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Of being a woman and smoking in Pakistan

When I smoke I am simply exercising my agency for a simple break.
Updated Oct 12, 2017 04:30pm

I love walking back home in Thamel, Nepal when the neighbourhood is shutting down, sleepy eyed, ready to rest. Scattered music from a few bars reminds the passersby they can still while away the night; shopkeepers yell tired invitations: “Look, shawls from Kashmir…”

Outside the guesthouse where I am staying, three boys sit drenched on the sidewalk. Ram is in a white banyan and dhoti, the other two shirtless. They work all day, moving guests in and out, substituting as cooks, cleaners and waiters.

“Why are you going inside?” Ram yells to me. “Sit here a bit. It’s a wonderful night.”

The rain is heavier now, the sky flickering purple like a broken TV, but no static of lightning. The orange end of Ram’s joint and the blinking signboard of the guest house are the only witnesses to our presence.

“Sit here a bit,” Ram insists. “It’s a wonderful night.”

Until now, our interactions have been limited to daylight greetings. In the night’s cover I feel free of judgement; I drop my bag and join him.

“Where do you go every day?” Ram asks me.

I tell him about my day, then he tells me about theirs. He passes the joint to the lankier boy – his cousin, who then passes it to me. We sit in silence, watching the speeding rain; a drop hits my nose, then shoulder, and then that crevice where the skin joins two fingers; I marvel at how the joint remains dry.

It is incredible to me how I don’t know anyone in Kathmandu, but some kind of company always makes itself available, whether I put in the effort or not. The kind of company I can join casually or decide to leave without any complaints.

I ask Ram to please wake me up at 8am—which means, to promptly show up and bang at my door. This time he will forget because we will end the night smoking up together, too high to wake up in time.

Illustrations by Marium Ali
Illustrations by Marium Ali

By the end of my days in Kathmandu, my hands would reach unthinkingly inside my bag, pull out a cigarette and fire it on my lips in one swift movement. I had graduated from bumming cigarettes off friends to carrying my own packs. The habit had set.

But back in Karachi, my instinctive muscle-movement had fled. Instead, each time I wanted to smoke outside, I’d fiddle inside my bag hesitating, and the sea of faces surrounding me would rise to map themselves along my space according to perceived levels of threat – I felt like an animal navigating hostile territory. Each time I lit a cigarette, the streets also lit with paranoia.

First, I decided to smoke only in public spaces that were distant from the roar of traffic, well-hidden from the throng of the street. Like tree-shades in parks and khokhas sheltered by concrete pillars. I wanted the air but I could not be seen beneath it.

It was never strangers I feared, but relatives, some informant who might report my 'immoral' habits to my parents. Much of my family lived close to my loitering zone, and I did not want to think what would happen if they found me.

My fear, like most others, was out of proportion. The relative who chanced upon my 'fallen' behaviour had the courtesy to call me up before my mother – so I had a heads-up – and my mother’s own reaction was more an outrage rooted in concern than disappointment. Meanwhile my relative to this date teeters on that thin line between scolding and moralising.

With the worst over, I rationalise that all the stress I’ve been hoarding trying to smoke outside but in secret, is not worth it. The constant fear of being found ruins the very undertaking: I go out with the intention of calming myself with a walk and a smoke, but my edginess drags all pleasure out.

Now that I know my family will only admonish me so much, I might as well start puffing at whim. Step two: I will smoke in open spaces.

By Syed Asif
By Syed Asif

Once at a dhaba, standing against a wall, not even in the main seating area where I am part of the activity; another time, on a sidewalk, a book in my other hand I have been reading for over half an hour; a third time outside a bus stop outside Islamabad; the same interjection, a different male voice: “You should not be smoking.”

Always an older, often fatherly man. Straight from the throng, a determined passerby who knows nothing about me interrupts his synchronised strides to inform me of my very serious transgression: I am a girl and I am smoking.

