A day after the smoking ban came into effect across the country, Nisha David and Diya Prakash, two media professionals working in Mumbai, stepped outside their office building for their post-lunch smoke. It was not their usual routine; it was just that, that morning, they’d received an official email forbidding smoking in the building. Out there on the street, just as David, 26, and Prakash, 28, lit up, a drunken man stumbled towards them. He stopped inches away from them and stayed there. When they turned to get back into their office, he tried to follow them — until a male colleague stopped him.
Two days later, at 8 pm, the duo went down for a cigarette again. This time, it was a taxi driver whizzing past. “He screamed ‘Charsi log!’ at us. If this can happen during the day, what will it be like if a woman steps out of a bar for a smoke during a night out?” says David, 26.
Ramesh Yadav, a Mumbai taxi driver, confirms their worst fears. “Jab aurat cigarette peeti han, woh ekdum dangerous lagti hain. Mein aisi ladki se kabhi shaadi nahin karoonga.” (A woman smoker looks dangerous to me. I’d never marry such a woman), he says, spitting out a bright red spray of betel juice on the road.
Delhi film producer Sangeeta Singh, 26, on the other hand, has decided to not smoke in public unless accompanied by a male. “Our society looks at male and female smokers differently. And women make easy targets. So it’s just safer for me to take a male colleague out with me,” she says.
Yet others, like writer Karishma Gulati, 39, have decided to restrict their drinking and smoking to their homes. “I went to a bar and ended up drinking an entire pitcher of beer in 10 minutes flat because I couldn’t smoke. And then, when I finally stepped out for a smoke, I saw three women surrounded by the usual street-side characters, looking extremely uncomfortable. It’s easier for me and my friends to party at home now,” she says. Agrees Natasha Pal, 30, “The ban curtails women more than men because we are uncomfortable standing on the road, drink in one hand, cigarette in another. I think I’m going to be comfortable drinking only at home.”
Clearly, the rules for men and women, when it comes to smoking are different. A male smoker is acceptable, macho even. But a woman smoker — at best she’s ‘liberated’, at worst she’s of ‘questionable’ character.
Just days before the ban, a German tourist in Chandigarh was raped after she stepped out of her hotel for a cigarette. The post-ban future, then, is understandably, a scary proposition for many women smokers. “I just hope bars start separate smoking rooms,” says artist Meenakshi Sharma. Sharma speaks from experience; last year, a policeman in Delhi demanded that she stub out her cigarette even as a man standing next to her continued.
The law enforcers, however, seem unconcerned. This sort of harassment doesn’t happen in the metropolises, they believe. “Women smokers may be troubled in smaller towns but certainly not in Mumbai. We don’t need to be additionally concerned about the safety of female smokers,” insists Mumbai Police Commissioner, Hassan Gaffoor.
But Sharma, David and Prakash all know otherwise.
(All names have been changed to protect identities).