Women’s groups are putting together recommendations to remedy the gender and caste bias perpetrated by the ban on dance bars in Maharashtra

Over 75,000 women went out of work eight years ago when the Maharashtra government arbitrarily clamped a ban on dance bars in Mumbai. While the government cited that the profession made the women a vulnerable lot and easy to exploit as reasons behind the crackdown, in reality, it pushed thousands of these women to the further depths of poverty and desperation.

Now even as the Supreme Court recently lifted the ban calling it unconstitutional, the State government is firm that the dance bars will remain shut with Home Minister R.R. Patil making a statement to the effect at the State Assembly. The government is reportedly seeking legal opinion to stay the apex court order.

A host of women’s groups and activists have raised their voices against this defiant attitude of the Maharashtra government and are putting together a clutch of recommendations to remedy the gender and caste bias perpetrated by the ban.

They strongly recommend that the government pay compensation to all bar dancers for “causing economic harm, psychological damage, destruction of family welfare, enhancing social stigma and endangering their health and that of their family members”.

They point out that following the ban, many women have incurred huge loans to run their families; many had to withdraw their children from schools, thus trampling on their right to education; many women were thrown out of their rented accommodations and some even committed/attempted suicide.

Worse still, the ban grossly discriminated against a large section of women belonging to castes wherein dancing by women was the traditional means of livelihood. Being denied the opportunity to acquire any other skill for centuries, these women had no other option but to enter their caste-based profession. “By imposing the ban, the government further pushed the women into even greater levels of starvation...This was nothing short of caste apartheid brought in through legal undemocratic means due to the misogyny of the political class,” the activists have stated.

Advocating the inclusion of the bar dancers under the Maharashtra Mathadi, Hamal and other Manual Workers (Regulation of Employment and Welfare) Act, 1969, some the rights that have been identified as basic ones for working women in bars need are: monitoring and prevention of entry of children into bars as dancers or in any other capacity; safe working condition and protection against harassment from both employers and authorities; maternity benefits; medical benefits; crèche facilities for children; paid weekly-offs; retirement benefits and pensions/superannuation funds.

A grievance cell formed by Bar Dancers’ Association/ Union, Bar Owners’ Associations and women’s organisations to look into the service conditions in dance bars should be granted legal authority, the women’s organisations have added.

They have also demanded a clear policy against police harassment and caging women in remand homes. “Not only the police, but various members of civil society have also started systematically abusing bar dancers. This was partly due to the government’s anti-women announcements in the media about the dancers being a depraved lot.” There have many instances of women legally working in the bars but not dancers have been picked up by the police and made to languish in remand homes under inhuman conditions.

Finally, the State government should devise policies and schemes that attack the caste system and provide diverse livelihood opportunities for women such that they can break free of caste-determined jobs.