Cigarettes: The Arab Girl's Tool to Breaking the Norm


Are cigarettes girls' way of reclaiming control ?


Throughout the course of the Not Your Habibti typewriter project, I’ve collected and typed up a rainbow of stories featuring the opinions and grievances of women from all over the West Bank. From day one, I realized that these stories were giving me a glimpse into Palestinian and Arab societal constructs in a way that nothing else had before. 

Last week in Abu Dis, a small village on the edge of Jerusalem, I collected 3 stories about smoking over the course of 30 minutes. I felt uneasy at first, considering my opinions of smoking, but when the second and third stories came in, I knew that they were speaking to something bigger at play. 

The stories were a short 2 or 3 sentences long and clearly illustrated the way society dictated the gendered rules of smoking and what happened when men and women broke those rules. Simply put, men are supposed to smoke cigarettes and women are supposed to smoke shisha. When a man smokes shisha, he’s targeted and isolated as “feminine.” When a woman smokes cigarettes, her reputation is stained with the rumors of loose morals and sexual misconduct. 

There is no clear answer as to why society has attached gender norms to these 2 forms of smoking. If the cigarette is considered Western and shisha considered Middle Eastern, then perhaps it has to do with the way men are allowed to engage in modernization while women are relegated to maintaining tradition. Over time, women have been (voluntarily or involuntarily) assigned the task of holding onto and continuing traditions of culture all across the Arab world. Those traditions are then deemed as feminine and, thus, inherently inferior. 

To be clear, it’s not that a woman can’t live according to tradition—it’s when those traditions are imposed as a way to restrict women that there is an issue. These gendered rules for smoking may seem harmless on the surface, but they speak to a larger and more complex issues within the fabric of Arab society. 

So, when these girls sat down across from me and shared their frustrations at being deemed sluts for smoking cigarettes, they were also speaking with a tinge of joy. They were frustrated with being confined to a box, angry at being judged for leaving the box, and secretly joyed with undermining the patriarchy. I smiled along with them. 

Writer and activist Suhair Al-Tal asks herself “Why was I considered a bad girl? A tornado of feelings runs through me whenever I face this question—a lot of anger, a bit of grief, sometimes sarcasm, and perhaps even secret joy.”  

Her question is one that I ponder along with these girls’ stories of smoking. It’s one of the countless things that Arab women are kept from to keep their image of good-girlhood. As frustrating as it is to be deemed a “bad girl” for breaking rules that shouldn’t exist in the first place, there is satisfaction in defying expectations and carving a new identity for yourself outside of the norms. At the root of Arab girls’ cigarette smoking is a sense of control over one’s own that has everything to do with shattering gender norms. 

Hearing these stories made me feel like I was in on a secret. There is comfort in discovering all of the tiny subversions of patriarchy that women are taking up in Palestine and all over the Middle East. There is comfort in meeting the other members of this revolution and knowing you are not alone. 

How do you rebel?

***disclaimer: BabyFist in no way endorses smoking. This article uses the act of smoking as a tool for insight into societal constructs and the reactions (for better of worse) to those constructs***

Yasmeen Mjalli