By Adab Nawaz,NewAgeIslam.com
Much has changed since the Maharashtra government pulled plug on the dance bars on August 15, 2005. Lights in the “sleazy spots”, the “pickup points” are dimmed even as the cultural landscape, at least in the official vocabulary, has been redeemed to its pristine purity. The Bombay High Court’s judgment of April 12, 2006, lifting the ban on the dance bars didn’t mitigate the sorrow of the “sultry sirens” as the government challenged HC’s order in the Supreme Court where the matter drags on. And R R Patil, the man who had called the cavernous, dimly-lit entertainment hubs “centres of sleaze”, after his unceremonious exit in the aftermath of 26/11 attacks, is back in the saddle as state home minister.
But wait. This is not the complete picture. While the government paints a comforting picture of having cleansed the city of the “immoral” practices after banning dance bars, one woman has the temerity to call the bluff of the politico-babu nexus. Flavia Agnes doesn’t suffer the fools easily. And she is back to what she likes to do: Rekindling the fire which has lay dormant for a while. While the middle class is sanguine in its belief that the “vice of bar dancing” has been bottled, Agnes says it’s denial of a stark truth. Perhaps nobody in Mumbai has followed the case of the bar girls so closely as the feisty feminist Agnes has. She has agonized over it and is readying to mourn more the death of what she says a struggle which could have paved way for empowerment to women. Having written extensively on the issue, Agnes is bracing up to revisit her pet topic. She presented her paper titled The Politics The of Marginalised Existence: the Case of the Bar Dancer at a two-day (January 9 and 10) at seminar on gender concerns at YMCA, Central Mumbai.
“Despite the media blitzkrieg and a favourable HC ruling that the dancers have right to earn livelihood by performing in dance bars, the girls seem to have lost,” says 60-year-old Agnes, seated at the book-lined office of Majlis, the centre which provides legal aid to the harassed women. “Nobody asks the discomforting question of what happened to the 75000 dancers who were left jobless at the stroke of midnight on August 14, 2005.”
So where did the girls who were blamed for leading Maharashtra’s men, especially the youth brigade, astray vanish? “Some of them became waitresses in the same bars where they once danced. Some joined the orchestras which are approved as a legal form of entertainment. Many migrant girls returned to the same life of destitution in their homes and the majority joined the flesh trade,” she explains.
Now here lies the lacuna, the pointer to the lopsided policies of the government. To the government, and to the pro-ban lobbyists led by Dance Bar Virodhi Manch which painted the town with slogans like “Sweety or Savitri” whom will you choose, Agnes has one simple question: “What did you do for the rehabilitation of the girls who kept telling that they might have punched a few holes in the pockets of some drunken men, but were no sex workers?” Sweety, Agnes explains, denoted the wrecker of middle class homes while Savitri symbolized traditional, docile pativarta, invention of patriarchy.
Even the few former bar dancers who got employed as waitresses and singers in the orchestra continue to be discriminated against. While male waiters can work till past midnight, the waitresses are made to leave the bars by 9.30pm. “Around the time most customers like businessmen and office workers visit bars, we are shoved out. The income has dwindled to just a few hundreds from a few thousands daily earlier,” rues Geeta Shetty, a former bar dancer, now a waitress at a bar in Borivali who has to support a family of four, including two school-going children and her old, widowed mother. She ridicules the fantastic ideas the pro-dance bar lobby had floated about rehabilitating the out of work bar dancers. “They said the girls would be trained in trades like knitting and candle making. How can those who swung hips to blaring music adjust to the monotony of candle making?” she asks. “It is like demoting a sprinter to a jaywalking competition.”
The 9.30pm deadline is such a drain on the income of the female singers in the orchestra and waitresses that Varsha Kale, honorary president of Bhartiya Bar Girls’ Union, has petitioned the Bombay High Court against it and is awaiting a verdict soon.
“Nobody objects to the skimpy-dressed female extras in the films who work till late hours. But bar dancers are being vicitimised because a stigma has been attached to the profession,” protests Kale. “If airhostesses have dignity of work, we too have the same dignity because we are also professionals,” adds Kale who herself is not a bar dancer but fights for the rights of bar dancers.
Agnes is appalled that even the Communists who claim to champion the cause of the underdog sided with Saffronites during anti-bar dancer campaigns. “During the marathon debate on the issue in the assembly, one member claimed he was not behaving like the Taliban, but at the same time favoured moral policing,” recalls Agnes.
One wonders if our moral brigades who, after clamping down on bar dancers left them in the lurch, are any different from the tyrannical Taliban who want to keep women marginalised.