Bar Dancers: Varsha Kale Speaks at Public Hearing
Duration: 00:18:10; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 13.607; Saturation: 0.283; Lightness: 0.079; Volume: 0.186; Cuts per Minute: 1.155; Words per Minute: 126.352
Summary: Dancing at beer bars started in Maharashtra in the ‘70s. These bars are popularly called Dance Bars. They were recognisable by the heavy door at the entrance and by the uniformed bouncers. In order to increase the revenue from alcohol sale the govt. kept issuing licenses for the dance bars and over the three decades these bars sprouted all over the state and specially in Bombay. In 2005 the Govt. proposed a bill to ban dancing at the bars on the pretext of public morality. But by then around 75,000 women were employed in the unorganized sector of bar dancing. Most of these women were migrants from the other parts of the state, country and the subcontinent. The bars though have been part of the cityscape for a long time, always maintained a low profile in terms of social visibility. It seems invisibility was a kind of shield for them. A year ago some of the bar dancers try to form a trade union and evolve a few norms and practices to secure their future. One of the agenda of the union was to resist and publicise incidents of police assult. That did not go down well with the authority. It could be the temerity of these lowly women to challenge the patriarchal system or a threat of loosing the extra money that came as bribe from the bar owners and bar dancers or a development design to replace this form of entertainment with something more lucrative or anything else. But what was clear that the articulation of the union along with other things brought the bar dancers and dance bars in public visibility. The media jumped to the occasion and suddenly the whole society was debating about dance bars.
Amidst the frenzy of campaign and counter campaign the govt. implemented the bill that ban dance bars on the midnight of 15th August 2005, the independence day of India. The act which rendered 70,000 women jobless was passed unanimously in the assembly, where all members including the communist party and women from various political parties cheered and voted for the bill. Throughout this period the most active campaign against the ban was from the bar dancers union in collaboration with some feminists groups. Majlis legal centre filed a case challenging the ban in the Bombay high court on behalf of the bar dancers’ union. The Women’s Study dept., SNDT university along with Forum against oppression of women conducted a survey around the bars in the city and published the report in order to inform the general public. Five days after the ban three city organisations Majlis, Pukar (Gender and Space unit), and Point of View organized a public hearing on the issue at KC College suditorium. Ten eminent citizens from various walks of life were invited to serve in the panel of Jury and hear the live testimonies of the retrenched dancers. The auditorium of around 700 capacity was chock-o-block with 500 bar dancers, members of bar owners association, family members of the bar dancers, concerned citizens and a large media presence. In this event some bar dancers gave testimonies.
In this event Varsha Kale, the charismatic leader of the bar dancers and the president of the union speak at the public hearing.
As Varsha Kale's name is announced thunderous claps rise from the auditorium full of bar dancers. Varsha is a middle class activist and one of the initiators in organizing the bar dancers. Like a true leader she sets the tone of the meeting apart from the standard allegations and the pleas.
PV: Varsha kale, representative of bar dancers union would now come up and answer some of the questions that the jury has raised. (Very very loud applause)Varsha: I first want to make it clear that I am not going to answer questions raised by the jury. I am not a bar dancer. Till two years back, I had not even seen a dance bar. But the union that has come up … of which 12000 bar dancers are members today and more than 70000 women bar dancers know me as well as the union. This is a registered trade union.I would request for 5 minutes for me, because many times we are not allowed to say many things in front of the government and media. Many times, what we say is also edited out. For the next 5 minutes I would like to speak to the bar dancers here.
bar dancers union
In the first 5 minutes slot I want to say that our union is a registered trade union. The expectations from our union was very different from what is expected of the other trade unions and its members and workers. It is year since we registered, we have just started contacting the girls. In every conversation time and again, since the discussion around the ban had started, I am constantly asked how I got entry in dance bars. Since general activist cannot enter a dance bar easily, nor can other organization. I was always asked with hostility that my father, brother or husband never owned a dance bar, I never owned a dance bar, then how did I get entry there?
Unlike many bar dancers Varsha knows very well the value and the status of a registered union. But in Indian democracy a campaign based on public morality can supersede all other advantages. It is evident in the later development when the Bombay High court terminated the provision to ban dancing in bars as unconstitutional on 12th April 2006 and yet the bars were not allowed to re-start the dancing programme. The case is presently under the Supreme court.
