“Life is much harder ‘out there’!” This is what one of the many bar dancers, entertaining middle-class Nepali men once told me, as we strolled along the labyrinth streets of Thamel before her night-shift. ‘Out there’ is work-life outside the bar. As she talked about her profession, she referred to the hardships she faced at the beginning of her dancing career, mostly centring around being tired from the moves she had to repeat on the stage – sore legs but nothing grimmer than that. She recalled being shy at first. The profession had then grown on her, becoming routine. “I am used to it now”, she laughed. At the time, it had seemed to be such a paradoxical statement, considering what people said about her job, and what I myself thought about women working in Kathmandu’s dance-bars.
This perspective reverses accepted notions. The girls I talked to didn’t refer to bars as ‘chambers of torture’, as outsiders imagine; instead they spoke of bars being safe havens when compared to the other dangers and perils of the Nepali capital city. Many of the women employed in such entertainment venues talk about the advantages to dance-bar employment.
Flexible working times and the lack of physically strenuous work attracted some of the women I talked to. They could get things done during the day; take care of their children and then head to their duties. They saw value in their labour, as both a potential to improve their lives and an opportunity for being gainfully employed. They willingly entered a sexually-charged environment offering their patrons fantasies, while the latter sat down, had a few drinks and enjoyed the show.
What show? Pirouetting girls, dressed in alluring attires, winking and smiling at the gazing audience from a high centre-stage. To start with, the patrons watched them dancing, then minutes later the dancing girls would sit beside a favoured customer or a group of men, smiling and chatting, and sometimes giving lap-dances.
Women frequently mocked the men they served, again reversing their image of the exploited victims. They laughed at the tricks and taunts they would use to make customers believe that they would sleep with them at the end of the night. But they would run off through the back door, instead jumping in pre-arranged taxis that took them home.
While the girls I spoke to sounded like they had willingly joined the profession and were comfortable with their work, there are stories of women who are forced either by circumstances or by human traffickers into this profession. According to Cabin Dance Bar Restaurant Association data (updated in 2010), there are around 30,000 women and girls in Kathmandu who are working in the Entertainment Sector. They are paid USD 40-70 per month. “Though we can’t generalise, during our research I met many women who wanted to leave the profession and start a new life,” says Samjhana Karmacharya, project coordinator at Saathi, who campaigns for creating a safe and violence-free environment for women working in the Entertainment sector (Cabin and Dance restaurant) of Kathmandu.
“When we talk to dance bar owners, they will always pretend that they have provided many facilities to their dancers and portray bars as working spaces that are comfortable,” she added. Karmacharya said that bar dancers often worked overtime without pay and their salaries were never paid on-time. All the while, they also worried because there was no one to take care of their children. “But some of them still feel safe because the bar owners come to rescue them whenever the police come after them or when they have any other problems,” said Karmacharya. This often leads the girls to lie to protect the world of bars, its people and its code to maintain silence, especially before reporters. Parallel stories and perspectives mingle, contradict each other and coexist. Establishing which situation is more representative than the other is a difficult task.
The venue I visited in Thamel was not the most obvious gig and may not represent the complete and complex picture of how the sex entertainment industry works in Nepal. It was nestled in a darker alleyway. Women came up to me to chat briefly, while they scrutinised the lounge’s seats to make sure they had a good spot to sit. After some time I got closer to a few of the women and we slowly grew familiar enough to meet outside their work place in more relaxed environments – the backstreet tea shop or restaurant, local markets and, of course, their rooms – their innermost universes. Each girl had “their” customers – regulars, who they would seduce with smiles and demeanours, listening to their stories with rapt attention. They subtly prompted patrons to drink more and hence pay a large bill.
I had a chance encounter with a boastful group of middle class, unmarried businessmen in their late thirties. All of them were involved in tourism or other profitable work. They laughed about their ventures with foreign tourists in the Himalaya or their night-time indulgences as we spoke. According to the women who entertained them, men were prone to throwing their money away when they drank. Dance-bar women were very alert to this weakness. Men described dancers and hostesses as cunning strategists, luring them to spend, dangling the promise of a memorable sexual experience when the night ended. Some men were simply in awe of the charming girls on stage, clapping, dancing and throwing money in the air, completely inebriated by the many glasses of raksi they had downed.
