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Women's groups express support for bar girls

Special Correspondent

MUMBAI: The beleaguered women who dance in Maharashtra's dance bars now have an unexpected set of allies. Several women's groups have come out in their support.

Flavia Agnes, women's activist and lawyer, who has been fighting a case on behalf of bar girls since last year, said, "Dancing and singing are legitimate professions, not new to women." Banning such bars, she held, would be violative of the right of these women to earn a livelihood as ensured under Article 21 of the Constitution as well as the right to carry on a legitimate profession under Article 19.

Ms. Agnes took the issue to the Bombay High Court last year when she found that after police raided some bars, they took the women to the police station late at night. This is prohibited under the law. No woman police was present when the dancers were taken there. And several women complained of molestation and harassment by the policemen.

The police had claimed that they raided the bars on the ground of obscenity. Ms. Agnes pointed out the girls dance to film music using the same dance movements as stars do in films in what are called "item numbers." Why, she asked, was one allowed and the other considered obscene? "The Government is deliberately appealing to the middle class mentality," she said.

`Why licences given?'

Varsha Kale of the Womanist Party of India, who has enrolled many of the 75,000 bar girls into a registered trade union, the Bharatiya Bar Girls Association, questioned the role of the Government in the proliferation of dance bars. She pointed out that after 1996, their numbers had grown rapidly. "Why were licences given out so freely?" she asked. Today, there are an estimated 1,250 dance bars in Maharashtra and most of them have been established post-1996.

Ms. Agnes emphasised that banning dance bars would only push this activity underground.

This would lead to much greater exploitation of the women as there would be no regulation. Just as prohibition had not stopped the sale and consumption of alcohol, she said, banning such bars would not eliminate them.

In a statement the women's groups said: "The girls who dance in the bars are trying to survive and support their families. Contrary to the notion that they make a fortune each night, most live in slums and tenements, like millions of others in a time when jobs are simply not available for children of poorer families. "

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