(An edited version of this book review was first published in The Hindu.)
Sameena Dalwai is an assistant professor at the Jindal Global Law School, specializing in legal issues connected to the domain of gender and sexuality. Her book, Bans and Bar Girls: Performing Caste in Mumbai’s Dance Bars, draws on several years of experience as a lawyer with human rights organizations in Maharashtra and her doctoral dissertation focusing on a legal ban meant to “curtail the rising visibility and power” of bar dancers. Published by Women Unlimited, it holds great value for readers interested in economic liberalization, labour rights, feminist politics, and the Dalit movement.
“Globalisation in the late 1980s and 1990s facilitated a new market of entertainment as a result of which a dance bar industry emerged in Mumbai,” writes Dalwai, who uses Stanley Cohen’s theory of moral panic to analyse how public opinion was mobilized against women from traditional performing communities “perceived as earning far more money than they ought to.” It is clear that she is an academic with enough grassroots experience; scholarly references are brought up only when they illuminate a point, not merely to indicate a wide range of reading.
The ban did not shut down bars. It only prohibited bar girls from dancing to the same Bollywood songs that are considered respectable when they are played at upper caste weddings. Dalwai uses the concept of ‘caste capital’ to talk about how women from certain castes were able to use “hereditary skills of dancing, drama and seduction” to acquire money, status and power through their occupation. The ban took away their right to choice of work, reduced their income, and affected their expenditure on food, education and healthcare.
Cohen’s theory is well-chosen to help contextualize how dance bars emerged with economic liberalization, a time with major societal changes that threatened older structures defined by caste and class hierarchies. The function of moral panic at this moment was to try and restore a sense of order through the enforcement of norms and punitive action to contain deviance. While it was alleged that dance bars were breeding grounds for criminal activity, debates around law and order were articulated through the language of morality not illegality. This distinction made by Dalwai is subtle but powerfully expressed.
“In Mumbai, moral panic at the existence and popularity of dance bars was catalysed by influential state and political actors. Those controlling the discourse around dance bars were retired judges, politicians and activists,” writes Dalwai. These people were able to craft a narrative depicting dance bars and bar girls as a threat to society in general, and Maharashtrian culture in particular. They were able to influence the media, and put pressure on the legislature, to make them believe that the bar girls needed to be out of business because they lured supposedly impressionable young men, and wrecked their families.
Dalwai’s research is an example of rigorous scholarship. Her fieldwork took place in Mumbai from June 2008 to February 2009. She conducted interviews with various parties linked directly to the ban, thus enriching the reader’s understanding of the issue at hand. She spoke to bar girls, bar owners, and bar staff, politicians, activists, lawyers, police officers, and men who frequented dance bars. Her research also included looking at clippings from Marathi and English newspapers, parliamentary debates, petitions to and judgments by the courts, and the differences of opinion between Dalit and upper caste feminist collectives. The author’s depth of engagement with her subject, and with diverse positions, comes from an empathy that goes missing when researchers are more focused on taking sides rather than investigating the dynamics at play.
Dalwai interprets the moral panic as a manifestation of “Brahminical patriarchy, and its hegemonic ideas of women’s chastity and sexuality,” which pits the ‘good’ wife against the ‘bad’ whore. Upper caste men are conveniently excused from taking any responsibility in a social universe that grants them numerous privileges on account of their gender and caste location. What is more interesting is that “the Maharashtra government encouraged the dance bar market from its inception, regulated it, and earned taxes from it” but actively supported the call for a ban when questions about morality began to be raised. Politicians never fail to surprise.