Living as a female smoker in Korea
By Jun Ji-hye, Rachael Lee, Baek Byung-yeul
Smokers are almost being treated as criminals these days and are shunned by others as if they carry some contagious diseases. They face tougher restrictions and are being deprived of spaces to light up.
However, women smokers here have to confront another barrier ― social prejudice.
As evidenced by the election of Park Geun-hye as its first female president, the country has come a long way in terms of gender equality. But there are still things that in people’s perception, men can do freely while women cannot. Korean society, heavily imbued with Confucian values, is still not tolerant toward women smokers, with many chauvinistic men biased against them.
Of course smoking should be discouraged, regardless of gender. But the tolerance level should not be different for men and women. Smoking is one’s own choice as it’s not against the law as long as you are an adult. There is a consensus amongst women that Korean society is still unfair regarding the issue.
Many women say they have been reproached by a stranger on the street simply because they were smoking in public. Women smokers have to hide themselves to smoke in order to avoid stares.
For instance, women smokers have to keep their habit a secret from their boyfriends who are generally inclined to be against smoking. So they brush their teeth and wear perfume to remove the smell of smoke before going on dates.
All we have to do is hide
Kim Young-hee, a 26-year-old office worker in Seoul, has been with her company for over three years now and nobody knows she smokes.
“After lunch, I go into a coffee shop just across the street for a cigarette,” said Kim. “I know my colleagues would think I am doing something immoral if they found out about it.”
The other day Kim smoked in public instead of a cafe. She took out a cigarette impulsively while waiting for the bus home after a few drinks with her friends.
“I was a bit tipsy and felt like a puff. After I lit the cigarette, a random middle-aged man came up to me and started shouting as if I had done something very bad. He said, ‘I will slap your face if you don’t throw your cigarette away right now.’ He called me ‘dirty little woman.’”
She still thinks it was ridiculously unfair for him to reproach her because the man was also holding a cigarette.
“Why should women smokers be treated as lawbreakers while men are allowed to smoke freely anytime, anywhere, it’s so ridiculous and humiliating.”
According to Kim, most of her friends who smoke have similar experiences.
“A friend of mine was dumped by her boyfriend as soon as she was caught smoking. He was a heavy smoker too back then. What a sexist he is. This country is full of chauvinists just like him,” Kim said.
“I think it is a matter of gender inequality that has existed and pervaded our society for a long time. Especially, the older generation just can’t get rid of this fixed notion. It’s so sad. I wonder if Korea will ever be ready to become Westernized with regard to women smokers.”
Kim Yoon-jyung, a 26 year-old piano instructor, is also frustrated with the negative view of female smokers.
“I usually smoke at the corner of the hallway where I am working. I know it’s not legal to smoke inside the building but I don't want others to see me smoking outside," she said.
Kim hasn’t even told her boyfriend that she smokes. “If I reveal that I am a smoker to my boyfriend, I know that he would look at me negatively.”
She does lots of things to remove any evidence she smokes when she goes out with him. “I use disposable chopsticks to keep my hands clean. After I smoke, I brush my teeth and wear perfume. It is a pretty complicated process, but I still don’t want him to know that I am a smoker.”
She also complains about the social prejudices toward female smokers.
“These days, many men say that they are OK with female smokers. But I think they just pretend to be cool about it because they usually want to date non-smokers. I really don’t understand those kinds of contradictory double-standards.”
Lee Sang-hee, a 33-year-old owner of a coffee shop in Yangjae-dong, Seoul, claims that people’s negative thinking toward female smokers needs to change.
“I smoke in front of the door of the shop before opening and after closing. I don’t want to hide the fact I smoke but I don’t smoke when I am working as I think it is considerate to my customers.”
Lee confesses, however, when she worked in an offfice a few years ago, it was difficult for her to smoke alone unless it was in a group with other females.
"When women smoke in groups, we can concentrate on our conversation rather than be conscious of the way others are looking at us. But when I was alone, I tried to smoke in hidden spots," she said.
Lee also recalled a recent unpleasant experience.
“When I was smoking outside, an old man shouted at me how dare I, a female, smoke there. People say the social atmosphere about female smoking has changed but this kind of thing still happens. Men cannot understand how scared women get in those situations.”
No thought of their future
A 48-year-old owner of a small bar near Hongik University in Seoul, admits he has a negative view of female smokers.
Last month, the Ministry of Health and Welfare changed the law to make it illegal to smoke in restaurants and bars with a floor space of over 150 square meters. His bar is smaller than this, so the law doesn't apply to it.
"There are many women who come to my bar to smoke. In Korea, most people are not generous about female smoking yet. Although they are my customers, although there are no special grounds, I also have a poor opinion of women who smoke," said Lee.
He thinks that among female smokers, the majority have not yet had children.
“As a non-smoker, I feel sorry for female smokers whenever I see young women smoking without thinking of their future.”
Not living in ancient times
Olivia, originally from France, works for an advertising company in London.
“I am not a heavy smoker but I enjoy hanging out with people and having drinks and cigarettes while catching up. It’s part of my social life,” the 28-year-old woman said.
On hearing about the unfair situation in Korea, she was dumbfounded and said she could not believe such sexual inequality still exists somewhere she thinks is forward-looking.
“I never had this kind of problems here just because I am a woman. (This is) the same in my home country too. I mean, look, we are living in the 21st century, not in ancient times,” she said.
“An increasing number of women have decent jobs and many of them are well paid and more respected than men these days. I think Korean women should speak up for themselves.”