Pooja Kudal
IJDTSA Vol.3, Issue 3, No.2 pp.12 to 21, December, 2018

Is Livelihood Really a Choice? Feminists Positions on the Ban in Dancing Bars of Mumbai, Maharashtra

Published On: Saturday, January 12, 2019


The ban on dancing in bars have been universally discussed in almost all the feminist realms exist in the academic arena. The infamous intentions of the state and dominant institutions which lead to the ban in case of ‘Ban on Dancing in Bars in the city of Mumbai, Maharashtra’ although ultimately has not proven and explored enough clarity in stands among different feminists standpoints in India. The objective of this paper is to gather at most discussions and arguments which would shape the discussion towards the question whether the livelihood is really a choice.


To keep control on women sexuality by various means have been happening in the patriarchal structure of Indian society since long time. Our casteist society has a long history which has percolated the spiritual and cultural morality by controlling women’s chastity. Ban on women’s dancing in bars1 was one of attempt out of it. As women are the gateway of caste system, therefore to sustain the endogamous2 structure and to keep purity of caste system women has closed and controlled in the prison of patriarchy. Devdasi, Courtesans, Bar Dancers, Tamasha Artist etc. almost all are from the downtrodden and oppressed section of the society has been exploited sexually on the name of religion and cultural hegemony by the dominant caste. In the pre­colonial era, women from lower caste primarily (Devadasi, Courtesans, Tamasha artists ) were considered as the public women. They were keep aside from the “Ideal Frame of Indian Women” as due to their work which were not considered civilized in the notion of purity culture.

[About the ban, March, 2005]

In March 2005, the government of Maharashtra state in India announced a ban on women performing in dance bars, at first in the entire state and subsequently extending it to the bars in Mumbai. The reason cited for the ban by the Deputy Chief Minister and Home Minister, Mr R R Patil, was that youth were being morally corrupted by the lure of the dance bars where they squandered their fathers’ hard­earned money and even resorted to crime (Times of India, 2005), (Gopal, 2012). In this forceful action across the targeted institutions such as bars have caused for many people to turned into the unemployment, unacceptance and no ways of negotiation in order to begin the routine again.

However, on 12 April 2006, the court struck down the ban on the ground that it was unconstitutional and violative of the fundamental right of the bar dancer to practise her profession and earn her livelihood under Article 19 (1) (g) of the Constitution. It held that the exemption granted to a class of establishments was arbitrary and violative of the right to equality guaranteed under Article 14 of the Constitution. It observed that there was no nexus between the amendment and the objectives propounded in favour of the ban in the Bombay Police Act.3

[Colonial Moral Anxiety]

The legitimization of dance by law in India is coded with imperial interpretations of the Indian dance. The manifestation of morality into law bears the influence of colonial morality and the colonial gaze of the native and his culture. The encoding of morality into law first initiated by the British government and later by its successors was a representation of and a comment on the native and his questionable morality. Nevertheless, the legal narrative adopted by the so called ‘Upper Caste­Class Hindu Male’ in imitation of the coloniser is not merely infused with Victorian morality but also a product of Hindu puritanical anxiety.

This anxiety is expressed in the language of law. The prohibition on dancing in beer bars is a result of the same anxiety. It attempts to recast and re­cloth the bar dancers in the familiar  mold of the pre­modern: that is of the ‘traditional’ chaste ‘Indian’ woman. The private woman (chaste and controlled sexuality) and the public woman (impure, uncontrolled sexuality) by easily transforming from the public woman (bar dancer) to the private woman (wife/mother) and vice versa. In the case of prohibition on bar dancing, the source of law is the imperialist moral code and the Hindu ­nationalist purity movements (Makhija, Sonal 2010)4.

Law derives its moral content from external sources. The external source of the law in the case of prohibition can be attributed to the moral anxiety of the colonizer and the Hindu philosophy of purity and pollution, where an individual is polluted when he/ she steps outside the temporal and spatial parameters defined by society (Madan 1985; Marglin 1985).

This anxiety of the state is also propelled by the transition of the bar dancers from a public to private woman, defying the notion of the “pure” private woman in opposition to the public woman articulated by law. Unlike the Devadasi and Courtesan whose profession either impeded their chances of marriage or restricted it, thus distinguishing the wife/mother from the public woman, the bar dancer upsets and blurs the distinction between5 the public and private women. (Makhija, Sonal 2010)

Encapsulating all the discussion above, let us try to now classify the furor over this issue in feminist debates into four groups; the conservative right wing, liberal left wing, Dalit bahujan, and the women in oppression, who are involved themselves in this work.

