as long as they do not dance! The State’s case for prohibiting dance in dance bars is that it is dancing which arouses the physical lust among the customers present. There is no arousing of lust when women serve the customers liquor or beer in the eating house, but that happens only when the women start dancing?”

“The Right to Dance” they argued, “has been recognised as part of the fundamental right of speech and expression. If that be so, it will be open to a citizen to commercially benefit from the exercise of fundamental right. This could be by a bar owner having dance performance or by bar dancers themselves using their creative talent to carry on an occupation or profession. In other words, using their skills to make a living….” (quoted in Flavia Agnes: “A Ray of Supreme Hope for Bar Dancers” (The Asian Age, 2 June 2006).

7 Quoted in Flavia Agnes (2006).

8 National Herald, 11 May 2006.

9 Ibid.

10 As reported in the Indian Express, Pune, 23 April 2005.

11 Kumar Ketkar, Indian Express, Pune, 23 April 2005.

12 Women’s groups in Mumbai: (Aawaz-e-Niswan, Akshara, CEHAT, Ekta, Explorations, Jagori, Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, Lawyers’ Collective, Majlis, LABIA, Rahi, Research Centre for Women’s Studies, SNDT Women’s University, Saheli, Sakhya, Sama, Sophia Centre for Women’s Studies and Development, Swayam, VACHA, etc, in Humanscape, Mumbai, May 2005, p 24).

13 The State Women’s Commission argued: “What about the untold stories of families ruined by this multi-crore industry,” they argued, “when men spend their earnings on liquor and sex in these joints? …The tears of women left at home who suffer abuse from alchoholic husbands, the children whose lives are ruined by a parent sucked into alcoholism and moral ruin have no values….”A bar is no place to dance; it is a place to drink and there is not constitutional right to dance in a bar. If this is employment, where are the labour rights? What responsibility have the bar owners shown towards the employees? Are the directions of the Hon. SC in the Vishakha case against sexual harassment at workplace being followed in the bars? Artists can stage performances in theatres and earn a living…but those who want to commodify a woman’s body would rather have women dance in a bar as objects of lust for men. This is against a woman’s status and dignity. CEDAW to which India is a signatory, binds us to prevent the commodification of women’s bodies. Women need to work but we need to build a society based on productive employment and not on sleaze. …We need to examine the developmental model that we are pursuing for our country. We must avoid the mistakes of countries like Srilanka and Thailand have made by policies that lead to sex tourism which they are seeking now to correct…allowing Dance bars is promoting prostitution and flesh trade…The cages of Kamathipura are a disgrace to our society but that should not be a justification of dance bars…” The Asian Age, 3 September 2006.

14 Priti Patkar, from Prerana, in Indian Express, 25 April 2005 said “This move is not just to reduce the fast spreading criminal and corruptive influences of the youth but is more importantly a major step to end the ultimate violence of the rights of thousands of minor girls. When minor girls are made to dance in the bars, they become potential and actual victims of commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking which are the grossest violation of human rights in general and especially child rights.” She also suggested “designing and implementing a comprehensive sustainable rehabilitation package for all the grils who need it and deserve it.”

15 Flavia Agnes in The Asian Age, 4 October 2005.

16 Kunda Pramilani (undated).

17 A recent report in The Hindu, dated 17 June 2009 indicates that India is given the status of “the country to be watched for its violation of children’s and women’s human rights as it has not been able to stop this.

18 Cf, Patnaik (2003).

19 AIDWA document.

20 Arjun Appadurai (2007). First published by Duke University Press, 2006. <

21 Anand Teltumbde (2008).


Agnes, Flavia (2006): “A Ray of Supreme Hope for Bar Dancers”, The Asian Age, Pune, 2 June.

Appadurai, Arjun (2007): Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger (Kolkata: Seagull).

Kale, Varsha: “Letter to the Governor of Maharashtra”, accessed on 13 June 2009.

Ketkar, Kumar (2005): Indian Express, Pune, 23 April.

Kunda, Pramilani (undated): Dance Bars Ban Debate: A MaFuAs Stand Point, Dalit Bahujan Mahila (Mumbai: Wicharmanch Prakashan).

Mehrotra, Deepti Priya (2008): Gulab Bai: The Queen of Nautanki Theatre (New Delhi: Penguin).

Menon, Nivedita, ed. (2007): Sexualities (New Delhi: Kali for Women).

Patnaik, Prabhat (2003): The Retreat to Unfreedom: Essays on the Emerging World Order (Tulika: New Delhi).

Teltumbde, Anand (2008): Khairlanji: A Strange and Bitter Crop (New Delhi: Navayana).

Women’s groups in Mumbai: Pamphlet in Humanscape, Mumbai, May 2005, p 24.

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