Intoxicating Inequality

Munmun Ghosh
Wednesday, 9 August 2017

If 20 years back, a woman had to sport jeans to be considered “cool,” with a mind of her own, today she has to drink with felicity to earn the “happening” label...

Recently, an office bash in a suburban club in Mumbai teed off with a mock-warning by its 40ish CEO that those who did not drink that night would have to attend office the next day (which was otherwise a holiday). His young 30-member team, equally divided between men and women, responded heartily to his call, guzzling hard drinks with ease. In no time, one young woman was swaying dangerously on the dance floor and finally puked in the corridor on the way to the washroom and passed out. She had to be carried out of the hotel. Another who was sozzled sat rooted in her chair, while her colleagues summoned her husband to pick her up. The party was rated as a success! 

To be considered cool ’n’ happenin’
While the pressure on a woman to swig may not always be as overt as this, it is increasingly ubiquitous in all whorls of metro socialising.

Chances are one might not be invited to even a few house parties if you are liquor-averse. If 20 years back, a woman had to sport jeans to be considered “cool,” with a mind of her own, today she has to drink with felicity to earn the “happening” label. 

Says Bengaluru-based corporate professional Ranjan Bansal, “My friends made huge fun of me recently when I stated I didn’t drink socially.

I restrict myself to drinking beer or breezer with family or close friends and that too only when I plan to spend the night at the host’s place as I invariably feel sleepy with just one peg. I like the taste of beer; essentially, drinking is bonding time.”

Employed with a top audit firm in Kolkata, Subha Gupta routinely refuses drinks in both office parties and at hangouts with friends. “The smell of alcohol puts me off,” she observes. “I believe  most of my female friends too do not like it. But they drink to make a statement on gender equality.” 

Films endorse it
Films are percolating this new stereotype of “coolness” aggressively. Bollywood has predictably trudged a long way from the days of Sahib Biwi Ghulam, in which an inebriated Meena Kumari cries out to her husband Aaj tak kisi doosri aurat ne itna bada balidaan diyaan hai bhala? Hindu ghar ki bahu hokar sharaab pee hain kisiney?; till the new millennium, only “vamps” could be projected as alcohol-friendly on screen. No longer. Today, in film after film, like in Dear Zindagi (Alia Bhatt), Meri Pyaari Bindu (Parineeti Chopra) and Noor (Sonakshi Sinha), the female lead is shown sipping liquor casually. If she gets sloshed, no issue. In the recent release Jolly LLB 2, lawyer Akshay, the indulgent husband gifts his wife a bottle of liquor, which she grabs eagerly and quaffs off in one sitting, to pass out on the sofa while her kid and husband watch on, amused. This is supposed to evoke laughs. 

If the woman’s drinking contributes to more serious consequences like sexual assault as it does in Pink, then of course she is not castigated for “drinking” at least. For don’t men drink? Why should the rules be different for women? Filmmakers, driven by the need to topline gender equality, are increasingly wrapping their heroine’s hands around glasses of alcohol, thus strengthening its legitimacy, the latest being Lipstick Under My Burkha. 

Effects of alcohol
But how so much one shouts for gender equality, the unchangeable hard truth is that alcohol affects women far more than men. The reason — women tend to have less body weight and more fatty tissue than muscle, compared to men; muscles possess more water that dilutes alcohol while fat retains it. Also, medical research has shown that women possess less of the protective enzyme called dehydrogenase than men; this enzyme can break down alcohol once it enters the stomach.

Therefore, when women drink, more alcohol passes from the stomach into the bloodstream, the reason why they get intoxicated quicker than men and invite higher alcohol concentrations in their blood which travels to the heart, liver, brain, and other organs, to their detriment.

Veteran physician Dr C B Jain observes, “Anything that is toxic stresses the body’s cells, the metabolic system. Women as it is undergo more metabolic changes than men because of hormonal changes, and also they tend to be more stressed today because of dual home-and-work front responsibilities. Alcohol, being toxic, puts extra load on their stressed systems, affecting their metabolism and eventually liver.”

Adds Dr Raj Brahmabhatt, director of the Kama Institute of Sexual Studies, “Women carry an important reproductive capacity which is affected by alcohol. Coordination of body muscles goes for a toss. By drinking, women are compromising on their own safety. And the truth is women tend to get addicted faster once they pick up the habit.”       

Long-term drinking triggers different medical problems, highlights homeopath-cum-dietician Dr Keyuri Kotak. “Alcohol, even wine, may raise a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer. Also, women who are alcohol-dependent are more likely than men to contract liver diseases such as hepatitis and liver cirrhosis (a chronic disease that progressively destroys the liver’s ability to aid in digestion and detoxification). Women are more likely than men to suffer alcohol-induced brain damage and those who drink heavily face increased risk of osteoporosis, premature menopause, infertility, high blood pressure and heart disease. Alcohol poses more health risks for women as they age, contrary to the buzz around red wine and its benefits,” says Dr Kotak. 

Befriended by youngsters 
With more pubs shooting up in our metros and the taboo factor weakening, the age of tipplers is also steadily going down. “Today, a section of teenagers are drinking regularly at pubs, every Friday or Saturday,” laments Dr Kotak. “Girls cannot handle alcohol most of the time. But drinking till you puke is seen as “fun” by youngsters, and it’s hard to convince them out of such notions.”   

Fresh out of college and enlisted with a media company in Mumbai, 20-year-old Kanisha Agarwal boasts of her ability to empty two bottles of beer and not get even a tad tipsy, having opened account with liquor at the tender age of 14. “It was common among my school friends and my parents knew it. My father who consumes alcohol sometimes guided me on how to drink without getting drunk. I started with beer and whisky and now drink rum and wine. I enjoy experimenting with different brands,” she says. The glaze of pride in her voice is unmistakable and testifies to the perceived chicness of the cultivated habit.        

It seems in the name of gender equality, women are unknowingly befriending an enemy of their intrinsic well-being, as they override the natural, physiological inequality between the sexes in alcohol tolerance. The only factor that can check this development today is education about alcohol and its shenanigans in the human body, especially the beautiful female body. It’s time to talk alcohol.

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