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Why is women drinking in India such news, especially in the middle class? Is alcohol consumption bad for women alone?
One of the most startling scenes in the movie ‘Vicky Donor’ is when his mother and grandmother join in a convivial bout of drinking at the end of a long, frustrating day. In their drunkenness, they make many confessions to each other while pouring out raw whisky into each other’s glasses. The director obviously knows a thing or two about women and alcohol. The scene is startling because it is non-judgmental. It does not create any kind of moral narrative around the act of drinking. This is what these two middle-class Punjabi women do. They drink alcohol.
Cut back to the late sixties and the hit movie ‘Inteqaam’. The heroine, under the apparent influence of drink, does a provocative dance in which she reveals the villain’s worst secret. And then she giggles and tells her friend that it was all make-believe, that she wasn’t actually drunk but was sipping Coca-Cola from a whisky bottle. The pure, virginal young woman, though a veritable Kali when it came to revenge, was actually a good little girl where alcohol was concerned.
In recent times, a lot has been written and said about the inherent patriarchy of Indian society. And this patriarchal hypocrisy extends to another social ‘evil’, consumption of alcohol. Lots of people drink alcohol, but while men are ‘excused’ this ‘failing’, women are condemned for it. The media, society, religion, everything around us declares there’s something wrong about a woman who drinks liquor. Imbibing is linked to sexual promiscuity, and virginal do-gooders are supposed to be teetotalers.
At elite social gatherings, it is considered acceptable for a woman to have a couple of drinks but not to get drunk. That privilege is reserved for the men. A woman who gets drunk is somehow considered cheap, or eccentric, or even sexually available. Men are often heard to remark at parties, ‘Oh, so-and-so drinks like a fish. Fellas, come on, let’s all show her a good time.’
There is no gainsaying the fact that alcohol is by and large bad news. Countries like UK are trying to find ways to curb overall alcohol consumption. There are good reasons why there’s an age bar on drinking, and to drink and drive can turn into a capital offence. On the whole there are many good reasons to reduce alcohol consumption, and not enough to increase it. But there are absolutely no reasons, or at least none that stand the scrutiny of rationalism, to treat consumption by males versus females differently. The only reason this is done is to uphold patriarchal values where ‘some things are not done by women’.
Ironically, it is in the middle class that these values are accorded so much importance. Amongst the poor, both sexes drown their difficulties in periodic intoxication. Amongst the really rich, liquor consumption is part of social interaction. However, in the middle class, where ‘values’ are attached to the sex of the individual and not to the individual herself, there is unbridled hypocrisy when it comes to things like drinking.
Can this phenomenon ever change? Liquor consumption by females, and the ‘values’ this represents, will become mainstream only when more and more women become empowered to think of themselves as individuals, and not as social constructs. They are human beings first, as strong or weak as their male counterparts, and females after that. It is only when this change in mindset happens can we hope to ‘come out’ about our drinking. Until then, we’ll continue to giggle and pretend that it’s not Coca Cola, and not single malt, that is swirling in our glasses.
Beyond Pink writes on women's stories in urban India. They could be real or fictional, but they are all about what women in modern India think about their partners, their families, their workplace and read more...
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