For most women working in these dives, they were doing nothing wrong – just fulfilling their duties, keeping customers satisfied and making sure that the money kept flowing. Men and outsiders often shamed them, calling them sex workers, or more pejoratively, prostitutes. But while the promise of sex did float in the air, it was hard to establish the circumstances of its occurrence. Transactions were never clear-cut, yet dance-bar women (both dancers and waitresses) were stuck with demeaning labels and the stigma and dangers of the double standards that accompany them. What mostly bothered the public is that these women make good money, rather than the paltry sums most workers are used to making. Including tips, their salaries can sky rocket and if they decide to work abroad for some months, land can be bought, houses built and businesses started. If all goes to plan, that is.
Clear definitions are rendered almost impossible through the various practices of exchange, play and performance that characterise the lives of these women and also the men who are connected to the bar and the life that starts when the sun sets. A process of courting took place: men came repeatedly in the hope that their flattery and gifts would get them more than coquettish smiles in return. Some women played along, protracting the game for as much time as they possibly could in order to make the most money out of it. These engagements went on beyond the night hours and the bar premises. Telephone numbers were exchanged and phone calls keep the customer, in the girls’ own words, “warm” until their next visit, escalating expectations until then.
One of the waitresses I talked to never worked there on a regular basis, but just every now and then when she needed the money. In her early thirties, she was one of the many hostesses “playing” the floor of the bar, shuttling drinks from the kitchen to patrons and sitting down with them from time to time. Her English was close to fluent. She appeared savvy, mature and centred. On our first encounter, she told me how during the day she worked as a cleaning lady for a wealthy foreign family in town and had worked for expats on many occasions before. The ease with which I could converse with her allowed our relationship to grow and on one of occasion I met her daughter. The child, still small, was from her relationship with a bar patron, an expat who had worked in town for an extended period of time. The woman had lived in Europe some years before, but her trip did not pan out as well as she had hoped. However, she strived to make another attempt, especially for the sake of her daughter. Her child’s “mixed blood” was often the topic of discussion for her relatives and in her community, and she wished to raise her child in what she felt could be a more accepting environment. Her relatives’ comments, she claimed, may also have arisen from envy: all in all, through her work at the bar, through her relationships with older, wealthy and foreign men (the father of her child had not been the only one), she had been able to save money and sustain a relatively good standard of living.
She talked about these men as her “boyfriends” and their relationships as loving ones. She cringed and complained about people calling her a “prostitute”, underscoring how far from the truth she believed that to be. She talked about her foreign partners as objects of her affection. Through their attentions, presents and household contributions, she felt loved and taken care of. Her stories about work in the dance bar, however, gave away the source of potential ambiguity. Often men asked her to go with them on some trip outside Kathmandu. She would make them believe that she would but would always said no. By doing so, she sold hope and illusion, which the men were willing to buy. Patrons eventually changed their preferences. Some women gave in to the insistence, offering, against cash, a night of delight. Some let them go and focused their attention elsewhere.
But flirting at times did take on another meaning for both women and men. The exchange practices in place, where there was romantic build-up through expensive gifts, like money, phones, clothes and costly trinkets, created a sense of being in a relationship. Inevitably, women would start to talk about ‘clients’ as ‘partners’. Instead of clear-cut “pay-for-sex” transactions, the emotional dimension of the exchanges elevated them to another sphere of valued intimacy. Sex, if and when it occurred, was part of the relationship. Nonetheless, the innuendo of flirting and haggling, money exchange and gift making, has given rise to the reputation, among clients and the public, of dance-bar women as sex workers and as such they were constantly stigmatised and demeaned as being greedy, deceitful and morally corrupt.
