‘Salma’: The Poetry of Repression and Seclusion

Salmai movie poster.

Written by Leigh Kolb

In the village of Thuvarankurichi in rural India, young Muslim girls are locked away once they start their periods. While their early years are filled with school and play, once puberty hits, they are taken away from the outside world and relegated to the confines of their family homes until they are married (which often happens soon after menses).

Salma was one of those girls. The internationally acclaimed documentary Salma explores her return back to the village after she has, despite innumerable odds, become an accomplished poet and politician.
Her determination is highlighted throughout the film, and no amount of dramatization is needed to convey the depths of despair for the women in this culture and the odds that were–and still are–against Salma.

Interviews with family members show how conflicted many of them are about Salma’s success. Her father says, “She’s a good girl, but she’s too clever.” Her aunt says also that Salma has always been “clever,” although she was also always “disobedient.” The women around her have poignant observations on what it means to be a woman in their society, but are unsure how to change it.

When Salma was removed from the outside world, relegated to a basement room with a small grate for a window, she was still desperate to learn and read. Groceries came wrapped in old newspapers, and she would dig them out of the trash so she had something to read. She was in despair over her situation, and she says the “anger was boiling inside me”–so she started writing poetry. Her poetry grew out of the intensity of the realization that her life was to “get married, have kids and die.”

Salma, a Tamil poet and politician.

She finally was forced to marry the man who had been chosen for her, and she tried to continue writing. She would keep a journal, and the journal would disappear. She would write on torn-up bits of paper and hide the paper and pens in boxes of sanitary napkins and under blouses–they would still disappear any time her husband found them. She finally discovered a place that she could hide her writing, and would smuggle it out to her mother, who would send them to a publisher.  
We are able to follow Salma’s rise to power through a window of her world, which still isn’t perfect. Her husband says that he’s accepted her gift, but he clearly harbors a great deal of anger and resentment–their relationship appears cold and distant. Salma seems exhausted and tired of fighting in many scenes, except when she has the opportunity to talk to young girls about their plans and futures. 
Salma consistently encourages girls to stay in school, and is most alive and exuberant when speaking to young women about their educations. Her heart clearly breaks as she watches other young girls get whisked out of school and into arranged marriages. She is working through her writing and through her leadership to empower and educate young women and has success in preventing child brides, but all too often, the traditional culture wins. 
One of the most poignant and difficult aspects of this film is the complexity of Salma’s family members. Her mother was both her captor and her rescuer–she took her out of school and locked her up, but also helped her get her poetry published. Salma’s husband is angry and for years destroyed her work, but he now supports her political and writing careers. It was difficult as a viewer to try and condemn her family, because each of them is portrayed as a complex human being with clear motivations. It’s incredibly powerful when, as a viewer, you are left with the heaviness of a complex reality.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of the film is hearing the next generation of men speak. Salma’s nephew doesn’t want his mother (Salma’s sister) going to the movies, and he’s critical of Salma’s choice not to wear a head scarf. He goes on and on about how burkas are women’s rights, and they should wear them for “men and society.” He doesn’t want his mother going to the cinema “for her own good,” and expresses disappointment in Salma. Salma’s sons, too, seem to disapprove of her and she says that being in the village turned them against her. 
While Salma’s successes and continued influences on women’s lives are powerful forces, the battle is not won. The film does a beautiful job showing that.

Salma still must confront resistance from her family and the next generation.

It’s also important to note that the practice of shutting girls away–literally and figuratively–upon puberty is not relegated to conservative Muslim cultures. In Salma, a young Hindu girl is shown getting married, stunned and sick-looking. In America, there is the Christian Patriarchy movement, which keeps girls in the home and away from higher education. While Salma captures the devastation of patriarchy in one little corner of the world, the ideals and practices are not confined to India by any stretch of the imagination.  
Filmmaker Kim Longinotto has spent her career highlighting the plight of oppressed women, and she does so in Salma with grace and precision. Salma doesn’t simply present the life of a Tamil poet; instead, it is a suspenseful unfolding of a complicated story without a wholly happy ending. Salma–the film and the poet–shows the great power and limitations of one woman who takes a stand against the confines of her environment. It’s a reminder of the great strides that still must be taken around the world for women’s equality. As Salma tirelessly points out, education is where it all must begin. And in a larger culture that has a history of keeping women from literacy and silencing their voices, this is an imperative step. 
Salma is a selection from Women Make Movies, an organization that “facilitates the production, promotion, distribution and exhibition of independent films and videotapes by and about women.”

Leigh Kolb is a composition, literature and journalism instructor at a community college in rural Missouri.