Questions over ‘ladies bar’ raids

Women waiters and bartenders are often rounded up and ‘rescued’ by police teams raiding Bengaluru bars. Far from rescuing them, activists say, police deny them their choice of work

The Central Crime Branch (CCB) has raided five bars this past week. An officer says 130 women have been rescued over the past month.

The women, police say, were brought to Bengaluru from West Bengal, Bihar, and Maharashtra. Some were from Nepal.

Women activists say police often harass women on the pretext of ‘rescuing’ them. They stop women from their choice of work. 

A senior police officer told Metrolife the women have to be rescued because they were promised ‘respectable’ jobs and cheated by agents.

“Eventually, they are employed to serve liquor at the bars. While the High Court has said women can work as bartenders, the bar owners force them to dance and get into prostitution,” a top police officer told Metrolife.

Police say they are not against women working as bartenders, but want to prevent “illegal activities.”

Women bartenders dance and male customers are encouraged to throw money on them. Some women are forced into prostitution, he says.

Organisations that work with sex workers contend the women are either trafficked for sex, or have chosen sex work because of financial constraints and familial obligations.

Geetha, the coordinator of Sadhana Mahila Sangha, has been working with street sex workers for 20 years. She says the police, on the pretext of rescuing women, harass them.

“Even if sex workers want to file a police complaint they are not entertained. They are beaten up and made fun of,” she says.

She says some women in sex work were earlier garment workers, farmers and daily wage labourers. “Spouses who are drunk and children who need to be educated push them to sex work,” says Geetha. “This is their last resort”. 

She says some do end up as waitresses at the bars. Sex workers put up with all kinds of abuse. Some customers try to use them to try what they have seen in porn videos. “They force them to watch these videos and ask them for what they see. If they refuse, the customers beat them up, poke them with cigarette butts and force them to have oral and anal sex,” says Geetha.

Sex workers often don’t complain because their life is in danger. “Where do they run for help? The police don’t even entertain them,” says Geetha.    

The lowest rung of sex workers charge between Rs 300 and Rs 700 an hour. They usually have a tie-up with a lodge. After paying the rent and auto, they get little in hand. They are mostly between 25 and 40 years, says Geetha.

Among the women this organisation has rescued are those from parts of Karnataka, Bangladesh, Kolkata, Andhra Pradesh and Nepal.

‘Class prejudice at play’

About women serving alcohol, Shakun, one of the founders of Sadhana Mahila Sangha, says, “When women have broken the taboo and are successful as bartenders, they are celebrated. But when women serve liquor, they are to be ‘saved.’ Class is obviously at play here.”

Shakun says the women do not come from the upper strata that men bartenders come from and lack the reach or the resources to go to the Supreme Court to protect and assert their right to choice of work.

 Women working in bars on the night shift face the same challenges as other women who work on night shifts.

They face the added risk of being stopped from working only because their work is not considered decent. They should be treated like other women who work on night shifts. There can’t be different standards for women from different classes, says Shakun. 

It is arbitrary detention: Activist

Madhu Bhushan, women’s rights activist associated with Gamana Mahila Samuha, says unless women ask to be rescued, most cases of police “rescue” should be considered harassment and arbitrary detention.

“It violates women’s rights to bodily integrity and work of their own choice. The perception of ‘danger’ is usually not articulated by women who are ‘rescued’ but by a society and a legal system that uses the prism of regressive social morality, and not the lens of Constitutional morality, to judge them and their work,” says Madhu.

The irony is that if the women can never complain to the police about harassment. “They are judged as loose and immoral, and as women asking for it,” she says.

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