In the same year that Pakistani model, actress and social media sensation Qandeel Baloch was killed in a so-called 'honour killing,' the northern state of Punjab in India has made headlines for a similarly chilling murder. A shooting in Bathinda this week left dancer Kulwinder Kaur dead in front of a raucous, alcohol-fuelled crowd during her performance with a dance troupe at a wedding. She was killed with a single bullet to the head by the groom's friend, and her death was filmed in a grotesque video that has since been widely circulated on social media. Kulwinder's death has exposed the dark underbelly of dance troupes in India, where women are regularly paid to perform, sometimes provocatively, amongst drunken and aggressive men. More troublingly though, it has reiterated the way in which women and their bodies are commodified, punished and cruelly discarded.
In the video, Kulwinder is seen being dragged from the stage - blood staining the floor - watched by guests at the wedding moments after she is shot. There is shouting, panic and mayhem. Kulwinder and her colleagues were seen lined up and dancing on stage moments before she was murdered. Paraded in front of men for their viewing pleasure, Kulwinder and the other female dancers make big money for their managers. Although Kulwinder willingly did the job, women like her are left defenceless in the face of revellers clambering to get a closer look - or feel - at these events.
While performances by female dance troupes are all the rage for rich families hosting weddings across Punjab, men are frequently seen drunk, disorderly and demanding more than what is on offer from such dancers like Kulwinder. It is symptomatic of a culture which champions aggression and 'masculinity', a 'take-what-you-can't-get' attitude, and one in which women are continually viewed for sexual pleasure: harassed, pestered and eyed-up until they give in. Women dancing in these troupes are privately cursed for taking up such professions within Indian society, but publicly enjoyed for pleasure. No doubt many will have responded to reports of Kulwinder's death with unkindness: "she shouldn't have been dancing like that anyway."
It is obvious what caused the alleged 'celebratory misfiring' that killed Kulwinder: the word 'no.' Kulwinder's shooting shows something more sinister is happening during these weddings and parties, where dire financial situations force women to earn quick cash through all-night dance performances. Her death brings to the fore the plight of women who repeatedly suffer at the hands of violent male perpetrators, and is a story which has been heard one too many times. Let's take for example Jessica Lal's murder in Delhi during 1999 - a barmaid shot dead for refusing to serve liquor to a man. More than a decade later, it's Kulwinder who suffers because of a 'no' that objected to a man gaining closer access to her. It is this same 'no' that means women often carry the burden of violence, sexual assault, rape, and murder. It is the same 'no' that tells men they have a right to lash out, to be angry and ultimately, to demand more.
The intent behind Kulwinder's death seems clear. It almost feels like a statement, to show not just Kulwinder, but any woman, who the boss was in the face of rejection at the wedding. Today, Kulwinder becomes another name, another face, and another body to be added to the ever-growing catalogue of women killed for saying 'no.'