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She was 17 when she was rescued from a dance bar. Now she’s 18 and she wants to go back. As an adult. And dance again. That’s what Alisha wrote in a letter to the Child Welfare Committee.

Alisha’s letter may be one of a kind. It doesn’t matter. It may even be a scam of sorts, in that she was pushed to write it. Doesn’t matter. What’s interesting is the jumble that it throws up, if you look at her choices through eyes that are not hers.

First, the whole jumble around dancing as a minor. In which box should we put this in our heads? In the ‘age of consent’ box where we place girls who marry before the legal age of 18, even if they elope with their boyfriends with full consent? Or a separate box, which disregards legal terrain, simply because we understand late teens as being capable of both desire and consent?

Don’t get me wrong. I understand – and accept – that adults should legally be treated differently from children, although I do feel that 18 years is too late. Many years after teens have acquired the ‘actual’ capacity to consent. Especially in an age when exposure, aspiration and choice-making come much earlier.

Alisha’s just as clear at 18 as she was at 17. She’d rather be a bar dancer than a beautician. She was enrolled in a beauty course during her rehab, but she’d rather dance for her pocket money. So that she can get the cellphones she wants, the clothes, the holidays. The life.

This is where many narratives start to come unstuck. The narrative that bar dancing is fine to buy life’s bare necessities, not it’s fripperies. The narrative of the poor, traumatised bar dancer; Alisha says rehab was a trauma, not bar dancing. The narrative of contingent choice-making. Meaning that bar dancing – or sex work or being an escort – is okay only if there’s no other option.

But not as an option in itself.

Art or obscenity?

As if this isn’t ‘bad’ enough, Alisha equates dancing in bars with art. “I do not see anything wrong in dancing in front of customers,” she wrote in her letter to the Child Welfare Committee. “I equate it to any artist performing live in front of an audience”.

Now where to place this equation, especially if we assume that bar dancing is more punishment than pleasure, or something a woman drags herself through to eat her nightly meal?

When overturning the 2005 ban on dance bars in Maharashtra, the Supreme Court had said that “it’s better to dance in bars than to beg.” Which makes it sound one step more appealing than lifting food from dumpsters. Not that appetising. But later in the same judgement, the Supreme Court went on to refer to bar dancing as an artistic act.

The Maharashtra government doesn’t agree with this. It finds bar dancing ‘obscene’, so much so that it has tried to invent a whole new class of obscenity – just for bar dancing. Full of ‘lascivious movements’ and ‘exposed genitals’. And the Maharashtra government calls the shots where Alisha, a Mumbaikar, is concerned.

Art. Obscene. Lascivious. All these words are subjective, so let’s dump them for a moment. (Of course, dance can be all of these at the same time.)

Let’s consider that dance has also been called the “vertical expression of a horizontal passion.” And what’s wrong with that, except the limited characterisation of said passion?

What’s wrong with dancing sexy, whether or not it’s artistic or culturally pure? How about our divinely sexy dancing apsaras? How about Bharatnatyam, which emerged from dance forms such as Sadir Nautch and Dasiyattam? When the devadasis who performed Bharatnatyam went on to become royal concubines, the form itself broke with its past in search of respectability.

And bigger question: is bar dancing automatically obscene? Is there a space to be sexy without being obscene? Can one be both a subject and an object – of pleasure – at one and the same time? Can one dance for one’s own pleasure and that of the viewer, never mind all that “dance as if no one’s watching” stuff?

Labour or stigmatised labour?

As part of her application to the Child Welfare Committee asking to be released from rehab, Alisha attaches a gynaec’s report – showing she’s a virgin. That she has not been ‘sexually exploited.’

I don’t know how to think about this but it doesn’t feel right. First, the phrase ‘sexual exploitation’ seems like this is a test for prostitution, not assault. Is this a test of morals, or a test of lack of consent? It doesn’t even matter whether or not the Committee mandated this, or Alisha chose to send this. Why should any working woman need to prove she’s a virgin?

We know why, of course. When lifting the ban on dance bars, the Supreme Court had said that it’s better to dance than to beg. Or to “earn livelihood through unacceptable means.”

Unacceptable means is often code for sex work, a code that many bar dancers used when asking that bars be re-opened. “Otherwise we will have to turn to sex work,” they said. I understand why this argument was used, but for me, it’s immeasurably sad.

Bar dancers perform one type of stigmatised labour, not recognised as labour. Sex workers perform another kind of stigmatised labour, even less recognised as labour (except by a few trade unions in India, including the New Trade Union Initiative.) When one stigmatised labour group has to put down another to get it’s rights, it’s sad.

Dignity or indignity?

Back in Maharashtra, as Alisha awaits the Committee’s decision, the state government is hell-bent on preventing dance bars from re-opening.

It files cases against orchestra barsSuspends cops for licensing a few dance bars. Pushes to install CCTV cameras – privacy be damned – and three-foot-high touch-me-not railings on the dance floor. It also imposes a bunch of other conditions that make dance bars unviable.

All in the name of protecting the dignity of women at the workplace.

Meanwhile, the Child Welfare Committee turns down Alisha’s application, even though she’s an adult. She’s probably still stuck in rehab.

I hope not. I hope she’s dancing in a Mira Road bar somewhere, even though she’s surrounded by the cops’ hidden cameras. Without her consent. As they digitally surveil her swaying form to establish that what she’s doing is obscene, under the new Maharashtra Prohibition of Obscene Dance in Hotels, Restaurants and Bar Rooms and Protection of Dignity of Women Act (2016).

Mouthful, that. Forget that dancing in a bar doesn’t automatically equate to an indignity. Forget that the 2013 Supreme Court decision reversing the 2005 ban on dance bars in Maharashtra established “dancing for livelihood as a fundamental right.”

Tell me how stalking a dancer with a hidden camera she doesn’t know about, to gather footage she doesn’t know about, to be used in a way she doesn’t know about, protects her dignity. Tell me. Please.

Alisha’s story is based on this Times New Network article by Sandhya Nair published on 27 May 2016.

Cover image courtesy Indianroots.

This post was originally published under this month, it is being republished for the anniversary issue.

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