Rifa Deka

The struggle of gender equality has been a part of our society since time immemorial. However, even after we have reached the 21st century, our mindset still needs to be revamped on the subject. This also stands as evidence on how we judge a girl or a boy when they smoke or drink. Though it is injurious to both, society tends to be judgemental from the gender perspective rather than its health implications.

The society we live in demonizes females who smoke and drink. Drinking or consumption of alcohol and smoking of cigarettes is as harmful to the male as it is to the female, yet here is a word of caution to all young girls and women out there. Do not go buy a pack of cigarettes from that store near your house or locality girls! For your character is at stake. Do not drink alcohol and stir out in the open, because your character will be judged and don’t you dare smoke out in the open because your character will be judged!

The same men standing outside a pan shop will judge young girls for buying a pack of cigarettes, who will go home and smoke in front of their wives and children just to make them passive smokers. Similarly, the same women that judge other women for smoking will not say a word if their son comes home with a matchbox in his bag. Such is the hypocrisy of the society that we live in.

If a woman was to hold a cigarette in her hand, it would raise eyebrows because it would make her look un-feminine, unseemly, bold and progressive. At a time like this when there is so much heightened consciousness around health; this trend must be downward for both men and women. It is time we create some gender-neutral norms which serve both sexes to become better versions of themselves.

According to a World Health Organization (WHO) report, female cigarette smoking exists mainly among the urban elite classes of cosmopolitan cities which may reflect women’s aspiration to be considered ‘equal’ to men in Indian society. Over 12 million women smoke in India and this number is not a small one at all; in fact, the number of female smokers has significantly increased over the past decade as compared to a relative decline in the rate of rising male smokers in India.

Studies have shown that women are more likely to be portrayed drinking or smoking to control their emotions, for sex appeal or power manifestation on the silver screen. Some women are also shown to be smokers just to enhance their self-image or for a sense of independence and liberty. Men on the other hand, who are shown smoking or drinking reinforce a more masculine identity and establish a character of power and significant authority on television and in films.

A phrase that emerged during a PR campaign in the early twentieth century rightly referred to cigarettes as “Torches of Freedom”. Cigarettes were depicted as symbols of emancipation and equality with men. It described the natural desire for women to smoke and this phrase used by Edward Bernays encouraged women to smoke in public despite social taboos associated with the act. Women were hired to march, smoking cigarettes in a parade marking Easter Sunday in 1929. This was during the first wave of feminism. We are currently witnessing the third wave of feminism yet women still strive hard every single day to fight such social barriers.

To this day, a woman who smokes or consumes liquor is considered rebellious, immoral or a threat to other women. If not all that, then these acts are associated with glamour, seduction or a symbol of sexual allure. Can these habits not just be left alone as habits that are hazardous to health for both men and women?

In a country such as ours where women are smoking to get a sense of liberation, are we still going to judge a woman’s character on this very criteria? Does this somewhere show that we still want to show women ‘their place’ in the society? Is this judgement another one of our many ways to oppress women?

We are slowly witnessing the gender, the wage and the thigh gap narrow in a country like ours, inch by inch every day, and it is now time for us to broaden our mindsets too alongside all that. Let’s not forget that even Eve was judged for eating that forbidden apple, had it been Adam in her place, even God would have let that pass.

Having said all that, it does not mean that women must be given a free pass to smoke or drink excessively. These are bad habits indeed and judgement if any at all must be restricted to its implications on one’s health rather than an association of the same with anybody’s character.

Till the time we judge women who smoke or consume alcohol and assassinate their characters, we will continue to be a sorry lot!

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