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Gendered Subaltern Sexuality and the State

The controversy over the dance bar girls represents the complex process of the construction of sexuality of lower-caste women by various agencies and how it has emerged as a site for the anxieties of the state to be worked out. It also represents the fractures within the women's movement regarding definition of work, sexuality and the caste question. At another level, in the process of liberalisation and market-oriented reforms, the state has been considerably weakened as an independent entity and lost its economic and political power. The cultural field has emerged as a major, and probably the only, domain in which it can exercise full power.

The Supreme Court’s judgment on girls dancing in Mumbai’s dance bars has vindicated the stand taken by the bar girls and their struggle. More importantly, it has also upheld the constitutional rights of women citizens relegated to the margins of the so-called “civilised” world to earn a living and which the state had tried to take away.

In the light of this ruling, I would like to tease out the issues involved in the debate: the perception of the lower-caste/lower-class woman’s sexuality by the state and its agencies such as the police, the legislature and the minister who imposed the ban on such bars, the Maharashtra State Commission for Women (MSCW), the voice of the gendered subaltern, and her rights as a citizen, her autonomy or lack of it, the choice of work, etc. I argue that these issues have been conceptualised and worked out in the public and private domains by dominant ideologies of nation and culture, and their self-serving practices of inclusion and exclusion. Especially important is the question of the use of the lower-caste/class woman’s sexuality in the form of production of cultural services in the domain of cultural economy, where economic activities are embedded in cultural meanings. Since this drama has been worked out in the context of the uncertainties produced by globalisation, it might be interesting to explore the relationship between globalisation and the cultural fault lines it throws up.

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