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#SavitriShaming and how drinking harms women

Last updated on: September 15, 2016 16:33 IST

Women drinking

Rather than shaming Indian women (and men) who don’t want to drink, through peer pressure and barbs, let’s consider respecting their, perhaps more sensible, choices instead, says Sankrant Sanu.

Shruti, a student I know of at an engineering college in India, spoke to me of the pressure to adopt the ‘bar culture’ -- being associated with 'progressive modernity'.

A mixed group of her friends had gone to a nightclub in Delhi. Most of the students in the group were drinking, but Shruti preferred not to. She was told she was being a ‘Sati-Savitri’ for refusing to consume alcohol. Not 'blending-in’ would result in shaming.

‘They make you feel aloof from the group,’ she reported in a Whatsapp chat, ‘And no matter how hard you try you can’t gel with them.’

I call this ‘Savitri shaming,’ a social ostracism as potent as the much-talked-of ‘slut shaming’.

There is nothing particularly ‘progressive’ or ‘liberated’ about drinking alcohol, either for men or women. In rural areas in India, the campaign against alcohol consumption by men is often led by women (external link). These women experience first-hand the consequences of alcoholism -- blowing up of precious savings, domestic violence and breakdown of families.

In urban India, alcohol consumption is being pushed as the new ‘cool’, where often in the past it was looked down upon -- people from ‘good families’ didn’t drink.

The media and urban messaging is especially targeting women as part of the drinking culture. Is this really ‘feminist’? Studies have shown that alcohol is even worse for women than men. The US National Institute of Health concludes (external link) that ‘drinking is much more risky for women than it is for men. A study by the Centre on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia showed (external link) that ‘women get drunk, high and addicted faster than men.’

According to Susan Foster, director of the centre:

'A woman's body contains less water and more fatty tissue -- which increases alcohol absorption -- compared to a male body. And women have a lower activity level of an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase, which breaks down alcohol.”

Alcohol in even moderate amounts has been shown to increase risk of breast cancer in women, whereas the slight benefits of lower heart disease in some cases doesn’t apply to women below 55. Heavy drinking is even worse, leading to higher risks of liver damage, cancer, brain impairment and heart disease. The NIH estimates that 5.3 million women in the US ‘ drink in a way that threatens their health, safety, and general wellbeing. A strong case can be made that heavy drinking is more risky for women than men.’

Another NIH study (external link) shows alcohol use, by men and women, is also a major factor in sexual assaults.

‘Conservative estimates of sexual assault prevalence suggest that 25 per cent of American women have experienced sexual assault, including rape. Approximately one-half of those cases involve alcohol consumption by the perpetrator, victim, or both.’

Given an American society grappling with the ill-effects of alcoholism and showing a horrendous rate of sexual assaults, why would we emulate this drinking culture and call it ‘progressive’?

I heard other accounts from women in corporate settings who’re told they must drink to socialise with their (male) clients. Is this progressive or regressive?

Shruti recounted the increasing peer pressure to drink in college:

“It’s a ‘status symbol'. I was being forced to take a sip at least. And they would have had made me drink it if one of my friend hadn’t stood up for me. They were like it’s an awesome feeling ... try it and get high and enjoy the world. Girls (were trying to make me drink) even harder.”

It used to be the stereotype that women from ‘good families’ didn’t drink. Now the mindless aping of a harmful practice, one that Western society is struggling to overcome, has been made ‘cool,’ while those who resist are derided as ‘Sati-Savitris.’

Who is Savitri? The story of Savitri and Satyavan is a love story of a courageous woman who challenged death itself to save her husband and love, Satyavan. Savitri represents commitment, loyalty, fidelity, courage and true love. Savitri-shaming denigrates all these values as ‘patriarchal’! What then is the alternative society?

Apparently the society we are asked to take as our model is one which has a sexual assault rape of 25 per cent, over 10 times that of India’s. A society in which the divorce rate is 20-40 times as high as in India (external link). Who benefits from the lack of commitment to the relationship?

In the US, women bear the brunt of divorce (external link). According to law professor Lenore Weitzman’s book Divorce Revolution, ‘A typical woman endures a 73 per cent reduction in her standard of living after a divorce. Her typical ex-husband enjoys a 42 per cent increased standard of living.’

As per a Brookings report (external link), ‘Single parents have much lower incomes and much higher poverty rates than their married counterparts.’ It also adds that ‘there is near-consensus that the retreat from marriage has not been good for children.’

Biologically promiscuity also has disproportionate consequence for women. In case of resulting pregnancy (and we know there is no foolproof contraception), women are often left holding the bag (and the baby). They need to either subject their bodies to drugs or surgery to terminate the pregnancy or deal with the consequence of an unwanted pregnancy and the potential of ending up as single mothers.

The men can shoot and scoot. I’m not advocating that men should be irresponsible; but that the reality is they have less consequences for being so.

In effect, marriage is an institution that serves women. Many men would be quite happy sleeping around given available women. As ‘players’, men who make conquering and dumping women into a game, know this is easier to do when a woman is drinking since it lowers inhibitions. Men are happy with a culture of drinking and no-strings-attached sex where women bear the disproportionate responsibilities.

‘Progressive’ feminists may inadvertently push the cause of patriarchy in decrying ‘slut-shaming’ while pushing for ‘Savitri-shaming’ in an attempt to replicate a troubled Western society. Women do not need to be slut-shamed for ‘dressing provocatively’ or victim-blamed for assault. Nor should they be shamed as ‘behenjis’ or ‘Savitri-shamed’ for dressing traditionally or refusing to drink alcohol.

Rather than shaming Indian women (and men) who don’t want to drink with peer pressure and barbs, let’s consider respecting their, perhaps more sensible, choices instead.

Sankrant Sanu