In India, the Law Stands Up for 'Bad Women'

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.
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Earlier this week, India's Supreme Court delivered a judgment that privileged the right to work over the censure of social morality worked into law, a decision that most of all impacted the future of a substantial class of indigent but enterprising women. The court overturned a 2005decision by the government of Maharashtra to outlaw one of Mumbai's most famous institutions: the dance bar.

In their heyday, only a decade ago, these bars offered an unusual employment option to close to 100,000 dancers who drew hordes of excited locals and tourists to cabaret shows every night and made Mumbai's nightlife as exciting as that of any other metropolis in the world. Many of the women were middle- or low-caste, unschooled and unskilled, yet by virtue of their profession, they often had the pride of being the sole breadwinners in their families.

In their own tellings of the story (many are narrated in Sonia Faleiro's exceptional book "Beautiful Thing"), they achieved a heroic ascent from grinding poverty and vulnerability to financial independence and even worldly power, working fully clothed in groups to the sound of Bollywood hits, protected on stage by the no-touching policy of the bars and often able to reject actual sex work if they chose to. When the dance bars were shut down, a system that allowed them certain powers and protections was destroyed. Society now urged them on the one hand to get "proper jobs," while preying on them sexually on the other.

Standing up for the dancers, of course, also involved standing up for the right of the male sexual gaze to orchestrate a playground in which it could sport, a dilemma that vexed many Indian feminists, such as Flavia Agnes, a lawyer who describes her conflicts about the issue here. But, as Agnes suggests, there is no perfect world, and against two competing kinds of injustice, it seemed more moral to oppose a state judgment that seemed to single out the dance bars as sites of depravity and crime in a blatantly piecemeal and hypocritical way.

After all, in closing the bars down in 2005, the government argued that such performances were "derogatory to the dignity of women and are likely to deprave, corrupt or injure the public morality or morals." It allowed, however, such performances to take place in "a three starred or above hotel," as if to say that the elite of Mumbai had a right to pleasures that would corrupt the innocent and unsophisticated.

Agnes writes that the experience of representing the bar dancers broadened her sense of the women's movement and made her much more aware "of the realities of a bar dancer and the various levels of power politics that is played out upon her body." It was true that many of the dancers had had to deal with terrible abuse and sexual violence -- just that much of it was before they arrived in the dance bar, in the households where they grew up or in the jungle of the Indian street. It was as bar dancers that for the first time these women felt strangely secure and protected, often holding out for months and years against the lavish favors bestowed on them by besotted patrons. In Agnes's compelling argument, the humble bar dancer was made a scapegoat by middle-class society for what it thought of as "social evils," when the very attitudes that were condemned enjoyed a free play in so many other arenas:

"Can the State impose arbitrary and varying standards of vulgarity, indecency and obscenity for different sections of society or classes of people? If an 'item number' of a Hindi film can be screened in public theatres, then an imitation of the same cannot be termed as 'vulgar'. The bar dancers imitate what they see in Indian films, television serials, fashion shows and advertisements. All these industries have used women's bodies for commercial gain. There is sexual exploitation of women in these and many other industries. But no one has ever suggested that you close down these industries because there is sexual exploitation of women!"

The Supreme Court judgment took a similarly sympathetic line, rulingthat: "A large number of imaginative alternative steps could be taken instead of completely prohibiting dancing, if the real concern of the State is the safety of women." It also said, "It would be better to treat the cause than to blame the effect and to completely discontinue the livelihood of a large section of women eking out an existence by dancing in bars, who will be left to the mercy of other forms of exploitation."

Newspaper reports noted the irony of the political class of the state of Maharashtra being unanimously against the reopening of the dance bars, when in the past many of the dance bars had been owned by politicians or their frontmen, generating vast profits for them andfilling the coffers of the tax-levying state. In an interview on the website, Faleiro called the bluff (as did the journalist Smruti Koppikar) of a certain very pious but complacent narrative about bar dancers:

"There appears to have been a carefully orchestrated campaign to portray dance bars as brothels and bar dancers as prostitutes. The media fed the stereotypes of the bar dancer as courtesan, portraying her as the natural enemy of the moral, middle class woman. Once her portrayal as a subhuman vixen was complete, it was only natural that politicians across the board would lack the spine or the common sense to defend her rights. In the war between women 'good' and 'bad', the 'bad' woman was doomed to fail, not just in the court of public opinion but also in the legislature. I'm proud that the highest court in the land has stood up for her."

Mumbai is a sweaty, dirty, soul-crushing city on the sea: practically a civilization distinct in some ways -- such as its hospitality to entrepreneurial zeal, its live-and-let-live mentality, its polyglot patois and its 24-hour hum -- from the country that surrounds it in three directions. Its history says it was raised over four centuries from thinly populated, swampy marshes to great extremes of prosperity and privation by the forces of imperial whimsy and arrogance, colonialism, maritime trade in cotton and opium, migrant labor, experiments in town planning and segregation, smuggling, capitalism and the Hindi film industry. No one institution in the city is significantly more corrupt or venal than the others that surround it; equally, even its sites of corruption offer strange possibilities of freedom, independence and human communion.

After some years away, I moved back to the city shortly before the dance bars were shut down and didn't have the chance to visit more than a couple. But even on these occasions I was fascinated not just by the spectacle of the women but also by that of their being so visibly coveted by men who in their public, day-world lives adhered strictly to the unwritten laws of caste and class. These men had married women their parents had chosen and now made most choices on behalf of those women; they mixed with people of their own background and religion and had little investment in the ideals of Indian democracy. Here in the dance bar, however, many power, caste and gender hierarchies were thrillingly inverted; night was freer than day could ever be. As Leela, a dancer in Faleiro's book, says with a strange mixture of amusement and contempt of her rich customers, "They think I dance for them, but really, they dance for me." It seems from this week's ruling that this win-win dance may soon begin again on Mumbai's long sultry nights.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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