He isn’t concerned for my lungs. “It doesn’t look good, a respectable girl like you smoking.” What has health got to do with anything? It is my image he is worried about and is adamant to protect.

To illustrate his good intentions, he gestures towards the people watching us, a swish of his palm, this world I must tend to; the other customers at the dhaba, travellers waiting for the Daweoo. “Do you see how everyone is looking at you?”

Like I have a shield pulled up around my body that keeps me from registering judgmental jeers and hostile eyes. “I had no idea I’ve been getting looks for almost forty five minutes now.” My defense in these situations is sarcasm.

Now Uncle is offended. “I’m just watching out for you. I don’t think like these people. But I know how dirty their minds are.”

“Why don’t you mind your own business.”

My mood is soured. Uncle-encounters always leave me thinking, maybe the stress isn’t worth it. Of course I could just smoke inside, what’s the big deal. But what’s wrong with wanting this silly indulgence, as harmful as it to my lungs?

I try to think about the other people on the street; the ones who don’t bother reacting. Like the man reading a newspaper by the chai-station. He kept me from crushing my cigarette during Uncle’s investigation.

When I came he had paused briefly; he threw a curious glance my way but then promptly returned to his tea and paper. He did not feel the need to come up to me and express the deep personal offense he felt; he did not look my way again.

“What’s in your bag?” But she does not wait for an answer. The bag is thrust off my shoulder and into the inspecting hands of a policewoman stationed at the entrance of the Lahore Railway Station. She pulls two packs of Marlboro Lights out, and her companion chirps:

“Cigarettes.”
“Don’t you know it’s illegal for women to smoke?”
“Where does it say that?”
“Don’t be smart with us. It’s not allowed.”
“Anyway we are not planning to smoke. We just came to buy tickets.”
“Take these two in for a body search.”

Almost an hour later, my friend and I are shaken, bruised, and humiliated by the policewomen’s behaviour. After dragging us inside the 'searching' booth, they assaulted us, took away our phones and passports, and forced us to pose for photos in our tank tops.

They took away our money and the bottles of lotion and oil they found in our bags. We were slapped every time we told them we were not, in fact, sex workers, and slapped harder when we asked what sex work has to do with buying tickets.

The policewomen’s logic, as they explained it: They had significant evidence that we indulged in 'immoral' activities. The contents of our bags, the hickey on my friend’s neck, the clothes we were wearing.

Women like us – they altered accusation with blow – were responsible for 'dishonouring' our families’ names, for 'corrupting' this Islamic Republic’s streets, for the very 'moral decline' of our gender.

Women like us, who came to 'seduce' men and 'corrupt' young boys, deserved to be punished and beaten.

Each time my friends hear the story later, they try to piece together a missing link.

“But what did you do wrong?”
“There must have been something that gave them cause to suspect you so confidently.”
“How can things take such a drastic turn from a simple pack of cigarettes?”

The railway station nightmare somehow sapped most of the fear out of me. If women can do that to each other—well, why even be surprised by men anymore. Where I once used to seek shadowy street corners to smoke, I now start brandishing my rolled creations everywhere.

And when men interrupt my solo dhaba time, whether to comment on my cigarette choice or my mere existence, I am not shaken. Depending on my level of bitterness and indifference, I respond with one of the following ripostes:

I had no idea my lungs were made of a different material.
When was the last time you interrupted a man like this?
If I ever find you smoking it will be your last day.

Uncles are more difficult. This one is taking a different but familiar trajectory—before anything else he wants to know whether I am a boy or a girl. Upon confirming his suspicions, that the creature before him (who until his arrival was pleasantly absorbed in her book and cup of tea) is indeed a woman, he now demands:

“Are you single or married? Does your father know you smoke?”

Uncle’s shadow looms and he is in no hurry to leave. He’s annoying but I’m also better prepared: I have learned that Karachi streets require a certain labour from feminine bodies, we have to sponge our comfort out of the air, we have to drain and wring safety out of the very breath of public spaces. A mixture of creativity and deception has never let me down:

“Of course my father knows. We smoke together.”