An aura of glamour increased the demand for dancers (although waitresses can also, technically, make similar deals). I found women in dance bars strategising about their choices in the same way, although in a different context, as women from other walks of life do. When it comes to marriage, many women in Nepal face the question of whether the family to be married into will take care of them. The question asked then is: in exchange for her wifely duties as a housekeeper and mother, will her livelihood and upkeep be assured?
Dance-bar women have to work with normative gendered and sexualised models, drawing advantages in conditions not of their own making and end up compromising as much as wives are expected to. The strategy is merely of a different quality, but it operates within the same plane of reference.
One story is emblematic of such negotiations. One dancer, in her early twenties, had been married already, moving to her husband’s natal village in order to take on the traditional role of a daughter-in-law. A true city girl, born and raised in the bustling life of Kathmandu city, she found village life suffocating – almost a prison. We talked about this, whilst relaxing in her room before her shift at the bar. As a village wife, she remarked, she would not be able to enjoy the freedoms her current situation afforded her. As a dancer, she could wear what she wanted, do as she pleased, and be free from the wifely duties she was expected to perform. Yes, she had to abide to a “feminine” stereotyped version of herself in the bar too, yet this compromise scored better in her opinion. No one told her what to do, where to go and who to meet. She was educated, clever and strong-minded. She knew that her profession would not provide for her for ever –she would only be in her twenties for so long and knew that her looks would soon fade, leaving her to seek other options to make a living. She had plans, however. Go abroad and accumulate as much as she could in her last few “young and attractive”years.
She told me all this during a chance encounter. I could see she was excited and nervous about something.In the past weeks, she had been collecting papers to obtain a passport and visa, with which she could travel abroad. Some girls from the dance bar where she worked had already left for one of the booming Southeast Asian cities. From them she knew about what she could expect once she joined them. Her excitement was a mixture of longing and preoccupation. How would the patrons and owners be? What would be required of her? It was on one of our very last meetings, before I would return to Europe, that she actually voiced her secret fear: that she may indeed have exchange sex with customers. She had never mentioned any chance of this happening before. Yet, asidefrom this preoccupation,she had a general wish to see the world out there – “bahira,” as she would say. She was willing to take the potential risks that movement abroad entailed, in the same way as she did every night, as she turned herself into an object of male gaze. Girls from Nepal are trafficked to these cities as well, but regardless of the consent involved, they end up in the same venues.
Bar dancers, like other women engaging in sex entertainment in Kathmandu, are not always in the position to give consent and cases of rape and violence occur. However, if they are known to have been working in such premises, their complaints and allegations are often dismissed or scoffed at. According to Samjhana Karmacharya, many rape cases that happen inside the bar do not get reported. “The mafia runs this industry which is why such cases cannot come out,” she adds.
A certain unspoken “they had it coming” attitude also underscores public opinion when there is a case of rape or molestation. The women become even more vulnerable to abuse when they decide to move abroad to West Asia or Southeast Asia. A dancer had allegedly gone even as far as Latin America and Africa. Women were willing to try their luck, hopeful of securing their future and that of their family. While potential security was the prime motivation, many also expressed a wish to be part of the cosmopolitan, anonymous environment offered in big cities, to see the world and to experience life. If these conditions were fulfilled in jobs outside the sex entertainment industry, these women were happy to make the switch to less stigmatised forms of employment.
Yet if things go wrong, once they are abroad – when clients are too many and the money too little or when the conditions are exploitative – admitting to having chosen to go may make their complaints and claims pointless in face of the social censure they face upon their return. The most common unsympathetic response could be “well, what did they expect?”, followed by “what did they want now?”. The underlying judgement is that these women have to ‘pay’ in some way for not staying within the moral boundaries imposed upon them. Talking about trickery, about women kidnapped and sold, and women taken abroad on false pretences by greedy neighbours or ruthless traffickers are situations that are easier to digest. Women who choose sex entertainment as a profession constitute a reality that for many is just too hard to deal with.
~ Lisa Caviglia is a lecturer and researcher at the Humboldt University, Berlin. She also coordinates the university‘s Global and Area Studies programme.
~The information discussed in the article will be elaborated in the author’s forthcoming book published by Routledge.
~With inputs from Himal team.