Culture & Life · Public health

Navigating gender equality and public health when it comes to smoking

I am reproducing here an answer I wrote on Quora to the question “What’s your message to girls who equate smoking and drinking with women empowerment?” The original answer can be found here.

[I don’t have any ‘message’ to anyone. I am writing here mainly to relay some of my thoughts on these issues and hopefully provide some interesting points to think about.]

In the early 1900s the world saw the coming of X-rays and X-ray machines. Some historians have done fascinating work to look at how people then reacted to these kind of ‘wonder technologies’, and one abiding aspect of reactions to technology has been gender biases from men. A well-known example of that – something which still many men around me in India believe in and ‘joke’ about – is ‘women cannot drive cars’.

X-rays are interesting because they provide a strong example, for people today, as to how a male-dominated society forms opinions – always absurd and very often pernicious – about women, their presumed capacities, and their supposed well-being. When X-ray machines first arrived in the US, widely different standards were used and discussed for women and men. Today most of us would term them as colossally absurd, and they serve well to remind us as to the kind of world that women have generally been inhabiting for millenia. For example, here is what a physician said:

Now there were no studies to prove this belief, but the fact that such an opinion was given out so casually (in 1898) shows how naturally it was assumed that women were weaker than most men, in fact only as strong as babies.

A few years after this, in 1913 India, an enterprising man named Dhundiraj Phalke was making India’s very first moving picture. The woman characters in this movie, Raja Harishchandra, were played by men. In fact for many years women in India were ‘not allowed’ to appear in films (a side story to which is the proliferation of Jewish women actors in early Indian cinema).

There are countless instances of how male-dominated societies in most countries and in all ages have consistently displayed double standards about morality and appropriateness on the lines of gender. Women have always received the worst of the deals.

So whenever we talk about issues as asked in this Q, there is no escape from this background and context. Any judgement, opinion, or claim needs to take these into account. The bottom-line here is: if a group of people tells another group of people that the latter is incapable of doing something or should not do something, then the latter openly (often defiantly) doing that exact thing becomes a powerful statement. Thus, the history and continued presence of regressive male opinions about women and drinking/smoking makes the act of a woman drinking and smoking a powerful statement. If this history of bias and oppression were absent, then such a Q would not even have been imagined. For example, we hear people asking Isn’t it inappropriate for a woman to run in a public park wearing just a bra and shorts? but hardly ever asking Isn’t it inappropriate for a man to run in a public park wearing only shorts?

A woman or a group of women enjoying an alcoholic drink or a cigarette is thus a strong statement – except perhaps in societies and communities where gender biases have successfully been diluted over the past few decades, or where gender biases were hardly present with respect to smoking and drinking. In the latter contexts those are just routine, ordinary, run-of-the-mill acts.

Having established that, we now enter tricky territory. We are aware that many people will happily consider the above action as a statement about equality and freedom, but would not be comfortable with calling it (especially smoking) as an instance of empowerment. There is on the one hand social history, and on the other hand the history of public health and medicine. Through the latter we know how very hard and frustrating it has been for scientists and activists and medical professionals to create a social and cultural environment where the exceedingly harmful act of smoking has been converted from being a ‘cool, glamorous, sexy’ activity to something considered inimical to both individual and public health.

As someone totally for gender equality and liberty – in fact as someone who wrote, in Modi’s notoriously Hindu extremist India, about the gender biases in the mythology around Lord Ram – and also as someone who hopes that our world completely rids itself of awful cigarette companies one day, I seriously have no simple or sure response to this dilemma. But here are a few of my tentative thoughts, and I am more than happy to revise them:

  • As elaborated above, the history of biases and oppression, and their continued presence even today, make virtually every instance of women driving, or doing surgeries, or smoking, or drinking, as a powerful statement about gender equality and about freedom. As for empowerment, that’s a word with many meanings and dimensions and people will have far more variations in opinion – and it is important we respect those variations and not immediately jump to judgments about others. The variations, in my thinking, are fine as long as they don’t try to continue and propagate the historical biases (for example, selectively berating women and girls, and not men and boys, for smoking and drinking).
  • There definitely are contexts in which even an act like smoking can be considered empowering. The first time I ever tried smoking a cigarette was with a woman friend. We were doing it just to add another interesting experience to our respective kitties, as even she hadn’t ever smoked before. I didn’t think much about it then, but looking back at it now, I think that was an awesome statement by her: she was not only smoking a cigarette on the streets of a conservative Indian city, but she was also daring to be seen with a man doing that. Neither of us later took to smoking as a habit. Neither of us smokes now.
  • As many answers to this Q have shown, many women themselves experience the acts of smoking and drinking as empowering. The way I look at it, that’s a genuine feeling and others have no right to say they are wrong in considering it so.
  • Additionally, we need to take care not to present any act of smoking or drinking alcohol as cool or glamorous or eminently desirable. It will do well for us to remember that cigarettes rule the world – previously the West and now increasingly the non-West – primarily because cigarette companies successfully convince people, particularly kids and teenagers, that smoking is an act laced with immense awesomeness.

When it comes to smoking and drinking in general, gender equality, freedom of expression, and public health all are crucial and need to be safeguarded. We can always strive to strike a healthy balance between these elements and refrain from disproportionately emphasizing only one among them.


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