So firstly, I did not start this union in the dance bars. I met these women on night trains. This train starting from C.S.T at 12:45 reaches Dadar at 01:03. I used to come from Dombivali to C.S.T, go back to Ambernath or Kalyan and then back home to Dombivali. I used to take late night trains or stay at C.S.T at night and take the morning train back home. Or I used to go to Churchgate and travel till Dahisar or Borivali. I met these women on these trains.
The suburban local trains of Bombay – the life line of the city. It not only commutes the people but also serves as a community space. In this space crunched city where people have no time either, trains are the space where people make friends, do their daily shopping, catch up with a nap, prepare for exams, perform religious rituals, put on make up for an occasion and so on. The nature of the commuters too change with the time of the day – early morning students and fisher women, mid-morning office goers, noon traders and dabbawallas (lunch box carrier service), afternoon students again, evening office goers and late night bar dancers and sex workers.
From the start, I could identify that they don't look like commercial sex workers, but there were some similarities. I started speaking to these girls, and we formed a group of about 80 women, in which Vaishali Hardanker, a singer took lot of initiative. Many girls used to talk to each other on the trains. One would say that – I have only one dress, if someone could lend me one then I can manage for two days. Another would ask her why she did not save some money. She would answer that some uncle or so had sent message for money and so she had to send money to t he village. Now she has only one dress and so people look at her disapprovingly. They used to have tobacco, were drunk many times. These girls taught me a lot on those train journeys itself.
Varsha articulately answers the issue of bar dancing and sex work. She knows evading this issue would not serve any purpose. She also weaves her speech such a way that would appeal to a middle class infused media.
We were not 800 members to start with. After trains, we went into slums. I went first to Sion Koliwada, where the girls lived, Malwani slums where one of the first girls who told me about the dance bars, Salma, used to live. Then I went to Worli slums. I know that these girls come from very lower economic strata. They don't earn lakhs of rupees. I know they look beautiful, have nice skin and hair and also maybe because of their youth…
lower economic strata
Commercial dancing or even sex work was not as stigmatized in feudal structure as it is now. This was considered as family vocation for some castes. Though that means that the women could not get out of the cycle even if they wanted to. But it also means that such a profession was recognized and accommodated in the society.
When I looked at their class- caste composition, I realized that many of these girls have come from northern parts of the country from various communities. In some communities, their mothers' did not have permission to get married. Once they were deserted through some rituals or others, they could not marry. If they married the caste could punish them in whichever way they wanted. But they could have children.
Another thing that we are told again and again that to work against the ban, we are talking of rehabilitation. All Marathi newspapers, media is saying that we are raising the issues of rehabilitation in order to sidetrack the issues involving the ban. This is not true. We had a meeting with bar owners. We said that this work has early retirement, and after retirement, the women have no benefits of provident fund or pension. We consider this as a problem, because after they retire, they are left with no money, as they are not able to save much. Another problem is that very few women have ration cards.
Obviously one of the first agenda of the bar dancers' union was to secure post retirement benefit for the dancers. And that action itself was seen as violating the norm. Post-retirement benefit, medical allowance etc are part of vocabulary of modernism and industrialization. For the society so used to treating women as part of belongings, it is very difficult to accept the women involved in sexuality related services as workers with benefits and demands. Even many left trade unions refused to lend support to the bar dancers' union.
The employers, in this case the bar owners, cannot be expected to by sympathetic to the bar dancers' union. But in an interesting twist of events the interest of the employers and the employees became one. First it was the police atrocity and then the govt. ban. The bar owners realized that they can even hope to win this battle only on the ticket of gender assault. So many decades of women's movement have atleast secured this much.
We had spoken to the bar owners that after they retire as dancers, these women can provide snacks and other things required in the bars. The owners made a list too – such as tooth pick, paper napkins, various snacks etc. Now had the bar dancers resisted the union being formed? Yes they did. It will be a lie to say that they did not resist the union. I still remember the way Vaishali was thrown out of her workplace. But slowly I started going to various bars, started meeting the owners.
