Social Morality, The Law and Women’s Rights in India

For this month’s Wednesday Live, we were joined by Dr Anna Morcom, an enthamusicologist whose career was inspired by a gap year trip to India.

Throughout the centuries, there have been fluctuating levels of social taboo surrounding female public performance in India. The most recent inflammation of such taboo came in the 1990s, when the prevalence of live Hindi dance mushroomed, mainly as a result of the increased money that the government could earn from issuing alcohol licenses. Consequently, this increased the notoriety of such practices, resulting in turn in a full ban on women dancing in bars (this being despite the fact that the dancers were always fully clothed, and audience members not permitted to touch them).

There are two main reasons why the law intervened to ban public dancing. Firstly, many declared it to be a social evil, wrecking society and leading its innocent men astray. Secondly, a more well-meaning school of thought wanted to save these women who had fallen victim to the practice of performing for money.

The problem, though, was how else would they get their money? 75,000 bar girls in Mumbai lost their livelihood, and were forced into earning a living in far more sexualised industries. These women were from a long lineage of courtesans, possessing no other skills and unable to transfer into another career path. They had no men to rely on for support, since women being dancers and women being married were two mutually exclusive notions. In this sense, the situation of these women was framed by the patriarchy within which they lived, but simultaneously they had been able to subvert it, earning money (often more than male peers) and gaining unprecedented independence.

This recent set of circumstances echoed those brought about by earlier social reforms in India, reflecting the Victorian morality of the colonising English. Some of these reforms triggered social advancement for females – the abolition of the practice of women self-immolating on their husband’s funeral pyre is one such trend which became extinct. However, the status of courtesans became called into question for the first time. Under colonialism, courtesans were no longer viewed as performers, and common morality decided that these women were immoral – simply for dancing and singing in public. Again, there were two sides to this campaign, as demonstrated by literature used to promote it at the time – simultaneously, belief was popular that ‘Hell is in her eyes’, ‘her smile is in India’s death’, but so too that ‘girls were trained to live an immoral life’ and this was a ‘violation of their human rights’.

This time, though, there was no need for a law, as stigmatisation occurred through social movement. What had once been a key cultural aspect of India’s society suddenly had no place. But, as when history repeated itself many years later, the courtesan lineage did not cease to exist, and instead the tradition went underground, meaning women were more exploited, had less prestige and were inevitably more sexualised. Consequently, the menfolk of this lineage also had little to do. The aim to purify society and save women from being courtesans proved to be completely counterproductive.

And so, this process was entirely repeated when the law decided in the 1990s to ban the practice once more. The key difference this time, though, was that, although the majority of middle class Indians agreed with the law, there was a strong voice who were able and willing to argue in favour of the performers. A union was formed with 8000 members, who argued that the practice gave women a valuable livelihood, and the opportunity to educate their children, thus propelling social mobility on an unprecedented scale.

Just last week, the ban against women performing in bars was overturned, with the caveat that the practice must be regulated. This echoes the huge societal change which has seen Bollywood becoming an enormously popular art form, thus making it difficult to argue that public performance is undignified. This is a powerful message, and calls into question the comparative gravitas carried by social morality versus legislation. A legal ban leaves itself open to scrutiny and question, which a strong argument with common backing can overturn, whereas social consensus does not afford such a platform to those at odds with it.

Something else to learn from this series of events is that the preoccupation with the victimhood of women often does little to actually help their cause, and in many cases can be a huge hindrance to female empowerment. In order to remove this barrier, perhaps it is time to accept that women, in all societies, ought to be afforded the autonomy to decide what is best for themselves, without intervention from the law or society – however well meaning.