In this article, Rhiti traces the trends of women and smoking* over the years in Indian, American, and general global scenario. If we look back at ancient Indian history, women have always smoked hookahs and pots although in closed quarters. Smoking in public was never an option. In Japan during the Edo Period, prostitutes and their clients would often approach one another under the guise of offering a smoke; the same was true for 19th century Europe. Smoking has been always related to a woman’s moral character! It has always been a man’s domain, a territory a good woman must not enter. And whenever women have crossed the line, she has been branded a harlot, a fallen one. Here’s an in-depth narrative, informative and illuminating, from the author, exclusively for Different Truths.
I still remember going on our college trip in second year to Shimla-Manali, it was the first time we were away from home with just friends, the thought itself was exhilarating. So my girlfriends and I planned to ‘have fun and be wild’ which basically meant was ‘to buy a pack of cigarettes and smoke on the trip’…. That too only once (Yes! That’s the wildest we could dream of)!
When I look back at that memory I wonder why it felt so liberating having a smoke with my girls, away from home in an unknown land.
Why does the very act of smoking bring the image of a liberated woman in mind while the image of a smoking man only gives cancer warnings?
History of Women Smoking
If we look back at ancient Indian history, women have always smoked hookahs and pots although in closed quarters. Smoking in public was never an option.
It is said that in Japan during the Edo Period, prostitutes and their clients would often approach one another under the guise of offering a smoke; the same was true for 19th century Europe. So smoking has been always related to a woman’s moral character!
It has always been a man’s domain, a territory a good woman must not enter. And whenever women have crossed the line, she has been branded a harlot, a fallen one.
Cigarette rolling machines were invented sometime around 1875, so technically speaking smoking cigars or pipes have been in fashion much longer than smoking cigarettes, so initially cigarettes were considered effeminate for a man!
So cigarettes have only found a way into our modern history, but smoking for women has been a taboo for long.
Patriarchy and Smoking
In our current social structure, women from a less privileged background smoke without any inhibition, beedis and hookahs in the slums of the mega-cities hardly raises any eyebrows. So when did it become a taboo for middle class women to be seen in public with a smoke in hand? Who decided that a woman can’t smoke?
While searching for my answer, I took a few opinions from people on women and smoking and I found some very interesting views. Ayushi, an IT professional from Kolkata said, “Everything is defined for all. What is good or what is bad. Boys can follow the definition, but girls must.”
It is as simple as that really; the restrictions are another patriarchal way to limit women, to tell them the things women cannot do.
Surbhi, from Bhubaneswar elaborated, “According to me, free will is the basic tenet of life, a person should get to decide what to do with their time/life. Yes I see smoking is a not just as a health hazard but detrimental to one’s mind and spiritual health. But these thoughts are mine, I have no right to force them on another man or woman. A person has the right to do whatever he or she wishes. There should be no judgement or taboo on using his free will and this should be applicable to both sexes.”
The deep roots of patriarchy dictates all the things women can or can’t do, the musts and the must nots. It starts from the rules to the consequences she might face if she doesn’t decide to conform to them. A liberated mind, a liberated woman is a dangerous thing! Branding her a whore, is an easy way to pull a defiant mind down.
Now, all you health freaks I am not pointing my finger at you though, I know you have your heart in the right place only worrying about the fatal consequences of having a smoke, but don’t you think there is something deeply scary about a person who knows she can die from smoking, yet isn’t afraid of dying. A woman like that should be chained, right?! So the simple act of smoking has become a tool of defiance for a lot of women, although not a very welcome tool, but a tool nonetheless in the act of breaking the patriarchal boundaries.
Literature and Art
The dark shadows, the monochromes, the drift of the smoke slowly melting into the frame are a very acceptable way of mysterious portrayal of famous characters. Who can forget Sherlock Holmes and his love for smoke!
Our films and books reflect this trend for the women too but in a very different way. A female character that needs to be drawn in a negative light is sketched with a cigarette in hand, a prostitute, a vamp, an evil twin! Or the hero must have a modern liberated woman as his best friend who smokes and has tattoos! But this is more on the Indian film scenario.
European and American films add a cigarette in the hand of a female when they want to add a touch of enigma to their characters. Remember Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s?
Although this is a very stereotypical way of looking at things, am sure there are exceptions to the examples I have given. But exception only proves the law!
Feminism in USA: The Adverse Effect of Advertising
Let’s look at USA now, the country which introduced smoking to women in a much glamorized and extremely clever way. It took the angle of feminism and used advertisements to its full benefit.
The “Torches of Freedom” terminology in particular was genius: it turned smoking cigarettes into something that the media to that point generally portrayed as foolishness into a sign of emancipation and modernity, as this happened less than a decade out from the Nineteenth Amendment. More to the point, the tactic worked. 5% of cigarette purchases were made by women in 1923 – that number jumped to 12% in 1929, eventually peaking at 33.3% in 1965. (Souce: Wiki)
So during the 1920’s cigarettes were made keeping women in mind, cashing in on the growing trend of women’s need to feel modern. It was a sign of independence, liberation, and gender equality.
It was a great time to en-cash on the sentiments of the female population, the advertisements made the women feel the way they have been craving to feel for a long time, the white stick of death was not their torches of freedom. Over the 1940’s this only saw a general rise in the trend, now US is going forward and making rules of banning smoking in different states.
Smoking levels are on the decline in the developed world but they are increasing in the developing world in an alarming rate. The major cigarette manufacturers have more than tripled the number of cigarettes exported in the last 35 years. (Source: web)
Tobacco companies all over the world are using similar strategies to attract women in other countries that they used in the early days of attracting American women into the domain of smoking. Offering alluring advertisements that represent cigarettes as modern, empowering, and liberating are drawing in women smokers who make every effort to be as western as possible.
Health Implication, Youth and Smoking
The general trend says the number of male smokers have gone down, while the number of female smokers are on the increase amongst the youth. You may do a simple search on google and this statement would be proven correct. I am not going into the boring details of providing a statistical report, but merely looking at the facts.
Health remains a major factor of concern where smoking is involved, and to go into depths of the health implications would require another article altogether, our focus was never on the health issues anyway.
Campus smoking and smoking zones in offices indicate the youth are still smoking very much, irrespective of the implications. And more and more women are joining this trend.
Anirban, a post-grad student says, “I am cool with women smoking, I find women smokers very cool.” And this points at the general nonchalant approach towards smoking in the youth.
But the question remains, forgetting about the health hazards, “Are you cool enough to accept a woman in a sari, waiting at the bus stop with her bag of groceries, lighting up a ‘torch of freedom’?”
*Note: Please note that neither the author nor the webzine, Different Truths, advocate smoking. Smoking is injurious to health ~ Managing Editor.
©Rhiti Chatterjee Bose
Pix sourced by author from the Net.
Based in Bhubaneswar, Rhiti is a mother to two adorable trouble makers. She is a writer and editor, with several online and print publications. She is also the founder of Incredible Women of India, an e-zine, documenting real life inspirational stories of Indian women. When not writing, she morphs into an obsessive cake and cookies baker, a self-proclaimed Madhubani artist and a compulsive reader.