Most people identify me on campus as the Indian girl with the pixie hair-cut and smoking. Usually smoking, finding a lighter, procuring cigarettes from someone else or looking sullen because I don’t have a smoke in hand (student poverty is a real phenomenon). In fact, I am huffing on a cig right now [Winston Red, if you’re wondering 🙂 ]
Coffee and tobacco are complete repose.
~ Turkish Proverb.
There’s a lot of people who, a cigarette is about the only vacation they have.
~ Trey Parker.
I only started smoking when I was 18 and my NO, my parents don’t know. Not outright at least but I’m quite sure they’re in denial [Disclaimer: sorry that you had to find out like this, mom and dad]. Why is it such a big taboo in Indian communities, I hear you ask? Society, Indian society, is very clear on this. It’s acceptable, and even expected, of men to smoke and experiment with smoking but it isn’t for women.
When I was younger and lived in Durban, I only saw Indian men smoke publically. However, smoking is one of those things done around corners, in parking lots and out of view from respectability, even for Indian men. Although groups of men huddled at the back of the wedding venues and it was out of polite sight, they did smoke relatively freely and without aunties scowling at them. For me, groups of smokers always seemed like a slightly scummy, illicit gentlemen’s club. Little Len did wonder why women seemingly didn’t smoke and certainly knew that any women who did smoke were super bad (and super sneaky).
Even the act of smoking is masculinised. I remember a female family member warning me about the pitfalls of smoking (because everyone puts their two cents in when they sense one of their own falling off the tracks) by saying, “You know those girls who ask for lighters and things. They think they’re men, the way they walk around and puff on their cigarettes.”
Like, really people. This was said to me. My patriarchy senses were tingling. At this stage, I had been smoking for a year and been loving it. It was rebellious and freeing and all of those wonderful things. I nodded submissively, betraying the defiance in my mind, and told her that I understood full well about those girls. She thought she had done her duty in keeping me on track but little did she know I spoke from the perspective of one of “those girls”.
After that trivial comment I had started formulating my thesis: being a female Indian smoker is an act of resistance. An immature, self-destructive act of resistance but one nonetheless. Nicotine addiction is universal biological human trait (to my knowledge) so why are Indian, in fact, black female smokers, not as visible, even within communal structures? Patriarchy, that’s why. I understand not encouraging smoking because it’s an unhealthy habit BUT why, dear Krishna, must women who do smoke be hidden, silenced and categorised as “those girls”? Bad women who have dirty habits and “think they’re men”. By not seeing women smoke either, it becomes normalised to believe that smoking is not an action women can or should do. It ingrains the belief that I had as a child – women who do smoke are quite simply wrong for falling outside the parameters of respectability as an Indian woman.
The reason for smoking being a taboo for Indian women stems from more than simple health reasons. It’s deeply implicated with the general patriarchal order of Indian communities. So, it’s fucked up/messed up.
I found out a few years ago that two of my female cousins are social smokers but shush, no-one must know. We stand in solidarity whenever we go out for a quick fag outside the club.
[Aside: This is no justification or excuse for engaging in unhealthy and self-destructive actions. It is making the statement that I have the right to smoke as much as anyone else my age and an assertion of my reasons for continuing to smoke (I suppose, alongside being addicted to nicotine). ]