Posted : 2013-01-15 18:04
Updated : 2016-01-07 22:04

Living as a female smoker in Korea

A group of women smoke outside an office building in Chungmuro, Jung-gu, Seoul, Tuesday. Female smokers say that prejudice against women smokers is still prevalent in Korean society. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

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."

관련 한글 기사

한국에서 담배피는 여자로 살아간다는 것

최근 흡연은 범죄로까지 여겨지는 추세다. 하지만 여성 흡연자들은 사회적 편견이라는 또 다른 장벽에 부딪히곤 한다.

역사상 첫 여성대통령 탄생은 한국 사회의 양성평등이 어느 정도 상승했다는 것을 보여준다. 하지만 사람들의 인식속에는 여전히 남자는 되고 여자는 안 되는 무언가들이 남아있다.

물론 흡연은 성별에 상관없이 자제해야 하는 것이지만, 그것을 수용하는 데 있어서 남녀 간 차별이 존재한다는 것은 불합리하다. 성인의 흡연은 자신의 선택이고 법을 어기는 것도 아니기 때문이다.

많은 여성들은 거리에서 담배를 피웠다는 이유로 낯선 사람에게 욕설을 들은 경험을 털어놓는다. 자신의 흡연 사실을 비밀로 지키고 여성들도 많다.
회사원 김영희(가명, 26)씨는 3년 째 같은 회사에서 일 하고 있지만 회사 사람 누구도 그녀가 흡연자라 것을 모르고 있다.

김씨는“점심 식사 후 근처 카페에 가서 담배를 피운다”며, “만약 직장동료들이 이 사실을 안다면 나를 부도덕적인 사람이라 생각할 것 같아서”라는 이유를 밝혔다.

어느 날 술에 좀 취한 채로 거리에서 담배를 피우다 낯선 중년의 남성에게 ‘더러운 여자’라는 욕설을 들은 경험도 털어놓으며 “남자들은 언제 어디서나 자유롭게 담배를 피우면서 왜 여성 흡연자들은 범법자 대우를 받아야 하는가”라는 답답한 마음을 전했다.

김씨는 자신의 친구들도 비슷한 경험을 했다고 밝혔다. “친구 중 하나는 흡연사실이 걸렸다는 이유로 남자친구에게 이별통보를 받았다. 그 때 그 남자친구도 흡연자였다. 이건 완전한 성차별이지만, 한국에 이런 남자들이 아주 많다.”

피아노 강사인 김윤경(가명, 26) 역시 여성 흡연자를 바라보는 한국 사회의 부정적인 시선이 불만이다. “빌딩 구석에서 담배를 피운다. 실내에서 흡연하면 안 되는 걸 알고 있지만 다른 사람이 내 모습을 보는 것이 싫기 때문이다.”

김씨는 “만약 남자친구가 나의 흡연 사실을 알게 되면 그도 나를 부정적인 시선으로 바라볼 것”이라며 남자친구에게도 자신이 흡연자라는 것 알리지 않았다고 말했다. “남자친구 만나기 전에는 항상 양치질을 하고 향수를 뿌린다”고도 털어놨다.

그녀는 아직도 우리사회에는 여성 흡연자에 대한 편견이 심하다고 불평한다.

“많은 남자들이 여성들이 담배 피는 것이 괜찮다고 이야기한다. 그러나 실제로는 ‘쿨’한척하는 것 뿐이고, 자신들은 비흡연자들과 사귀길 원한다. 남자들의 이런 이중적인 자세를 이해하기 힘들다.”

일부 남성들은 여성들이 결혼 후 임신할 경우에 흡연이 미치는 영향에 대해 우려를 표명한다. 홍대 근처에서 조그만 술집을 운영하는 이씨는 흡연 여성들이 결혼 후를 고려해야 한다고 주장한다.

“비흡연자로서, 나는 젋은 여자들이 미래를 생각하지 않고 담배 피우는 것을 보면 걱정스럽다.”
그러나, 많은 외국 여성들은 한국의 이런 모습을 이해할 수 없다고 한다.

프랑스인인 올리바는 영국 런던에서 현재 광고회사에 근무하고 있다.

“담배를 많이 피우지는 않지만, 나는 가끔 친구들과 어울려 한잔할 때 담배 피우는 것을 즐기는 편이다. 흡연은 내 생활의 일부분일뿐이다.”

한국에 존재하는 여성흡연자에 대한 사회적 편견에 관해 이야기를 듣고, 그녀는 한국 같이 모든 면에서 앞서가는 나라에서 아직도 그런 편견이 존재한다는 사실에 경악했다.

“영국에서나 프랑스에서 내가 여자라고 해서 그런 문제를 한번도 경험해 본적이 없다. 우리는 21세기에 살고 있지, 고대시대에 살고 있는게 아니다,”라고 올리바는 말했다.

“요즘은 더 많은 여성들이 일을 하고, 남자보다 더 존경 받는 경우도 많다. 나는 한국 여성들이 이러한 편견에 맞서 자기들의 목소리를 더 크게 내야 한다고 생각한다.”

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