The spontaneous loud applause to this statement proves the universality of the issue. Though earlier in this meeting most of the bar dancers avoided to talk much about police atrocity. Maybe they were afraid of repercussions. Another point to note is that the migrants women are more vulnerable to public place assault. Firstly they live in far flung suburbs and thus commute long distance. Secondly they have no support base in the city and most of them live alone. Thirdly even the need to earn money at any cost could also be more acute for the migrants.
Then last year, when several restrictions were being imposed on the dance bars, bar dancers' rights were also being affected. One of the major issue was of police atrocities. Probably, our Congress house women won't say much about this, but women who travel for work from far off, tell stories of rapes and harassment against railways police. One girl has told me that she was raped Karjat station. After raping they threw her in the last train which halts there in the night and returns in the morning. She reached Ambernath in the morning. She has faced rape thrice from police. When she told me this I asked her why don't you speak up. Another woman, Rosie from Kalyan, told me how the police just opens their purse and take takes all the money. Anyway you are bar girls, fallen women (dhanhewali) – they say while snatching away all of their night's earning. The girls from Dombivali say that in the night they need 45 rs. to go from the station to Lodha village. While the police does not even leave them with 5 paisa. Whenever the police needs money for drinks they snatch it from the bar dancers. At Mira road – Bhyander area, when they sit in autos to go home the police comes and opens their palms in front of them. They can't go further without paying some money to police. This amount can be anywhere from Rs. 10 to Rs. 50 per night. (loud applause)
The first lesson of building a collective - an identity proof to produce. For these women this must have been the first piece of paper which belonged to them, first proof of their citizenship.
We got our union identity cards, photo identity cards. I used to teach the women to hold the card boldly in hands and show it to the police, say proudly that you are a bar dancer. Rather than making excuses, stating false reason for being out at night, and then giving them reason to harass you, you should just say that you are a bar dancer, show them your identity cards and then ask them what they want. Tell them that you are a union member. If they still harass you then show them Varsha tai's number at the back of the card. Ask them to call me on my mobile. Then we will see. As many women started doing this, the bar owners support also came, as many raids were happening at that time.
bar dancers union
As many such union cards reached the women and they started using them too, in Meera Road police actually started asking the women to show their union cards… do you have union card? Show it, ok you can go… You don't have card? Take out 50 Rs…. like that. It was almost like we had a nexus with police to take money from women who didn't have union cards. When we heard such complaints from the women, we went to police stations and counter them. How we got this feedback is the women themselves used to call us… Sister the other girl had an union card so she was allowed to go and they have taken 50 Rs. from me. Then we understood what did the identity card mean. As part of the union work we used to go to the police station to enquire why the girls are harassed, arrested, why the railway police keep them in the police stations for nights together…
This is a classical case of turning an inclusive activity into an exclusive one. The provision created to protect the women were being used to discriminate the other women. Similar things happen in other sectors too where an union registration is used to deny jobs to migrants and new comers.
One girl told me that she had missed the last train, and was sitting on the railway station for the morning train, when three police men came, forced her to come with them to a lodge and raped her. When I spoke to her, she said she felt as if nothing can be done about this, because this is what they think of the bar women. She said that bar dancers feel safer in the bars because at least there are so many people in there. Outside the bars, because of the label that goes with bar dancers, they are unsafe. This women told me that next morning after the rape, she just took the morning train and went back home. Today she works with me.
The conspiracy of sexual crime is to create an aura of shame around it. The one violated should feel ashamed rather than the violators. That is the best strategy to maintain the status quo. It works in almost all kinds of gender crime – rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment in workplace etc.
The presence of the colleagues and confidence of work make the bar dancers far more bold inside the bar. The kind of protest they cannot do when assaulted in public places, can easily be done inside the bars. Yet one of the excuses used in favour of the ban is that the women who dance in the bars are not safe there. So the projected logic is to save the girls from imaginary assaults by snatching away their jobs and thus by making them more vulnerable. Varsha attempts to lift the act of bar dancing to the level of classical dancing which is much revered in Indian society.