[Conservative Right Wing]

The first group of conservative right wing (the right wing forces or parties, BJP) argues for the abolition of prostitution and sex work because it invokes immorality and obscenity in society. It views such labour with stigmatized prejudice and hence for making the society moral’ and ‘pure’ this group calls for doing away with such work, whereas on the other hand it remains selectively silenced on the appropriation of the art forms by the dominant groups.

[Liberal Leftist]

The second group, of the left liberal (All India Democratic Women’s Association affiliated to the Communist party of India (Marxist) and socialist feminists group), focuses on the question of livelihood and survival. They argue for looking at prostitution and sex work as equally entailing dignity as any other form of work. They raise the question of autonomous individual capability to choose an occupation of her choice, and survival is the pertinent focus, hence would not ask for its abolition.

[Forum against the Oppression of Women] Sexual Labour as Livelihood:

Banned their work as illegal. As feminist scholars, this debate on the legitimacy of sexual labour as work has engaged us too as a contentious issue. In their work of dancing in the bars, the women dancers were attentive to the presentation of their bodies and to the care for their looks, the skill required to negotiate with the male gaze and to keep up with the performance, all of which were indicative of the value of their labour. The bar dancers were also constantly negotiating, as feminists would do, with notions of autonomy, financial independence, decision­ making, not just in their work, but in their lives, with their families and with other constituents of society

[Dalit Bahujan Marxist Women’s Standpoint]

After considering the entire ‘socio-­cultural context in totality’, Dalit Bahujan Marxist women from Mumbai (MaFuAa, Marx, Phule, Ambedkarite), that is emerged as third perspective on the canvas, have supported the Maharashtra Government’s decision to ‘Ban Dance Bars’ as first step towards socio­economic cultural reform. However, they strongly oppose the ‘moralist perspective’ of pro ­ban and point out the fact that the ‘dance bars’ is one of the new form of ‘Sexual Entertainment Industry’ that has emerged as inevitable part of ‘Market Economy’ in present globalization process. In this market economy everything on the earth has

sales value’ including woman’s body and sexual labor. The new global capitalist ideological framework has generated the alternative terminology to justify this commercialization that defines the women’s sexual labor as “Commercial Sex Work,” and a woman who chooses that “Profession” should get all the rights as per the labor law. This objectification of women’s body as ‘sexual entertainer’ resulted in emergence of phenomenon of ‘Sales Value’ of woman’s body and beauty that has reduced all women to mere ‘consumable product’ available for the consumption of sexual activity. Another form of commercial entertainment is dance bars where women’s labor is openly exploited for the sexual entertainment through their dance gestures. (Kunda, n,d)

[ Academia of Dalit­bahujan Perspective] (Sharmila Rege, Urmila pawar, Uma Chakravarti),

They understand this question by intersection with the caste question; wherein the Indian society propagates the exploitation of lower caste women in these works, hardly leaving with them the question of dignity. The primary mode of survival for them is dignity, so survival is not only the only persistent question rather what is the basis of survival, a life of dignity or humiliation. Therefore they would argue for complete abolition of such caste based occupations which entails humiliation and discrimination for certain community in addition to their loss of autonomy to enter any other form of work.

[Women from oppressed realities]

Finally the most important group in this debate of the one whose material realities are involved in this debate. They are the ones at the receiving end of oppression from all spheres, state, civil society, market, religion and family. The constant phase of struggle they have to undergo positions them to claim for at least some reform in the existing state of affairs for recognizing their labour and liberation from the corrupt practices which cause serious harm to their physical and psychological conditions. They ask for a space for themselves to put their voices as well when everybody else is only arguing for them.6

[Sociology of sex work]

The sexualized form of work such as sex work, bar dancers’ occupation, prostitution portrays the dominance of men over women’s bodies. Such work has two dimensions;7 one paradigm emphasizes the oppressive nature of sex work wherein the women have to face tremendous exploitation, subjugation, violence by men who may be their customers, pimps or traffickers. All male customers and managers are motivated by animus: “When men use women in prostitution, they are expressing a pure hatred for the female body.”8 In this paradigm sex work is viewed as intrinsically exploitative and oppressive, whereas the other paradigm views sex work, not exactly as emancipatory but having the potential to be emancipatory.

Sexual commerce qualifies as work having human agency and hence having potential for emancipation of women. Such paradigm would emphasize that sex work is not intrinsically exploitative, instead can be organized as work mutually benefiting both parties, as is the case in other economic transactions. Both these arguments take a different turn when interrogated with the question of caste in the Indian context. The Indian society is characterized by caste hierarchies and caste based occupations has created not only division of labour but also division of labourers as pointed by ambedkar. In such context, caste based labour does not entail worth but stigma and this stigma could not be got ridden off even after the penetration of capitalist system. The mainstream feminist scholars viewed women as a homogeneous category, invoking the ‘woman’ as the single thread to bind them all. But these scholars failed to recognize the hierarchies existing among women as well who were also divided by their social positioning. The rise of feminists in this regard is important to understand the connection between women and caste. This stream has adopted from Ambedkar in emphasizing that control over women’s sexuality is the sole reason for the existence of caste hierarchies.

