Women must do as Indian tradition ‘permits’ them, and it is the government that decides what that tradition is. There is a strong legal aroma to the latest pronouncement of this kind, for the senior advocate representing the Union health ministry declared in the Supreme Court, no less, that Indian tradition does not permit a “lady” to smoke. Perhaps the operative word is “lady”. It is difficult to imagine that a lawyer representing the government would consider workers on the fields and at construction sites “ladies”. Women have always smoked in India, whether gently pulling at albolas in lavish interiors, or quickly puffing at a bidi in the interval of carrying loads or breaking rocks. But then, albolas are not visible and “ladies” visibly smoke cigarettes. Theoretically — and rarely — pipes and cigars, too, perhaps, but the crux is the cigarette. Is that the problem? Obviously it is not harm from tobacco that ‘tradition’, or the government, is worried about, because chewing various refined forms of tobacco leaves or anointing the teeth with tobacco powder are such old traditions with Indian women that the government’s jumped-up version of tradition would blush before it.
The senior advocate’s declaration has more interesting dimensions. The case before the court had to do with a film in which the heroine would be seen smoking. The government has certain rules regarding the display of tobacco use and the argument was over compliance with these. The rules, fortunately, make no distinction between the genders with regard to smoking, whatever impact the restrictions may have on the quality of aesthetic representation. What prompted the rules, presumably, was the concern about projecting a practice considered harmful to health — morality overtaking art — but at no point was tradition invoked. How is the senior advocate’s declaration relevant? Its very irrelevance is revealing, though, especially since it suggests that he could not help but make public his disapproval of women smoking. If it is not a personal initiative, it is, frighteningly, what the government wants him to declare. This is a revealing glimpse of where gender discrimination begins, whatever the Constitution might say. The rhetoric is dictatorial, alluding to what a “lady” is ‘permitted’ to do, another clue to the covert official attitude to women. No wonder women feel unsafe in so many parts of India.