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India

Women's Rights Hangover: In Mumbai, Male-Only Bars Still Exist

Man bartending at a famous pub in South Mumbai
Man bartending at a famous pub in South Mumbai
Abhilasha Sinha

MUMBAI — As far as Indian cities go, Mumbai is probably the most free-spirited of them all. The streets are bustling till the wee hours, the people are generally more friendly (believe me — I'm from New Delhi) and, as a woman, I feel safe when I go out to restaurants and bars. Provided they let me in, that is.

On what was a normal Thursday evening in Lower Parel, a colleague and I decided to go for a walk after work before we headed home. Passing a resto-bar, we decided to duck in for a quick drink. The establishment, Sanjay Restaurant & Bar, is on NM Joshi Marg. And it's a bit of a dive, though no more so than other dive bars I've been to. It was also full of men, and only men, which is par for the course in places like that.

That I was the only women ordering a drink there didn't surprise me, in other words. What did surprise me was that, a few minutes after we sat down at a table, a waiter came by telling us to leave. At first I began fumbling for my driver's license to prove that I'm of legal drinking age. But the problem had nothing to do with age.

"Madam, ladies are not allowed here, that's the rule," the server said. "You will have to leave."

After a few minutes of indignant sputtering, and muttering "Are you freaking kidding me" to my (male) colleague, he told me that's just how it is in many Bombay bars. The creep factor of the bar increased in proportion to my indignation, so I decided that we would leave and not create a scene. Still, as we exited I asked the bar proprietor if this was true. "Yes," he said. "Ladies are not allowed because things get troublesome then. They're a nuisance."

We live in a world that at least maintains a veneer of respecting women.

I was gobsmacked. I have been called many things over the years, but "nuisance" certainly isn't one of them.I then asked him who is responsible for things getting out of hand? The women? Or the disgusting men who harass the women at bars, thus causing trouble? He looked at me as if I was a mildly irritating fly that had been buzzing around his ears.

It's 2018.

That means we live in a world that at least maintains a veneer of respecting women — through various ladies night events, for example. "Sorry for screwing your gender over for millennia, but look! Here's a FREE watered down cocktail to make it all better."

Writer Abhilasha Sinha traveling in Calcutta — Photo: Abhilasha Sinha/Instagram

It also means that we're no longer in an era of when women are barred from entering a bar in broad daylight, and in a metro city no less. Or so I imagined. Because at Sanjay Restaurant & Bar, that's exactly what they do. And it's not the only Mumbai establishment with such a rule. Aparna Restaurant in Sion has a reputation for not serving women. Aishwarya Resto-Bar is another one. They won't take orders from a woman. Literally. They only write down your order if it's given to them by a man at the table.

In fact, nearly every bar outside a station in Mumbai will deny entry to women — and claim that it's for their own safety. And sadly, they're not wrong, because there are rowdy men drinking at these bars, and more often than not, they'll leer at women. Outnumbered 10 to 1, the women will then feel uncomfortable, scared and angry, and will most likely express outrage at the harassment. Several of the male drinkers will then be asked to leave by the authorities, because "Madam created a scene." And of course, business suffers.

We are slowly and steadily breaking into spaces that until recently, had been exclusively male.

What would any seedy bar owner do in that situation? Those men, and others like them, are his key customers. Their daily dip into alcoholism keeps the proprietor afloat, and the money he charges them for broken glasses could possibly pay for another bar itself. Should he compromise their unwavering patronage for the occasional woman who's brave enough to saunter into his bar? Or should he just ban all women entirely because he knows that sooner or later, one will get harassed?

There is much more context here, of course. Women and alcohol have been a sore point in society for years and years. Women and late nights. Women and streets. Women and temples. Women and workplaces. Women and crematoriums. Women and any space really that men have claimed for themselves.

We are slowly and steadily breaking into spaces that until recently, had been exclusively male. And the men aren't happy about it. It's a small thing, this. Being denied entry to an institution because of your gender. But it's f***ing 2018. And still, we're supposed to just be cool with it all. Brush it off. We're asked to just get over it and go somewhere else — until we realize we're denied entry to so much more because of our gender or class or sexuality or religion.

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and until we as a collective raise our voices against subtle exclusion and discrimination by barging into every one of these bars in angry hordes, nothing will change. Oh, and by the way, I'll be going back to that bar for that G&T I wanted. Let's see them stop me.

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