Wide-eyed shock. There’s nothing he can say to that. Next time I’ll tell him our whole family smokes. Uncle retreats; with him, the tiny ball of fear I had been holding on to also rolls away.

Now I can return to my reading. I light another cigarette, ask the dhaba wala for a maachis. I have begun to believe that my decision to smoke is part of my fundamental desire to roam as and how I want.

In my head, the more people see women smoking or indulging in small pleasures outside, the less they will stop assigning moral values to our decisions. And the more they will leave us alone.

That is not the case online. I am repeatedly surprised by the outrage that rains down on social media each time a woman poses with a cigarette.

Several friends of mine have been guilty of this crime. Putting up photographs with their lips on fire. Only witches play with fire, and we are hunted like witches too. The pits of self-righteous hell can be found in these comment threads, under these photos.

They come in droves: Comments, diatribes, entire essays by men and women alike, scolding the girl they do not know, for her wrongs, admonishing her for tainting the name of feminism.

At dhabas and on the streets, only a few devils have the courage to actually come up to a smoking girl and say something; most leave their condemnations to their gaze.

In online spaces the opposite is true: Most feel the need to comment, hiding behind their profile photos.

Some are provoked by the photograph; they take it as a personal affront or as a projected sexual invitation. Others outright reject the smoker: “This is not what a feminist looks like! Is this what our fights have come to?”

Then there are those who insist their shock is not rooted in any impulse to preach; they just want girls to think about their families and how their choices might affect their mothers. But all agree that harming one’s body is not progressive; feminism should not be mixed with nicotine.

Except that damaging one’s lungs has never been a feminist aim. Only the right to make a choice has – and if that choice is harmful to one’s own body, what right has anyone else to comment?

These intrusions are rooted in a social need to control feminine bodies – controlling our sexualities extends into controlling our physical movements, our attire, and now, what our bodies consume. To me there is little difference between a culture that considers it a personal affront if I get an abortion, and a culture that is shocked by my choice to smoke. In both cases it is my agency that is curtailed.

Whoever sustains a vice does so in full knowledge of its consequences. I know I am harming my lungs. I know that men gape at me when I smoke outside. They gape at me even if I do nothing. But when I continue to smoke I am simply exercising my agency for a simple break; I am not interested in adding smoking to the list of global feminist goals.

Trolls and well-meaning citizens on the interwebs miss this point and instead, interpret a personal choice as a collective aim. This is because they are not thinking about the cigarettes at all, they are thinking about the woman.

The shape of her body distorts whatever else they see; the shape of her body does not fit with indulgence; the shape of the body allows her to be commented upon. The shape of her body does not belong to her; it would be a wonder if her lungs did.

Once I sat down with a male friend to dig deeper into this thoroughly male anxiety. What does it matter, really? Why must my choice to smoke a cigarette under the open sky or in a public space be such an affront to so many?

“Because you are a girl.” My friend is soon exasperated. He says it isn’t about any logical reasoning really, it’s just one of those things that society has ordained. “Sure men already smoke, but don’t women have better things to demand rights for? And think of the impact it will have on her children—at the end of the day it is immoral.”

He’s rambling, growing angrier with each counter-question I pose.

A few joints into our conversation the gems tumble out: “Well, all your feminism and all is good, but think about it. Today women want the right to smoke, tomorrow they will want to be running in miniskirts down the road!”

I can’t help laugh. Aside from my friend’s obvious hypocrisy, there’s this confirmed fact: We live in a strange world. In this world women’s lungs are somehow weaker than men’s. In this world nothing a woman does can be dissociated from its moral implications, even where there are none. In this world, men honestly think that the feminist revolution will begin with a cigarette and end up with women running naked on the streets.


Disclaimer: Cigarette smoking is injurious to health.


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