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A Rape Survivor's Character Was Up For Scrutiny Because She Smoked — A Hypocrisy That's Part Of Our Culture

Smoking is injurious to health. And so is hypocrisy.

26/09/2017 7:26 PM IST | Updated 26/09/2017 7:26 PM IST
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Men tut-tutting at women smoking or drinking, or wearing clothes that do not meet their approval, or being completely unapologetic about having sex, is a phenomenon common enough in India. You'll spot such observations on WhatsApp groups, on Twitter and Facebook, in the murky comments sections of online articles, and sometimes an earshot away at a party you're attending. You don't ever hope to see such blatant sexism in a court of law. And yet, certain recent rulings have shown that personal biases, when they creep into the criminal justice system, can severely trample upon women's fundamental rights.

The Punjab & Haryana High Court recently granted bail to three convicted rapists stating that they have come to an "alternative" conclusion about the case, owing to the victim's "promiscuous attitude". Among the several personal details of the survivor's life Justice Raj Grover and Justice Raj Shekhar Attri cited in the order to establish this "promiscuous" streak in her, one was a pack of cigarettes found in her possession.

One doesn't have to be a genius to see what the ruling was on to — the convenient and rampantly-used ploy to slut-shame a rape survivor to suggest that she was perhaps, in some deviant way, herself responsible for her plight.

"She further admitted that she used to smoke cigarettes of 'Classic' make," a line in the order read.

The judgment pontificated also on the discovery of condoms in her hostel room, followed by the revelation that she had smoked a 'joint' in the past. One doesn't have to be a genius to see what the ruling was on to — the convenient and rampantly-used ploy to slut-shame a rape survivor to suggest that she was perhaps, in some deviant way, herself responsible for her plight.

Though the survivor clearly said she was raped, the judges pointed at things that seemed to suggest consent — and one of them is cigarettes.

While a teenage girl's personal life was being ripped apart with centuries' worth of patriarchal bias, social media trolls were on to another woman.

While a teenage girl's personal life was being ripped apart with centuries' worth of patriarchal bias, social media trolls were on to another woman. This was Mahira Khan, a Pakistani actor who was snapped by the paparazzi having a smoke with Ranbir Kapoor in New York. Khan was subjected to two separate violations — getting her photograph taken without consent, and the subsequent moral policing for smoking.

While several Pakistanis defended her right to live her life on her own terms, most social media platforms were crawling over with trolls — a majority of them men — howling over Khan's clothes and her being sighted smoking with a man.

"What kind of a mother is she," said some, bristling at the idea of a woman choosing to live life on her own terms. To them, Khan 'failed' as a woman and a mother because she smoked.

There is absolutely nothing great about smoking. It has been predicted that smoking will be the cause of eight million deaths worldwide, every year, by 2030. And people who don't smoke are most likely to suffer from tobacco-related illnesses, thanks to smokers in their vicinity. Governments across the world have anti-tobacco campaigns meant to discourage people from smoking and chewing tobacco.

You can count at least two dozen scientific reasons to cite if you're planning to ask someone to quit smoking. However, when it comes to a woman, the one that's chosen with alarming frequency has nothing to do with her health, but everything to do with her 'morals'.

Nicotine, in our culture, is believed to mean several things for men. Men 'bond' with each other, nurse broken hearts, deal with sale targets, blow off steam, broker deals or just catch their breaths over a smoke. But women, if they smoke, are subjected to harsh scrutiny. When it comes to women, it's a habit people tend to associate with promiscuity, among other things. It's just a cigarette for a man, it's a million questions for a woman.

A colleague — a former reporter — pointed out that in some organisations she worked with, smoking with peers was considered a rite of passage for a man to be informally inducted into the organisation. However, when a new woman colleague lit a cigarette, there would be an immediate shift in the mood, as if she had breached a holy code. Though the shock associated with a female colleague smoking has probably diminished over the years, many women still complain that they've been told — sometimes in the way of 'jokes' — that smoking was a way women wanted to be 'equal' to men.

In Indian homes, boys are chided for sneaking in cigarettes, but it is unthinkable that girls do the same — and their reprimand is tied in with their moral character, rather than their health.

The assumptions about smoking are also deeply rooted in class, where girls growing up in middle class families are firmly asked to know their place in the world and secure it against the convenient moral decay typical of the rich.

Smoking is injurious to health. And so is hypocrisy. But who will explain that to these morality investigators?

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