Health and liberation crossroads: Cigarette smoking among female students at a South African university
University students find themselves in an exceptional space where new freedoms are experienced and promoted. Generally subjected to stringent control mechanisms in schools and homes, young women are likely to experience these freedoms more profoundly than young men. In the context of greater freedom, risk taking through largely prohibited activities such as smoking may be viewed as an enactment of new-found women power and as a performance of personal autonomy. This paper draws on a qualitative study carried out with a selected group of female smokers on the Edgewood campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. It explores the crossroads of health and liberation by interrogating the meanings that female student smokers attach to cigarette smoking within the university space. The meanings attached to this practice and the significance of a non-incriminating space in the production and appropriation of youthful femininities are viewed against the negative health implications. Data presented here are based on focus group discussions and individual interviews with an initial sample of 12 female smokers between the ages of 18 and 22 years. Findings are discussed in relation to three themes: university as a transitional space, university as an enabling space and university as a free space. The data show the university to be a space where conventional femininity can be challenged and new forms of subjectivity enacted. This paper argues that while some young women claim to be expressing their freedom and independence by exercising free choice, they are ironically entrapping themselves within their notions of freedom and, more detrimentally, within a poorly understood addiction to nicotine in cigarettes.