Being a woman in a conservative, misogynistic society I have learnt that I have two options when it comes to seemingly impossible task of avoiding scandal; I either live a double life, strictly restricting my content on social media and my behaviour depending on my social setting, or I just embrace who I am and be honest about my character and activities I choose to engage in. This is particularly tough to do when you’re a woman who smokes in Pakistan.
Growing up in a society like ours, women are conditioned to be extremely aware of their image. This manifests in what we wear, who we spend time with, how we speak and how we act in public. Following this criteria, smoking in public as a women is equivalent to social suicide. While our male counterparts are given privileges we cannot even dream of, we must make sure we don’t engage in any behaviour that may adversely impact our carefully curated public image so that we don’t in any way risk our ‘rishta’ prospects.
With several of my male relatives being smokers, I’ve grown up around smokers and the act of smoking has been normalised for me. Given the ridiculously easy availability of cigarettes in Pakistan and the increasing number of public spaces for smoking, it is no surprise that a growing number of our youth are flocking to their nearest khokha for a pack of cigarettes. What’s interesting, however, is that there is a larger number of female smokers in the country than there are male smokers. With this in mind, I wonder how these women have managed to navigate the intense double standard that exists when it comes to publicly smoking as a female.
Don’t get me wrong, I am well aware of the abhorrent effect smoking has on our health. The foundation for this double standard is that people are not worried about my health when they look down upon me and the burning stick of tobacco in my hand, rather, it’s the fact that I am a women who is choosing to so openly tarnish her image by engaging in this activity. When society admonishes me for smoking, it isn’t out of genuine concern for my health but more so disgust at my now tainted reputation.
Schools, colleges and work spaces all perpetuate this double standard. My male friends and family members all fondly recount stories of their high school days when they would sneak into gullies to smoke and even have their drivers or the school gardeners and sweepers share cigarettes with them. Upon hearing this, I can’t help but think back at the time a couple of girls were caught smoking in my all-girls school. Once caught, they were almost expelled and from that day onwards, this episode had always been used as their indicator.
Workspaces in Pakistan are the same, if not worse. You would expect that by the time an individual reaches their twenties they may have broken out of this internalised double standard, yet so many of female smoker friends complain about how they are unable to smoke in front of their male chain-smoking colleagues for fear of how they’ll react and how it’ll affect their image in a professional environment. Some of them have even been told not to smoke in front of their colleagues at work.
Smoking is a habit that can universally be left behind in 2020. While countries in the West have incorporated legislature to prevent smoking, like increasing the tax on cigarettes or banning smoking in public spaces, Pakistan is far behind in this regard. The double standard that exists when it comes to women and smoking in Pakistan, however, goes far beyond issues of health and is indicative of a greater issue of gender politics in the country. If we want to move towards equality between the sexes and see a more progressive Pakistan, it is important that we begin to identify greater issues than a woman holding a cigarette or at the very least, provide proper criticism to both sexes where it’s needed.