13 Jun 2013

‘I got angry’ says the poet who fought female incarceration

As a film about the life of famous Indian poet Salma is shown at the Sheffield Documentary Festival, she tells Katie Razzall about her strict Muslim family who kept her locked up for years on end.

Salma is a renowned poet in India. In her time, she’s also been a politician, village leader and on the state social welfare board.

But for 25 years, from the age of 13, Salma was locked away from the world.

The minute she hit puberty, the life she knew – going to school, playing outside, trips to the cinema – was over. In the village in Tamil Nadu where she grew up, Muslim girls aren’t allowed to live freely once they get their periods. The same rules apply today as they did back then.

Salma fought back, refusing for nine years the arranged marriage her parents planned.

Her brother got her books from the library and she carried on her education that way. She told me she learnt about the lives of free women across the world from those library books. It made her even more determined to live the life she wanted, not the one mapped out by her culture – marriage, children and the lot of the housewife.

“I realised women are doing all these things .. why should I be here? I can compare. I got angry.”

Once she agreed (under pressure) to the marriage, she was almost equally housebound, only allowed outside a few times with her husband or another male relative.

But she began smuggling her poems out in the laundry and her mother posted them off to a publisher. She became a literary sensation, with much speculation about who she was. Despite the subject matter of her poetry which hadn’t been brought to public attention before (the lot of women, their sadness, their subjugation to men), some people even suggested Salma the poet was actually a man.

I met the real Salma at Sheffield DocFest where a film about her life is premiering.

The filmmaker Kim Longinotto documents Salma’s return to the village where she was grew up.

Salma, the Indian poet who was locked inside for nine years as a girl (Vixen Films)

We see her back in the dark room where she was kept for most of those nine years before her marriage; she looks out of the tiny, barred window and – incredibly – smiles, though she told me she remembers the pain and anger.

“I was feeling very bad – 25 years before, it happened to me, and it’s the same thing today also. Nothing has happened for women’s life, it’s the same kind of life, traditions and culture is doing all things against women – still it’s practised in this village, I feel very bad, 25-30 years it’s happening.”

The documentary feature, titled Salma, isn’t just about the poet’s life, but about the lot of young women now.

Bleak indeed are the shots of the young girls who – the inference is clear – will be removed from the streets when they are a little older. Salma told me “They are living for men, doing everything for men, this is the life for women, we should change that thought.”

In another section, Salma’s nephew talks angrily about how respectable women should be happy to wear a burka to protect men from being aroused. He’s ashamed that his aunt refuses to cover herself. He also tells his mother she shouldn’t go to the cinema as it’s against Islam.

Salma says: “They should change their views, but it will take time, they have religious thoughts, we cannot change their thoughts. They have own ideas, believe their religion, how can they change?”

(pictures courtesy Vixen Films)