Through endogamous marriages their sexuality is kept in check and caste system intact. Similarly people are categorized into water tight compartments with respect to their occupations as well. In this way the Dalit feminists argue that prostitution or other caste based occupations who have mainly involved women of lower castes have social stigma attached to their occupations, deprives them of equal dignity as that of the higher caste women. The binary created between ideal wives vs others (widows, prostitutes) makes the labour of women involved in this work to be socially appropriated and their bodies available for exploitation in the public space. They are deprived of any social status, making their bodies available for public consumption. This public private binary makes women of lower castes vulnerable in the public sphere and devoid of any autonomy and independence. The other autonomous feminists and Marxist feminists have argued that not recognizing prostitution as work would deprive women of their livelihood and asking for decriminalization thus providing dignity to such occupations and recognizing them as equal citizens.


Taking livelihood as the means of choice, in this paper we find, Dancing in the bar doesn’t seem as the choice. In this complex caste system and graded economic inequalities of the labourers in the labour market of India. Though the process to answering this question is still in the process.

As in the paper, above different feminists discussion, we are now leading the question through the lens of Dalit ­Bahujan perspective, (as almost 70% women, including queer, working in Dance Bars are from lower caste) that is livelihood really a choice for them? It is not, as it is caste based occupation and imposed on them by the casteist and patriarchal society structure. They don’t have any assertive agency in this livelihood source. It is not an emancipatory act as it is not leading any emancipation of lower caste women and queer .

End Notes

1.The Bar is a shop, restaurant, or cafe where alcoholic drinks or refreshments are served.

2. Endogamous, here mean the marriage within caste

3. The state has filed an appeal, challenging the decision of the High Court of Bombay striking down the ban, in the Supreme Court. In the interim period the ban, despite being overruled by the court, continues.

4. Bar Dancers,Morality and Indian Law: Economic and Political Weekly Sept 2010

5. The private woman (chaste and controlled sexuality) and the public woman (impure, uncontrolled sexuality) by easily transforming from the public woman (bar dancer) to the private woman (wife/mother) and vice versa. ( Makhija, 2010)

6. Gopal, Meena, ‘Caste, sexuality and labour: The troubled connection’, Sage Publications, Current Sociology, 2012, 60(2) 222–238.

7. Weitzer, Ronald, ‘Sociology of Sex Work’, Annual Reviews, Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 35 (2009), pp. 213 ­ 234.

8. Ibid


  1. Gopal, Meena. “Caste, Sexuality and Labour: The Troubled Connection, 2012

  1. Hanna, L J (1993): “Classical Indian Dance and Women’s Status” in H Thomas (ed.), Dance,Gender,and Culture (New York, NY: St Martin’s Press), pp 119­38.

  1. Katrak, K (1992): “Indian Nationalism, Gandhian “Satyagraha” and Representations of Female Sexuality” in A Parker et al (ed.), NationalismandSexualities (New York: Routledge), Ch 21.

  1. Kunda PN (n.d.) Dance Bar Ban Debate: a MaFuAa (Marx­Phule­Ambedkarite) Stand Point. Mumbai: Dalit Bahujan Mahila Vicharmanch Publication.

  1. Makhija, Sonal. “Bar Dancers, Morality and the Indian Law, EPW article, 2010

  1. 7. Oldenburg, T V (1990): “Lifestyle as Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow, India”, Feminist Studies, (Online) (accessed March 2010), 162, pp 259­87.

  1. Ranjan, Nalini. “ Dance bar Girls and Feminist’s Dilemma”, EPW article, 2007

  1. Review of women’s studies,” Feminist Contributions from the Margins: Shifting Conceptions of Work and Performance of the Bar Dancers of Mumbai”, EPW article, 2010

  1. Srinivasan, A (1998): “Reform or Conformity? Temple ‘Prostitution’ and the Community in the Madras Presidency” in B Agarwal (ed.), Structures of patriarchy : the state, the community, the Household (London: Zed Books Ltd), pp 175­98.

  1. Vajaisri P. (2004):Recasting the Devadasi: Patterns of Sacred Prostitution in Colonial South India (New Delhi: Kanishka Publishers and Distributors)

  1. Weitzer, Ronald, ‘Sociology of Sex Work’, Annual Reviews, Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 35 (2009), pp. 213­234.

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