S. Singh

University of KwaZulu-Natal (SOUTH AFRICA)
Smoking is indisputably a serious health concern and is the most significant avoidable cause of premature morbidity and mortality in the world. Given the dire health consequences that are unique to women, smoking as become firmly positioned as an important gender and health issue. This paper emerges from a concern about the visible increase in female student smokers on the Edgewood campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) over the past few years. The university provides space for female students where new freedoms are experienced and promoted. Risk taking through smoking may be viewed as an enactment of newfound women power and as a performance of personal autonomy.
This paper draws on a qualitative study carried out with female smokers on the Edgewood campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. It explores the paradoxes of freedom by troubling the meanings that female student smokers attach to their versions of femininity within the university space. Whether they seek personal emancipation or independence, the associated health risks have drawn attention to the question of feminine agency.
This study is located within a qualitative framework which provides useful ways to explore how social experiences are created and given meaning. Data were generated through focus group discussions and individual interviews with 12 female smokers between the ages of 18 and 22 years. The sample comprised 12 female smokers between the ages of 18 and 22 years, who were purposely selected on the basis of being observed smoking in the open spaces on the university campus.
Some preplanned questions were asked to stimulate the discussion, but the discussions were largely shaped by the participants. Some of the questions covered in each of the FGDs were: ‘When and why did you begin smoking?’, ‘Where do you smoke?’, ‘What meanings do you attach to cigarette smoking?’ and ‘What impact does your knowledge of the health risks associated with smoking have on your smoking?’
Overall an array of interpersonal and psychosocial factors was offered by young women as influences on their decision to begin and to continue smoking, including: curiosity, using smoking as a stress reliever, for image construction, and for weight control. The data show the university to be a space where conventional femininity can be challenged and new forms of subjectivity enacted. It is evident that taking up and continuing smoking as an agentic move, brings new forms of freedom and new forms of constraint. This paper argues that while these young women claim to be expressing their freedom and independence by exercising free choice, they are ironically entrapping themselves within their notions of freedom and more detrimentally within poorly understood addiction to cigarettes. Furthermore, the discourse at university promotes direct and indirect messages about independence, liberation and responsibility, and these encourage active challenges to existing traditional frameworks.
This paper argues that while many female smokers argue against coercion and position it as a choice; they are paradoxically being subtly coerced by their understandings of greater freedom, independence and exercise of power. With the important goals of women’s emancipation and health promotion in mind, it is important to understand how the pursuit of greater agency and opportunity may lead to illusionary versions of power and independence.