Why do some think it’s shameful for a woman to smoke shisha?

It is the fear of being seen and negatively evaluated that keeps many women away from Shisha cafes, writes Justin Thomas

In 1908 a woman in New York was arrested for smoking a cigarette in public. Back then, the issue had nothing to do with public health, it was more about society’s view of what constituted acceptable behaviour for women. Early depictions of smoking in European art typically cast female smokers as indecent women, ladies of the night. Similarly, during the Victorian era, cigarettes were frequently used as props in erotic photography. The message was loud and clear: good girls don’t smoke cigarettes. But what about shisha?

Shisha, hookah, narghile, waterpipe, call it what you will, is a centuries-old mode of tobacco consumption native to the region. It’s longevity, for some, gives it the status of a cultural tradition. In the 1990s, however, shisha became commercialised. Transnational distribution networks were established, new “fun” flavours were introduced, and marketing campaigns kicked in. Shisha became increasingly popular, especially among the youth. Some cafés now even offer candy floss flavour, which suggests the intentional targeting of a youthful demographic.

In the UAE, you can find shisha cafes filled to capacity. The clientele is typically men, with women being conspicuous by their absence in some establishments. The idea that women shouldn’t smoke shisha – at least not in public – is common among many Arabs. For some, seeing a young lady puffing a pipe would be denounced as ’ayb (shameful), while a young man engaged in the same behaviour wouldn’t get a second glance.

The shisha cafés know that beyond health fears, it is the fear of being seen and negatively evaluated that keeps many women away. Some cafés attempt to get around this gender-related social stigma by offering private booths where one can smoke in relative secrecy. Similarly, some shisha venues now even offer home delivery, and at least one establishment runs a drive-thru service, where you can take the shisha pipe into your vehicle and smoke behind the privacy of your SUV’s smoked windows.

When the US tobacco industry realised that non-smoking women were bad for business, they made efforts to change things.

In 1928, the president of the American Tobacco Association viewed encouraging women to smoke as “like opening a new gold mine right in our front yard”.

One way to get this gold mine open was by exploiting the social stigma attached to female smoking.

Perhaps the most infamous campaign aimed at getting women to smoke was that of Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays.

Also known as the father of public relations, Bernays succeeded in connecting smoking to women’s empowerment. At a parade in 1929, he hired a group of young women to, on his command, simultaneously light up cigarettes, supposedly, as an act of protest against women’s inequality. The cigarettes were rebranded “torches of freedom”, the stunt provoked a national debate, and the profits of the tobacco companies soared.

In the context of shisha, the stigma associated with female smoking might encourage some young women to smoke.

Ironically, shisha smoking could be seen as a means of challenging social conventions and pushing the boundaries of acceptable female behaviour. As cigarettes were once promoted as “torches of freedom”, so shisha might come to be viewed as the pipe of emancipation.

Another negative consequence of the social stigma directed at female smokers is that it makes quitting harder.

If you have to go to extreme lengths to hide your habit, then attending the nearest smoking cessation clinic is likely to be equally fraught. Feeling able to seek assistance, without the fear of being negatively judged, is undoubtedly an important determinant of help-seeking behaviour.

If a person smokes shisha that is a personal choice; a decision that is not made better or worse based on the individual’s gender. However, to help ensure that these individuals are making informed decisions, tobacco control policy might consider the use of graphic and written health-warning labels on shisha pipes. We might also consider banning flavours and product names that appear to be targeting children and adolescents such as candy floss flavour.

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University

On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas

Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University and a columnist for The National