This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Sohini Bardhan. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

Girl Abused For Smoking In Public: What Has Happened To My Liberal City Of Kolkata?

More from Sohini Bardhan

By Sohini Bardhan:

Source Flickr/Camille Strippoli, Lorenzo.

To state facts very clearly, I am a Bengali and very proudly so. Two years ago when I shifted to NOIDA, I was told that I couldn’t wear short skirts or dresses because this place is not as “liberal or feminist” as Kolkata. I believed it. For months, I would shy away from wearing clothes I am comfortable in just because I was scared of what people might think and the fact that I might really get molested. A semester down, I realised that this is not how things work. I was scared because people wanted me to be scared. I was shy because that is how society expects a woman to be.

I went back home. Met my favourite teacher back in Kolkata. She sensed the change in me that I, myself, had not noticed till then. She was appalled. How could a person who always stood for her rights meek down so much? She told me, reminded me, in fact, that wearing what I want does not reflect on my character, neither does it invite rape. She reminded me of everything I stood for back when I was in Kolkata. She reminded me of every ounce of the person I used to be. She reminded me that meek, un-opinionated women never made anything of themselves. This, coming from a teacher, shows how liberal minded most of the city is.

Since my first day here in NOIDA, in a new city with new people, I stuck to the fact that Kolkata is indeed a very liberal city. Its people are indeed very liberal and rooted to their culture. Two years passed, and I still reiterate the same thing over and over again, because that is what I’ve seen since childhood, that is what I’ve felt the city to be and that is what I believed in, until today.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Kolkata, I really do. It’s not just any city. It’s the city that taught me to respect every person because of who they are, the city that taught me that tolerance is an evil word and harmony is key, the city that taught me that other religions are not to be tolerated but respected, the city that taught me to celebrate with food, the city that taught me to respect both men and women equally for their individuality and not sex. I have defended this city at every single turn of events in these two years. I’ve yelled myself hoarse at how there is never any gender discrimination or stereotype in this city. I’ve convinced many a friend that the biggest fight we have is only over which place has the best food and nothing else. I’ve been labelled a feminist, a Bangalan (like that’s a bad thing, huh), a ‘woman with a mind’ and a lot many ‘horrible’ things. But it never hurt me, because that is essentially who I am.

When I see women smoking here, it doesn’t appal me, because I’ve seen a lot of women smoke back at home. Even though my parents are teetotallers and non-smokers, I’ve been sensitised to the fact that women do indeed smoke as do men. Before coming here, I never thought there was any difference between a man and woman smoking. Yes, eyes are raised at almost everything a woman does, in this society, but as a woman, you learn how to live with it. You only notice a change when it is dancing naked in front of your eyes wearing Dobby’s tea cosy. And that’s okay.

So, today, when I’m preparing for my end semester exams, I read an article which is a horrible disgrace to the entire Bengali community. A woman smoking on the road with a male friend, probably discussing life/college or whatever they want to, it is their personal life, was allegedly manhandled by people who all my life I believed were liberal. Her boyfriend was beaten up by them because she was smoking. This is heights of gender discrimination and intolerance. And to make matters worse, the police harassed her and a leading regional daily decided to print the story with her picture! This is a gross violation of privacy. When you know that violence is brewing, how in the world do you print the story with her picture? Do we not have enough of ‘victim’ blaming already? Say what you want, this is not fair.

After reading this, some people might label me to be a smoker/addict, but I don’t care. I’m not advertising smoking. All I’m saying is Bengalis are stereotyped as sitting with a cup of chai, a cigarette, and a newspaper and discussing politics. Bengali women are stereotyped as the most liberal and argumentative of the lot. You don’t have a problem with such a stereotype. Then why this hypocrisy? Everything I believed my city not to be, became so. I am appalled!

How do you expect me to show my face to my friends here and tell them the same thing I’ve been telling them for two years? What happened to the liberal minded city which opened its arms for everyone? What happened to the city that defines equality? Are we turning into another Afghanistan? I pray not. But someone, save my city from its ruin. Please.

You must be to comment.
  1. Ujjaini

    Sohini, it’s a beautifully written piece. Your love for Kolkata and the sensitive outburst towardsthat love is flowing through the article. I guess, this tender sensibility that Bengal once possessed, is the essense of Kolkata. I am happy to see that feeling still alive in you. Your article has really made me hopeful about the city. Thank you, for reminding me of the value of Bengal.

  2. Anushree

    Well written Sohini, I understand the feeling. Although you discussed about Kolkata mostly, yet the gender negative attitude of people around most of the cities is so weird and also frustrating that sometimes you don’t even get a clue as to how they came up to such bizzare conclusions.
    Ironically, I happened to come across a bunch of people agitated and discussing, over tea and cigarettes as to how a woman who smoked in their neighbourhood is destroying the culture. It is of grave concern, that when I read over the box, it does not say men only, I look up the internet and the law does not provide for any special punishment for women smokers, then why does, even a man who smokes has to have a say about a woman’s personal choices. And how about the women’s right to smoke including the right to buy cigarettes. There is much change needed in the mindset of people generally.
    Well written.

  3. Hemant Desai

    Dear Sohini, will you allow your children to smoke ? Or do you smoke with your parents in the dining room
    at breakfast. Actually, You people are suffering from a problem know as “ULTRA LIBERALISM “. It is not a
    term, but I used it to define people of your breed. So back to issue, does smoking means liberal society or
    does that erase narrow mindedness people in society ? I failed to understand why you took this trivial topic ?
    Remember Deepika’s “My Choice” rant. She has been mocked by educated, intellectuals or
    even “ULTRA LIBERAL” breed for her choices. You too suffered from same problem. Get well soon, sohini.

  4. Sohini Bardhan

    Dear Hemant Sir,
    I don’t have any children. In the future, if I do, i will obviously not allow them to smoke because it isn’t beneficial to the health. And I will be strict with them only because it is an unhealthy habit. If they do smoke, I will take them to rehab but never abuse them.
    No, I do not smoke in front of my parents. I do not smoke at all. And I am against smoking in general. As I have mentioned in this article, my parents don’t smoke either. My entire point was that if a woman is smoking, it is her choice to do so as is it a man’s choice when he smokes. If you’re calling a woman out for the habit, you should call a man out too. The hypocrisy is what I find unbearable. Smoking does not mean a liberal society, but not being able to do what you want because people stop you; that is a narrow minded society. This girl should not have been abused so. The man should not have been beaten up. We live in a male dominated society full of male chauvinists. Where women are oppressed for wanting to live their life. My entire point was that this woman was not harming anyone. Then why was she abused and manhandled? This is not a trivial topic, sir. It is a very serious issue. But your male chauvinistic mind will probably not get it. Thanks for your well wishes but no thanks. I’m perfectly fine.

More from Sohini Bardhan

Similar Posts

By varun pratap

By Adivasi Lives Matter

By Kunal Jha

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below