She raised the cigarette in her hand, pressed her lipstick-stained lips to take a drag. She was gazing at distant lands in the undulating mountains; with such grace blew out an air of smoke that she shooed away with a nonchalance - depicting all control on her body and mind.
I’m talking about a woman whose confident fingers holding the cigarette hope to hold a thousand people in need. A woman whose fixated gaze at the lands, inspire her to see the world and grow.
I’m also talking about a woman, ‘we’ would render - easy and coquettish.
But, I am only referring to a woman who could be your wife, daughter, sister, mother, aunt, mistress or neighbour - with dreams and hopes to live and happiness and love to give.
Hasn’t it always been that simple? To think of a woman smoking as somebody who is learning her way of life, giving a try at one of the world’s intoxicating substances and making her choices, after all, we live in a world full of possibilities and opportunities. Then why did it all become so complicated? I believed we were growing, that we had more important chores to do than to sabotage a person’s character.
India, from the past three years, has been the second-largest community of women smokers, next only to the U.S.A. These statistics suggest we’re growing, vices and virtues, both. And so it becomes important to stretch the boundaries of our thoughts, good and bad, men and women, equally.
For the sake of perceptive acumen, I have interviewed a diverse group of men and women in the 21-50 years age spectrum. Here’s what they had to say when I asked them, “Why do you smoke?”
Anonymous Person One: Sasta Nasha bro!
Anonymous Person Two: Initially I smoked wanting someone else to stop. Now I smoke because I can’t stop.
Anonymous Person Three: I smoke ‘cause it makes me feel good.
Anonymous Person Four: Asking why I smoke is like understanding why leaves fall off trees. It’s natural and that’s how it’s meant to be.
Anonymous Person Five: Back in the day, I smoked to make a style statement. Smoking now helps me think and keeps me company in solitary times.
Anonymous Person Six: I smoke to stay focused and when the weather is great. I also realised I enjoy my drinks with a couple of smokes more than an appetiser.
Anonymous Person Seven: I smoked out of curiosity and now I smoke because it’s a part of my daily routine.
Anonymous Person Eight: It keeps my stress away.
With anonymity at play, it is safe to say that it is quite impossible to guess the person’s sexuality behind the answer.
As life presents itself, to men and women alike, over a course of experiences and moments, feelings are evoked and choices are made, sometimes great and sometimes poor.
Vices and virtues are common ground for all of humanity and just as in birth or death; they do not discriminate how, when, where, or who they choose to be their chosen perpetrator or samaritan.
They slowly seep into our lives like impending dusk or grab us unaware, like a deer in a tigers clutch. Who are we of mortal minds to differentiate between the sexes?
Great choice? Poor choice? Let women decide, just like men do. Smoke? Drink? Sex? Let women decide, just like men do.
A quick trip down the 19th-century memory lane reveals to us the synonymity of a woman smoking with loose morals and dubious sexual behaviour. Indeed cigarettes became a common prop in Victorian erotic photography and the stigma continued as long as the early 20th century. If this was the situation in North America and Northern Europe, India was witnessing the rampant growth of ‘beedi factories’ and the employment of underprivileged women on this painstaking task. While women spent incredulous hours carefully rolling out beedis for paltry amounts, men smoked them, sold them and earned profits for it. Such was the dichotomy of the situation.
The normalcy around cigarettes started to set in slowly towards the latter half of the 19th century due to capitalisation. The cigarette in the hand of women was then seen as a symbol of emancipation, ‘a torch of freedom’. This movement of liberation was further strengthened by the World War I and tobacco companies’ revolutionary campaigns starting with Lucky Strike’s ‘Reach for Lucky instead of a sweet’ unto Virginia Slims’ ‘You’ve come a long way baby’.
Today, the cultural transformation of the women’s tobacco wave is huge, in developed and developing countries.
I can easily think of all the dainty cafes that serve as such perfect smoke spots and the buzzing culture of the corporate companies that have helped stem such a radical shift in mindsets. While the progress in this aspect has helped narrow the gap of the past, it still exists. A gap held on one end by preconditioned societal values and on the other by the inability to break them. As a generation representing strength and change, we need to constantly look to bridge the gap with individualistic acceptance and opinion, once again riding the wave of cultural transformation one step further, to a place of tranquillity and empowerment.
I hope the next time you see a woman get herself a smoke, it isn’t a stigma or at least will be as half as it was before this read.
I hope the next time you see a woman smoking on the road with a bunch of friends, there will be no condemnation.
I hope the next time you see a woman smoke, you will turn your face away just like you do if it were some potbellied men, indulging in their routine of smoking a Kings, while keeping up with the shopkeeper’s nonsensical banter, gazing at hustling streets.
Written by Yashila Nara
Concept by Trishala Nara
Photo sources - Gijs Coolen and Simone Scarano
*Disclaimer: We do not promote smoking or drinking. They are injurious to health and this article has been written for readers above 21 years of age.*