Women, Addiction and Nation by Sonia Soans

After acquiring a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology a few years ago I couldn’t wait to put my knowledge to good use. Amongst all the mainstream clinical education I was also introduced to the anti psychiatry movement tough briefly. The thrill of working in a clinical environment was short lived. The nature of psychiatry and its dehumanising effect is something we never talk about much less teach. Treatment received by the patients depended upon their class and gender.
Women addicts, like their male counterparts, face stigma except in their case they have to contend with ideas of sexual promiscuity. Often during therapy sessions prejudiced opinions of women addicts were expressed despite evidence to the contrary. What would have been seen as neutral or normal behaviour outside the rehab was turned into symptoms of addiction and ‘addictive personality’. The power of Psychology is so immense that once a diagnosis has been made every aspect of an individuals life is turned into a symptom.

Women and Addiction

Wearing bright coloured clothing or makeup, or taking care of one’s appearance, were seen as signs of sexual promiscuity brought on by addiction. The equivalent behaviour in men was interpreted as signs of recovery. Apart from that, the use of violence and sexual violence to bring these women into sobriety were seen as justified. While sexuality played a role in how these women were treated, their nationality too played a role in their treatment.
This rehabilitation centre was in India where gender is strictly policed. A growing nationalism in the nineteenth century which began as a part of the freedom struggle reconceptualised gender. The modern Indian woman was born in this era and her spectre still haunts us. Considered to be spiritually superior, chastity and domesticity set her apart from her western counterparts. Similarly the Temperance movement also grew and became a focal point in boycotting British rule through proving spiritual and cultural superiority. Both movements however were initiated by upper caste/class men who redefined these social boundaries to suit them giving scant regard to other communities. Dominant groups almost always make the histories of minorities obsolete this was certainly the case in the Indian nationalist movement.

Partha Chatterjee
Partha Chatterjee

“What made the ridicule stronger was the constant suggestion that the Westernized woman was fond of useless luxury and cared little for the well-being of the home. In fact, from the middle of the 19th century right up to the present day, there have been many controversies about the precise application of the home/world, spiritual/material, feminine/masculine dichotomies in various matters concerning the everyday life of the “modern” woman-her dress, food, manners, education, her role in organizing life at home, her role outside the home.” – Partha Chatterjee.

Ideas of western culture polluting the minds of Indian women were a common topic of discussion. Somehow the same western culture was not a problem when men spoke about their addiction, it was expected they would drink or use substances. In the Rehab we would weekly watch a Hollywood film on addiction or a documentary on the subject (English is a neutral language as favouring one regional language over another causes antagonism). Films regarding female addicts tended to conflate the idea of addiction and sexual promiscuity, further feeding into an existing prejudice. Some of the scenes were uncomfortable to watch in a room full of men. Cinematic tropes over the decades have positioned the inebriated woman as being promiscuous which does little for our understanding of the condition but provides titillation for the viewer.




This trope is not limited to Hollywood alone Bollywood films too use the trope of women who consume drugs and alcohol to convey social and sexual degradation. Women depicted in such scenes are often sexualised and objectified by the male gaze.


Image from Bollywood film Hare Rama Hare Krishna
Image from Bollywood film Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971)

Mental illness is not contained within the clinical confines of hospitals it spills out into the everyday. Affirming our prejudices through scientific evidence. Clinical explanations are not divorced from prejudice they feed into each other. Women I met in the rehabilitation centre and in various Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous groups knew all too well how they were perceived.
Concerns about bringing shame on their families by talking about their pasts played a role in how they perceived the world around them. One could sense that they wanted to raise awareness about their struggles yet faced stigma if their identities were revealed. Some members were more open to be named and share their stories, if it were to help individuals recover. Talking to the men in the group (I met more men than women) and women, I was made aware of how women were pathologised for taking a single drink, as opposed to men who would not be labelled as ‘drunks’ even if they had stumbled to the ground or passed out.

This wasn’t all that there was to it, people mentioned how they saw alcoholism and addiction in films and advertisements and how they in recovery found such portrayals as misrepresentative if not offensive. Women I spoke to mentioned how Indian women were not expected to drink and how it was a double-edged sword. Women of lower classes were excused on the basis of class and suffering, finding an eventual release through alcohol or drugs.

Women of the upper classes were thought of as spoilt, and their drinking or drug habits were seen as part of the corruption brought with money and power. There was a sense that popular culture was a source of education about serious issues; the possibility that the information presented did more to harm than educate was not something that was discussed. Feminists and social activists made a noise about such issues but their arguments were seen as the ramblings of angry killjoys. I have never much cared about popular media in India but I have been aware of the influence it had on people. I have often used it in conversations, I have been acutely aware of how potent it is in shaping public consciousness.
In group therapy sessions at the Rehab centre women would regularly bring up issues of sexual abuse and coercion to use substances, these were often ignored or thought of as fabricated narratives. When presented clinically, addiction often is treated either as a moral problem or as a disease the addict disbelieved. Though classified as a mental illness, the idea of substance use and its ties to social problems also classifies it as a crime, doubling the negative impact on the individual.

Author Bio: Sonia Soans is a PhD researcher based in Manchester her work examines the intersections between gender, mental illness and Indian nationalism. Critical of practises in and erasure in mainstream Psychology her work looks at the missing histories in the discipline.



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