Bombay's bar girls fight for their jobs on political stage

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The once famous dance-bar girls of Bombay are planning to stage a comeback - by standing as candidates in local elections next month. Their platform is simple: to overturn the citywide ban on their work and reopen the clubs where they used to perform.

The dance-bar girls were once one of the best-known features of Bombay nightlife - until the present government of Maharashtra state closed the bars as part of a morality drive in 2005.

It is believed to have put some 75,000 dancers out of work, and now the girls are intent on fighting back. They are to meet tomorrow to decide whether to form their own political party or stand as independent candidates in municipal elections.

There was major controversy when the state government decided to close the bars. It accused them of "corrupting the youth" and being barely disguised brothels, and the bar girls of being prostitutes - accusations the dancers and bar owners deny. They say they were performers and there was no sex involved.

The truth lay in between. Certainly to visit the dance bars you would not think they were brothels. The audience may have been made up entirely of men, but the dancers were fully dressed in long shimmering lengha skirts, and beyond the odd exposed midriff there was no flesh on view.

The dancers were rarely prostitutes. Some were purely dancers, but their dubious reputation came from many who worked as a form of courtesan. They would encourage relationships with regular visitors and agree to meet them outside. The relationship was financial: they would milk the men for expensive gifts - a mobile telephone, a television, even a better flat. But they would rarely sleep with a man until they had had a relationship for several months.

Since the dance bars closed, many of the dancers say they have been forced into the much more dangerous work of out-and-out prostitution to make a living. Many are single mothers, forced into working in the dance bars to support their children because their husbands left them, or they became pregnant and their lovers abandoned them.

Now the dancers plan to stand in at least 50 of the 227 seats in Bombay's municipal election on 1 February. "We have had enough of begging and pleading for our rights," said Manjit Singh Sethi, president of the Bar Owners' Association.

Chandni Khan, a former dance-bar girl who plans to stand, said: "By winning the election and participating in the administration we want to give a fitting reply to those who banned us." The dancers got the idea to stand after a bar girl won a village council election in rural Maharashtra last year.

"It can be a way to empower these girls, but we have to see that in our enthusiasm we don't become a laughing stock," warned Varsha Kale, head of the Bar Girls' Association. "Many girls have said they want to contest the election."