That Girl Who Smokes

Posted by Shanaya Iyer in Sexism And Patriarchy, Society
February 3, 2018

To every girl out there who smokes, you’ve been there done that. You’ve seen the men slow down as they stare at you light up. You’ve seen the aunties look at you with disapproval. And most importantly, your habit has become a part of your identity for many people. You have officially become “Voh ladki jo cigarette peeti he (that girl who smokes).”

Growing up in the US and Mumbai, I was fairly accustomed to seeing women smoke. While none of my parents smoked, I always knew that this was something which people, irrespective of their gender, did. Eventually, I shifted to Gurgaon and to my South Indian parents’ mind this meant only one thing: their daughter is living in an unsafe place. To my family’s mind, Haryana is a land full of khap panchayats and the like.

So it was only natural that my mother would buy some extra salwars to replace my skinny jeans. To me, this all felt a bit odd. After all, Gurgaon was a tech and industry hub, surely none of these precautions were needed. And rightly so. On my very first day of work as I came in a modest outfit, I saw women wearing the latest haul from Zara. I immediately made up my mind that Gurgaon’s image had been unnecessarily tarnished.

As I went home after work all happy about the “liberal” city I was in, something weird happened. I went into the grocery shop in my colony and casually asked for a pack of Marlboro Lights. Initially, the shopkeeper looked puzzled but then reluctantly pulled out a pack and handed it. I paid little attention to his reluctance and took out a cigarette and lit it. As I stood outside the shop casually checking my phone while puffing, a guard approached me. In a rather stern voice, he told me that it was forbidden to smoke there. Not wanting to argue I stubbed my cigarette and simply left, but as I walked away I remembered that I had seen people smoking there before and he didn’t seem to have a problem. That’s when I realized that I hadn’t seen people but had just seen men. Somehow I had not even seen one woman smoke. I brushed it off casually thinking it was just a bad guard who had “caught” me.

But as the days passed I realized that I was getting quite a few nasty looks from almost everyone in the society. From the shopkeeper to my maid to the guard to the aunties. Very soon it was as if I was some sort of outcast.

One day a friend who had come over told me that this had actually become a part of my identity. While entering the society she was a bit confused about my apartment number. Upon asking the guard, he simply told her that “Vahan voh cigarette peene vali ladki rehti he (that cigarette smoking girl lives there).”  I was now officially that woman who smokes.

While I completely understand the potentially lethal consequences of smoking, I smoke with the full knowledge that one day this could be the reason I die. And I think every smoker (male or female) out there can say this. So what makes me different? Is it that the second-hand smoke I produce is deadlier than a man’s? Our country is full of ironies. On the one hand, Gurgaon has gleaming sky-scrapers and boasts a “liberal” lifestyle (which I too believed for a while), on the other hand, a woman who smokes is immediately branded and has to live her entire life with the “guilt” of being a smoker.

PS- This article is solely meant to portray an incident which took place with me. I am in no way promoting or supporting smoking. And for all those who think that my definition of liberalism means women should smoke, my answer is NO. I believe that women should be free to smoke and not have anyone forcing their opinions on us.