A 70-year-old man was recently reported to have set a cafe on fire in Indore apparently as he was furious after finding girls smoking there.
"Recently, I was in a restaurant with a few friends of mine. There was a young girl sitting all alone. She too was nonchalantly smoking and drinking. I overheard two elderly gentlemen comment, “Look at that hopeless girl, smoking alone!” Their derogatory comment made me think. Instead of admiring that young woman’s sense of independence and courage of conviction, they cast aspersions on her “audacity”. Moreover, it was a Catch-22 situation for her. Had she been smoking with guys, all would have been branded morally loose. Why should the very sight of a woman (that too, all alone) smoking and drinking disturb the sensibilities of people? Didn't Gayatri Devi, Sadhana and Leela Naidu, among others, smoke in public in the sixties? Didn't Clara Bow smoke way back in 1927 in the film It? Society, the patriarchal society at that, has always been very orthodox in its attitude towards women. Who are we to decide how women should behave in public, what they should drink and do in society? It’s their life. We ought not to have anything to do with it. Yet, we interfere.
A few years ago, I read a piece in Ananda Bazar Patrika, ‘Ki hoye jokhon maye ra cigarette khaye’ (What happens when women smoke). The learned writer, I cannot recall his name at the moment, analysed the whole phenomenon from a male perspective and wrote, “A fag is always a greater sign of freedom and emancipation than drinking for both the sexes. Cigarettes have a perceived macho ring to them. Man therefore thinks that it’s his prerogative to smoke. So the moment he finds a woman smoking, he views it in terms of trespassing into his territory. He perceives it as an invasion of his comfort zone, an assault on the male bastion. He gets irritated.” I buy his analysis. I also had the same hidden attitude, albeit very mild. Seeing a woman smoke is always an in-your-face candour on her part, which often unsettles you. It’s frightening. You are not accustomed to seeing this volte-face. You seldom raise your eyebrows when you see a woman drink, but a stick between her fingers or dangling from her lips hurts your male ego. “Nothing remains exclusively male”, this feeling erodes your (male) confidence.
We have certain stereotypes that are ingrained in our societal consciousness. We still cannot accept that girls are no longer “liabilities”, though a few years ago, the seniormost woman judge in India thought otherwise. Man has always been scared of a woman’s dominance in all walks of life. When the human spirit is independent of gender specifications, why do we view women’s smoking and drinking as acts of defiance? Shouldn’t she long for what the man craves as his natural right? That a woman never knows how to smoke properly and seldom inhales the smoke (as the late writer Dom Moraes would say) is immaterial. Take a woman's smoking as a metaphorical sign of her arrival on all fronts, all horizons and all posts. And on a lighter (pun intended) note, there’s no sight as seductive as a woman smoking and making circles of smoke. That languid “who cares” attitude makes her all the more graceful and gorgeous. It’s worthwhile to mention that it was Presidency College (now a University), Calcutta that tacitly allowed girl students to smoke on its campus in the late fifties and a maverick actress availed herself of this liberalism in the early sixties. It’s time man realised that his male shenanigans cut no mustard in this era of gender equality and social egalitarianism.
Smoking could be a metaphor here; a genetic as well as generic irritant for most of the people who consider themselves as custodians of “morality”. But this phenomenon has deeper meanings and ramifications. Our collective reluctance to give complete freedom to women determines our social and gender perceptions as well as restrictions. We have set rules for women and tried to impose on them that many things are not meant for them. Our idea of a female person is very submissive. We think that a woman gains more by remaining a typical woman. No, she doesn’t gain. She has to fight for her rights. For that, she has to resort to certain rebellious signs and symbols. Smoking is one of them. It’s not a revolting sight. Rather, it’s a revolutionary step of freedom; freedom from patriarchal as well as all societal dominance. To quote Majaz Lakhnavi, “Tere maathe pe ye aanchal bahut khoob hai lekin/ Tu iss aanchal se ek parcham bana leti toh acchha tha” (The veil on your head looks good/ But would have looked better had you turned it into a flag).
Sumit Paul is a regular contributor to the world's premier publications and portals in several languages
Note: Smoking and tobacco use are injurious to health.