Director Kim Longinotto’s new film tells the remarkable story of the Tamil poet Salma and her lifelong rebellion against the stifling misogynistic culture of her village in southern India. For decades, poetry provided Salma with a mental escape from the unbearable conditions to which she was subjected. Her story is one of quiet heroic rebellion against a culture which crushes the female spirit.
Salma’s ordeal began when she reached puberty. At age 13 she was taken from school and locked up in her family home in accordance with village tradition. In that tradition child marriage is the norm, with marriages typically arranged within three years of puberty. After marriage, the girl then lives with her husband and his family and is forbidden, once again, to go outdoors without his permission.
Now one of India’s leading Tamil poets, Salma describes how the language of her poetry developed out of the intense loneliness she experienced during twenty five long years of confinement. ‘To describe in words the sadness of spending the most important and joyful season of one’s life entirely alone is an extraordinary thing’, she recounts. ‘I had no dreams any more. No desires, my life had been decided for me.’
The Ambivalent Oppressors
Salma’s story is not a typical one of imprisonment and escape. Her parents – who took her from school, locked her in her room for years, and forced her to marry against her will – are not typical enemies. Her mother, for example, also later smuggled Salma’s poetry out, helped her to get published, and travelled secretly with Salma to her first book launch in Mumbai.
Salma also remains married to her husband, who beat her and threatened to pour acid on her face if she continued to write. He belatedly accepted her gift and encouraged her involvement in local politics. With his support, Salma eventually succeeded in getting elected to the Tamil Nadu Social Welfare Board, a success which allowed her to finally leave the village for the relative freedom of Mumbai.
The ambivalence of Salma’s story however adds to its universality. As director Kim Longinotto stresses, Salma’s confinement is not unique. ‘It is happening to millions of girls all over the world’ Longinotto says. ‘It is a crime that is going on worldwide that is just not acknowledged.’
That crime – the cultural oppression of women – is not one that allows easy categories of victims and perpetrators. As Salma clearly shows, the cultural values in Salma’s village are held and passed on by men and women alike. They also have detrimental consequences for men and women alike. While those consequences are clearly more evident for women, Salma shows how misogynist cultures also impact detrimentally on boys and men. Salma’s husband describes candidly how his life has been haunted by a deep seated anger that he has carried for a lifetime. ‘Before I was a teenager it was jealousy, then it was arrogance and pride, then when you have children its anger at the children. Anger is always there in one form or another.’ Hearing this confession, it is difficult not to connect this ever present male anger with the culture of rape and domestic violence that characterises many misogynistic cultures.
Misogyny is not Islamic
Although Salma is Muslim, and the film is set in a Muslim village, the issues it addresses are not fundamentally about Islam. They are about all cultures which denigrate and control women; cultures which prevent the normal healthy development of girls; cultures which inculcate gross inequality and perverse attitudes to sex and sexuality; and cultures which also damage the mental health of boys and men.
Misogyny is based on a view of sex and sexuality which is unhealthy in the extreme. Women’s enforced confinement; forced marriage at an early age; childbirth at an early age (with boys rather than girls the preferred outcome); the need for women to cover their bodies – all are based on an intense terror of sexuality. As Salma’s young nephew clumsily demonstrates in the film, these practices are based on the mistaken belief that men are quick to arousal at the sight of a woman’s body (any woman’s body), and that extreme measures are necessary to protect men from the sin of ‘bad’ thoughts, or the temptation to indulge in sexual activity. If sex really is the root of all evil – as misogynists believe – it is this infantile, perverted view of sexuality that is responsible.
Reasons for Hope – Girls’ Education and the Love of Women
Salma explores themes that lie at the core of what it means to be human – culture as oppression for both victim and oppressor, misogyny as the basis for a profound impoverishment of spirit, and love as the essential basis for becoming human. In doing so, Salma challenges us to recognise how culture can either enable or stifle human flourishing.
Amidst the solitude and oppression, however, Salma also contains two profound reasons to hope that we can overcome the prejudice and violence that characterise our disordered world.
The first reason for hope is Salma’s unquenchable thirst for learning. Her apprenticeship as a poet began by reading, locked alone in her room, the scraps of newspapers that her mother brought home as wrappings for her groceries. ‘I had so many things to read’, Salma recalls, enthusiastic still. This passion for learning is shared, of course, by girls across the world, regardless of religion, colour or nationality. As Malala Yousafzai pointed out recently at the UN, these girls now know that their education can change the world. ‘The extremists are afraid of books and pens,’ Malala said. ‘The power of education frightens them, They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them.’ Salma, and Malala, show that girls, like boys, are programmed for learning. It is an essential part of what makes us human. In that there is hope.
The second striking feature of Salma’s story is how her world is held together by the love of women – particularly the love of women for one another. Rejected by her father because he had wanted a boy, Salma was brought up be an aunt who was only seven when Salma was handed over to her care. Her love for Salma is evident throughout the film. Salma’s mother too, despite her role in Salma’s oppression, longed for her daughter to escape, and helped her to do so. Able to express themselves freely only in the company of other women, the bonds of love between women provide the lifeboat that keeps them afloat. The love of women for their sons, who grow up to oppress them, is also evident. The love of women also offers us hope.
In stark contrast, the world of men presented in the film is empty and stark. Trapped in a prison of their supposedly uncontrollable sexual urges, their relationships with the women closest to them are impoverished by their sexual immaturity and inherited superiority.
Ultimately Salma’s story raises an intriguing question: is economic development necessary before relationships between men and women can come to be based on love rather than power? Is the love of women the only force that can bring about a civilisation based on empathy and equality rather than authority and force? If that is the case, women’s equality is not an issue for women alone – it may well be the only basis on which our species can survive at all.