The same woman told me how this customer was trying to harass her by doing an obscene gesture of rubbing two currency notes by folding them and insert one into the other – a symbol of intercourse. She went and fired him – what are you trying to say… yaah tell me, what is it… you want to buy me in Rs.110/-. She was livid and said, this would not do, come out of the bar and talk to me and I shall settle you. But inside the bar you must respect my workplace. Ask them has any dancer ever started her dance on the stage without touching the ground? Bar dancers in the audience – No (in unison) Varsha: Have you ever started performing without praying first?Bar dancers in the audience – No (in unison) I have noticed it that there is no dance bar where dancing starts without praying first.
sexual harassment at workplace
As Varsha managed to articulate some of the gory stories which the dancers themselves were finding difficult to talk about, there was loud applause in agreement.
Though their work is their prayer, government does not say or do anything about safety from customers. The lewd remarks that the customers pass, no one talks about that. A woman told me that a customer by putting a glass under the table suggested that if she drinks his cum he'll pay her Rs. 15000. The woman told him that if he drinks it, she will pay him as much. Every girl knows of these incidents. (loud applause in agreement)
Many women don't tell me such stories. They probably feel that I am a middle class woman from a good family, I have children, a husband, so I won't understand such things. Only when they are too tense, or it becomes too much that they tell me.When I hear such things, I wonder how the government and society can label the victims as culprits. The women are labeled and treated as bad, wrong, as someones who provoke. After the Marine drive rape case (where a police constable raped a teen age girl inside the police chowkie) I realized may things. They only detain the women and then raped them. Bar dancers are blamed for everything. Fine, some things can be tolerated in good humour. Television channel shows a bar dancer jabbering away on the phone. Fine, we can all take this representation of her mannerisms lightheartedly, to an extent.
Since the last few months that the debate around the ban had started, the media has gone over the board covering stories of bar dancers. Every channel and every newspaper are competing with each other for more exclusives from the dance bars. This trend has reinforced many stereotypes about the dancers.
As more and more laws get passed in favour of the 'homely' women, the women who deals with public places become more and more vulnerable. The laws, the rights, the protection is not for the women who do not live within the standard reproductive system. The police and many in the public do not even consider violating a woman who is in the sexuality based industry as a crime.
How she runs once she hears the police siren. There is so much fear of police. They have hit and tortured women so much. We had all met for a poster making activity at Deepak bar. I was just telling them that you put sticks like then and they women spoke about how police talks of raping them withtheir batons. Then one person showed my how a baton was inserted inside her blouse. They were fantasising on which part of the police anatomy a baton should be inserted. This was at the beginning of the union. I think how the union was built and all are ok… women talk to me, that is important.
Soon after the ban some bar dancers tried to go to smaller towns and enter into sex work. But the settled workers there strongly resented the influx of the city breds. Some women committed suicide which the police hushed up. Some were re-employed in the bars as waitress. But the new job made them more vulnerable as the customers who so far could not reach near the dancers started exploiting the physical proximity that waitresses need to keep. Besides the job of a waiter could not financially compensate for a job of dancer. But most of them just disappeared.
(to the bar dancers): You speak openly here too. Articulate whatever is inside you. This is our last chance. (she breaks down, her comrades clap) Women are packing up and leaving. I know what will happen in Jaipur, Agra and other places when they return. Here we are together, we can still fight. You talk about all your pain. We are not saints (washed in milk). We have slept with many people, we haven't committed any sin. We don't have permission to get married. So we will sleep with whoever we feel like. But if we have to sell our bodies for Rs. 5 and 10…. (gets choked)
Varsha looks visibly upset and exhausted with the strong emotion. Her voice choked many times. She tried to articulate what the bar dancers were not able to say in front of the middle class jury and the media. That she is not a bar dancer yet an insider to their lives provided the right distance for her to talk about uncomfortable issues.
You say whatever is on your mind. Everyone wants to know. Bar dancers have never spoken openly. Geeta always says that she would talk later, but even she has never been able to speak openly. If any husband has come here, I know what he would say after this. A bar dancer told me how her husband taunted her after the bars closed down. He said she isn't even a bar dancer anymore, so she should go and stand on the streets. We won't hear such things. Today all of you say as much as you can. I want to thank Veena, Flavia for organizing this programme. All of you have also come to listen. Even it exceeds your time please listen to them. Please give them some time, they will talk. They are not educated, they may dress up like madams but actually they are illiterate, do not know how to speak. Please be patient with them. Thank you.
bar dancers speak