"All my friends at work smoke."
Are British Asian women the new smokers? If asked this question twenty years ago you would more than likely hold your head up high and reply “NO.” Whereas, times have clearly changed since the 80s and 90’s with statistics now suggesting a more unconventional fact that British Asian female smokers are indeed on a huge increase.
South Asians first arrived in England in the 1950’s and 60’s, they immediately stood out from the crowd by showering the streets with colourful garments, the languages they spoke and the big families that accompanied them.
However, something much greater was notable amongst these foreigners, and it wasn’t just their type of food either.
Asians came to the UK armed with strong traditional values. They walked with pride following a certain culture and upbringing derived from back home, they had their own way of living that no one was going to change quickly.
Coming fresh from native countries, South Asian values were as strong as ever being passed down to their children. One tradition more important to follow than others was that of ‘No Smoking’ especially associated with British Asian females.
However, through the years, this has changed. What used to be a taboo subject in the British Asian society has crept its way forward into the spotlight.
We investigate reasons behind the increase of Asian women who turn to smoking and how does this behaviour almost seem acceptable in this day and age.
To spot a young woman of South Asian origin smoking would have been looked upon as immediate shame on the family and perhaps a one-way ticket to India, Pakistan or Bangladesh in eradicating the problem.
Since generations are skipping the social and cultural constraints adopted from South Asia, which previously prevented many women from smoking, now more integration with western culture is creating room for concern as the number of Asian women using tobacco and other smoking products such as weed is poised to increase.
When comparing prevalence rates between men and women, a generally consistent finding is that smoking rates are higher among men than women. However, there is also considerable variation between countries where the rates among men and women are nearly equal, such as in the USA.
Interestingly, in a study by the World Lung Foundation, it found that India ranks third in the top 20 female smoking populations across the globe. India has over 10 million female smokers.
An increasing number of women irrespective of religion or background have started to smoke. And it is a lifestyle choice that is no longer held back by culture or traditional values. Women want to express their individuality, their freedom and anger from running a dictated lifestyle which, in turn, has become labelled as rebellious behaviour.
Despite smoking bans in work, leisure and living places, Asian women seem to have taken up the habit more prominently. And the increase has many factors associated with it than just an image.
Behind every Asian woman, smoker unfolds a different kind of story, for most smoking is a form of escapism and an attack on being told what to do. Unlike white British females, British Asian women are not just smoking to ‘look cool’ or struggling with conformity, but smoke to break beyond their boundaries.
It is difficult for a British born South Asian woman to define the type of person she is when society puts her at the centre of tug and war between cultures.
With generations lapsing the pressure eases on today’s 21st-century woman from being the traditional sheltered Asian that she was, to a modern westernised woman, and therefore, smoking has become part of this new look amongst Asian females. This is in the form of cigarettes, joints, paan and hookah smoking in Sheesha lounges which are very popular amongst Brit-Asian women.
We spoke to a group of Asian women that smoke on a regular basis and asked the reasons behind their habit.
Geeta, a 37-year-old divorcee, has been smoking for a couple of years now and blames her addiction on the stress and depression from a failed marriage. Looking back she says:
“I can always remember the constant nagging before marriage, being told what to do by parents and family. Do this – do that, it was the pain of my life but the only way I was going to guarantee a decent husband and family life – so I was told!”
Lowering her head, she sighs to add:
“Unfortunately, the many years of tradition and rules were doomed the moment my partner walked out the front door – leaving me!” “Asian culture does not prepare you for that, and I fell straight into the hands of smoking.”
Particular attention revolved around schoolgirl Bilquis to grasp an insight to youth smoking, and surprisingly found the views of Bilquis much deeper than first expected.
Current perceptions of teenage smoking are idolised around peer pressure and the tendency to look cool, even though this fact remains, Bilquis shed further light to the constant urge for young British Asians craving a smoke saying:
“I actually don’t like smoking, but when my parents are constantly watching me and my every move there is something in me that wants to do it even more. I believe in my religion and I know what’s right from wrong but why can’t parents guide us in less abusive ways?”
This is a ‘battleground’ of identities on display here, where nobody can win and neither party determined to compromise. Instead, without realising, falling deeper and deeper into the trap of becoming one’s own worst enemy.
But what about the peer pressures hiding behind teenage smoking? Bilquis firmly answers:
“A lot of Asian girls smoke at my school, we have our own groups that get together at break times and have a smoke. It makes me feel popular – people don’t mess with us, boys want to know us, even the older ones.”
Of course many would beg to differ but would there be any point, being up against not one but a nation of youngsters with the similar views to Bilquis. Asian parents will find it increasingly difficult to restrain teens from the smoking habit especially as generations lapse, albeit it being done secretly or openly.
Ramanjeet is an investment banker, living in Bournemouth, the city she moved to two years ago has landed a high-paid dream job. She gradually took to the smoking habit from residing in Bournemouth, compelling that it has now become a part of her life.
Educating us on Bournemouth and how it plays a huge part in her decision in smoking, she says:
“Of course living in Bournemouth has initiated my smoking. All my friends at work smoke. It’s very hard being the only Asian female at work, but to enjoy the maximum experience of living away and making this city as your home – you have to integrate with the crowd, otherwise you will remain isolated, after all, I’ve worked so hard for this job so I have to make sure I fit in.”
A clearer understanding has certainly been formed from our discussions. Words that were strongly outlined in the conversation were depression, stress, independence, choices, freedom, culture, and conformity. Lighting up a cigarette was used as a mere tool, to create a difference in their lives and escape from the repetitive pains brought by a traditional upbringing.
In addition, it is evident that Brit-Asian women seem to hold additional barriers that contribute to them smoking. The fear of weight gain, depression and other stress such as childcare and poverty.
Cigarettes seem to be used as a substitute for expressing these feelings, with smoking used to mask sadness, anger or depression.
It is hard to express yourself in a culture where it is inappropriate to talk about one’s feelings overtly, so women are turning to smoking as one method of such expression.
There is nonetheless immense pressure for youth today to be very image-orientated.
Media plays a huge role in projecting images of slim beautiful women smokers as cultural ideals, which seem to encourage the initiation to smoke.
Bollywood, Hollywood, advertising and artistic photography still portray smoking as part of everyday life.
No doubt due to the large take-up by Asian women to smoke, their health and well-being cannot be ignored, which indicates that diseases from smoking such as lung cancer will increase in British Asian women and therefore, require medical support not previously needed.
To conclude the question – Are Asian women the new smokers? This can only be judged on how Asians weigh up their choices – either strengthen their cultural barriers in defining values of importance or relapse into conformity challenging mixed identities.
However, it is argued in the western world identity is not ascribed by tradition or religion, but is rather something that an individual chooses. The 21st-century woman is now all about freedom, power and modernisation, which pessimistic to say are all the symbolic goals retrieved from smoking.