In 2005, the Government of Maharashtra banned dance performances in eating houses, permit rooms and beer bars through an amendment in the Bombay Police Act, 1951. The ban was recently struck down both by the High Court of Bombay and the Supreme Court of India as unconstitutional.
The High Court and the Supreme Court held the ban to be violative of Article 14 (right to equality) and Article 19(1)(g) (right to practice any profession or occupation). The courts observed that the amendment unreasonably prohibited dance performances in some establishments while permitting them in other establishments like hotels starred three and above. This classification seems to be based on elitist presumptions about the morality of people with lesser incomes and was held to be violating the right to equality. The courts also noted that the prohibition on dancing forced many establishments to shut down and rendered many women workers unemployed. Contrary to its purpose, the law forced many dancers to take up prostitution to earn their living. Thus, the law infringed upon the guarantee under Article 19(1)(g). Now, the state of Maharashtra is likely to revert to the licensing system for regulation of dance bars.
Below, I try to put the debate around prohibiting/regulating dance bars within the framework of various broader perspectives, not necessarily drawn from the judgments, which might help in a better analysis of this debate. My purpose is not to give a definite answer on this issue, but to separate and present the differing strands that get implicated here. Here are the different arguments:
Morality: Dances in beer bars and similar places are obscene and vulgar. They not only degrade women, but also lead to an increase in other immoral activities like prostitution and alcoholism. It can be said this argument belongs to the ‘Conservatives’, though I am wary of using this classification as our prejudices against being a ‘conservative’ may prevent us from fairly appreciating the merits of the argument.
Equality: Performances in dance bars are derogatory to women because they commodity and objectify women. They also often involve minor girls who are trafficked, exploited and forced into dancing in bars. This view is likely to be advocated most strongly by radical feminists who find the root of sex inequality in sexual exploitation of women and argue also against prostitution and pornography on these grounds. They deny that women choose these occupations with their ‘free consent’. This argument opposes bar dancing as being degrading to women not for reasons of protection of public morality, but due to concern for equality of women.
Practical offshoots: Allowing dance bars to flourish may enhance the occurrence of other undesirable activities or hinder implementation of other laws. For example, dance bars are seen as hubs of prostitution and human trafficking. They increase the vulnerability of minor girls and women to sexual exploitation. They may also lead to increased alcohol addiction and related crimes. These practical concerns call for regulation or banning of dance bars.
Right to work and livelihood: All persons have the right to work which includes women’s right to dance in bars. Banning bar dancing not only took away a form of employment, but also forced many bar dancers to take up prostitution to sustain themselves and their families. The ban also forced many establishments to shut down altogether, affecting the livelihood of other workers employed there.
Autonomy: Autonomy feminists seek respect for the agency or choice of women in entering professions such as bar dance, sex work or pornography. They reject the view that women do not take up these activities with their free consent. It is paternalistic to label what is the free choice of a woman as force or exploitation.
Free expression: Dance is a form of expression and prohibition on dance performances in certain establishments is an excessive restriction on the freedom of speech and expression of bar dancers.
Elitism: Selective ban on dances of certain types or in establishments most frequented by people belonging to certain classes or having lesser incomes is based on elitist assumptions about their morality. It is assumed that similar dance performances in establishments like five star hotels do not lead to illegal or immoral activities. It may also imply greater respect for the autonomy of women dancers of a particular class while viewing other women dancers as victims of exploitation. Such bans may stem from beliefs regarding the need to regulate the conduct of certain classes of people. Based on the position on the wider debate on bar dance, this argument may advocate either across-the-board increase or across-the-board decrease in the regulation of dance bars.
This is not an exhaustive set of views on the issue of bar dancing, but I have tried to cover a wide ground. I hope this puts the debate in a wider perspective and helps us avoid conflating the different arguments when responding to the debate.