Indian women certainly have to go off the beaten track to prove that they are not “that” kind of girls.
In ancient Roman society, women couldn’t drink wine because they were perceived as weak individuals, who were susceptible to any negative factors. It was thought that wine could only encourage inappropriate behaviour in them.
For Tamils, in ancient India, drinking was part of culinary culture and people from all genders and classes could enjoy it.
However, though the great epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana referenced drinking, this doesn’t include women.
A recent study conducted across 35 countries found that gender differences in alcohol consumption are universal. But the magnitude of this difference varies depending on socio-cultural context. For instance, in Denmark, 97% of men and 94% of women drink, while in Karnataka, 37% of men and only 3% of women drink.
Besides, in the states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, women traditionally learn how to brew ‘apong’, which is an alcohol drink commonly found among the tribes in the Northeast India. It is prepared by fermentation of rice. Women belonging to these tribes participate in the brewing and drinking environment at per with the men, and thistradition has been prevailing for generations now.
But, in general, why is it such a taboo for women in India to drink? And, why is a woman who drink disdained as a “bad or immoral woman”?
While ancient India had liberal attitudes towards drinking in general, especially for intoxicants like soma, that changed in early modern India. British administrators fundamentally changed drinking culture in colonial India. While passing legislations to curb production of local liquor by Adivasis, they introduced highly expensive foreign liquor and encouraged local production of foreign liquor as a means of generating revenue.
In the eyes of Indian nationalists, drinking became associated with British rule and British culture. And so, anti-alcohol agitation became a key aspect of the three great freedom movements – The Swadeshi Movement, Non-Cooperation, and Civil Disobedience.
But what does this have to do with women? Well, one key result of the shift from local to foreign alcohol was the change in alcohol concentration levels. The British encouraged locals to drink foreign liquors which contained much higher alcohol concentration than Indians were accustomed to having. This led to widespread alcoholism which enabled issues like domestic violence, gambling and poverty.
As a result, nationalist leaders like Gandhi mobilised women in the movement to bring an end to the sale and use of alcohol. It was the women, especially from rural backgrounds and lower classes, who were against alcohol use because of the impact it had on their families. And this holds true in many states till today where local bans on liquor are even used a strategy to appease women voters.
Moreover, drinking culture itself tends to be masculine and exclusionary for women. But it’s not just about that. Even elite women in urban India who do drink socially, often hide the fact from their parents and extended families, and are embarrassed to openly admit that they drink.
Researchers trace this reluctance to the ‘Bharatiya Nari’ archetype, whereby women are supposed to denounce alcohol, because it goes against our culture, and at the same time, as women, they are supposed to be morally superior models of self-control, especially for their children and other women.
So, for a man, while drinking might be viewed as a ‘bad habit,’ for a woman, it becomes a marker of her character, making her a ‘bad woman.’ This idea is reinforced through Bollywood movies from the ‘60s to present day, where a woman who drinks is often presumed to be a vamp.
At the end of the day, how we evaluate whether people should drink or not, or how much they should, should have nothing to do with gender stereotypes, but their health. There’s no denying that alcohol consumption is bad for health and should largely be avoided, irrespective of genders.
I, in no way endorse consumption of intoxicants of any kinds, but the hypocrisy underlying it is hugely appalling. It has been argued that drinking women calls for rape, and they are the one’s to be blamed, as the incoherence it produces can lead to rape!!!!
In reality, the problem is that the taboo around women drinking is not about alcohol at all. It’s about why a woman’s basic right to respect and security is tied so unfairly to her behaviour?
Why do we hold up high moral standards for women, while boys are allowed to make mistakes? Why does the duty of policing and monitoring fall on women, while the right to go out and let loose is reserved for men?
The problem is not with women who drink, but it’s with our mind-set which demonizes them for drinking.
[Images from different sources]
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