Salma, a film premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this year, focuses on the life of the prolific Tamil poet, by British documentary filmmaker Kim Longinotto. It highlights the struggles of a woman that spent twenty-five years locked away by the people around her due to customary practices of their Muslim village. In this village, when girls reach puberty they are shunned from society, and thus, when Salma started her period at 13 she was locked away. As a young girl, Salma was vocal about wanting change and so she was condemned for her intelligence and deemed disrespectful towards her culture, religion and village. She wanted to be educated and refused to wear the burqa, instead she wanted to read books, or anything; she just wanted to understand the outside world.
While imprisoned by society, and her own parents, Salma began to write. As she wrote about the intricacies of Tamil and village life she was able to release her pain into this new cathartic pursuit. She wrote about her culture, but also the impact of being a woman that was deemed “too clever.” She talked about strength, about pain and about being in a society that didn’t accept her gender.
After many years, Salma eventually agreed to marry a man she had been betrothed to as an early teen. The photos of the wedding portray her grief stricken, afraid, knowing too well what was expected of her after this cruel night was to end. In an astounding poem (that she recites on screen) Salma details the dreaded talks young girls receive before their wedding night. The innocence quickly fades, and a society that is so afraid of sex and women’s sexuality, is all of a sudden geared to teach a girl on how to pleasure a man, as if that can be taught in an instantaneous moment.
After facing upheavals of abuse from her husband (he didn’t want her to write and would oftentimes throw away her notes and writings), she tirelessly sent her writings to publishers, with the help of her mother who smuggled her work out. The publishers were immediately receptive to her honesty and to the sheer rawness of her work. Nothing this candid had been seen in South India before. Women’s tales weren’t ordinarily understood, nor heard, as their lives have always been behind closed doors, and their discontent rarely a point of topic.
In this cultural context, women are not deemed as human beings. Their role in society is understood purely within the sexual realm, nothing more. Women are seductresses, and thus to secure social order they must obey the rules that deem them to be no more than accessories to a household, slaves to dogma and customs. Freedom is limited within the arbitrary boundaries of the establishment and authority, as it’s a man’s ruling and thus a man’s world.
This incredible film reminds me of a book I read a couple of years ago entitled Paradise At Her Feet by Isobel Coleman. Within the book Coleman discusses that the face of the Middle East and the Muslim World (and thus by association, India and South East Asia also) is changing, the ideals that have been cemented entirely by the patriarchy are shifting, the rules and regulations that have given women no rights, are drifting because there is an awareness being brought to their abject plight, by women themselves.
Coleman explains that the Quran, which many people in the West deem to be what restricts Muslim women, is actually the tool in which they can fully emancipate themselves, as Islam esteems women and their rights in the highest regard (Muslim women were given rights to divorce, land and abortion in circa 700 AD, long before the West initiated any such ideas), a fact not known to many. In fact, the hijab has historically been a tool to liberate women as it’s seen as an equaliser, a man judges you for your intellect, not your beauty. Yet, in the last century or so, it has become a socio-political tool and a way to enslave the feminine, an instrument supposedly to stifle men’s sexual desires and proclivities — because “they can’t help themselves.”
One of the most heart breaking moments of the film was when Salma’s aunt exclaims that this is just the way it is. Women in these societies are taught that life is a struggle and that they are locked away for their own good. This mentality breeds a certain disregard for differences, for strong steadfast women who perhaps don’t want a husband, or children. The danger in accepting this as something that “just is” means that change is slow and in order for there to be a transformation, women have to start accepting that they deserve more.
Although my life bears no immediate resemblance to the life of Salma, there are certain parallels that have deeply resonated within me and I am struck most by the reality that this could have been me. Like Salma, when I was younger I was haunted by the very question, Is this it? Like her I always asked too many questions, seduced by the world outside and around me, nothing could or would satiate my desire to know and experience more. My life could have been similar to this woman who wanted nothing more to live, a life to call her own. For that she was condemned, shunned and silenced.
Salma continuously exclaims to each and every girl she meets, “Stay in school.” Many countries fear the education of women because once women are educated they will no doubt recognize their rights and demand freedom. As Coleman writes in her book, with education comes change – societal and personal. Societies are manifested and uplifted into beacons of hope, just by simple education. The more dialogue that is opened the more that liberty can shine through. No more: “If not today, then tomorrow. If not tomorrow, then another day.” Women deserve to soar in their own right, to cultivate themselves under their own standards, to be people of their own making and of themselves. When women have these simple civil liberties will we see real developmental changes in the world.
Fariha Roisin has written for indieWIRE, Filmmaker Magazine, QuipMag and the Film Society of Lincoln Centre. She mainly writes film and culture criticism and has a podcast called “Two Brown Girls” where she discusses women, sexism and race and their respective implications on popular culture. Follow her on twitter: @Mofafafafa