From a caged teen in a basement in India to literary fame

Salma is now the most famous female poet in southern India – and the subject of a new documentary film.

Jagadeesh Nv/Reuters/File
A Muslim girl, her hands painted with henna, offers prayers on the eve of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, in the southern Indian city of Bangalore.

Salma's fate wasn’t meant to be any different to that of millions of girls in rural India: You’re born to the huge disappointment of your parents who were desperate for a boy; you're sent to school for a few years; you're married off in your teens and have children of your own. Eventually, you die. 

The prospect of such a life haunted Salma when she was a young girl growing up in an ultra-conservative Muslim village in southern India. The thought of puberty filled her with dread, for that was when young girls got locked up inside their homes, forbidden to study, play, or do any of the things children do.

This was and still is the destiny of so many girls in her community – until they get married, sometimes only to be imprisoned inside four walls again, but this time in their husband’s home.

Salma's life, however, took another turn and quite an extraordinary one. So extraordinary that it was a story that had to be told, says British director Kim Longinotto.

Ms. Longinotto turned Salma’s life story into a film that was screened at the Sundance Film Festival, at the Berlin International Film Festival, and at this year's Sheffield Doc/Fest. [Editor's note: Click here for the "Salma" film's website.]

Salma is now the most famous female poet in southern India. She is also a politician.   

After she was born, Salma’s family gave her away.

"I guess I was too young to care," her mother says in the film, recounting how her husband had told her she must give birth to a boy or she would be sterilized. 

When she was returned to her parents years later, Salma attended school until she reached puberty, when she was locked in a small room in the basement of her family home. She was 13.

In the documentary, she recalls how she and her sister would fight over who was going to sit at the tiny barred window, the only point of contact with the outside world. 

"I had no dreams anymore, no desires," Salma says in the film. "All you have is time but no life. It's crazy."

She used to write poems as a way of letting her thoughts out into a world where she couldn't go. 

When she was finally allowed outside her basement, it was to be forced into marriage as a teenager to a much older man.

In Muslim communities in southern India, so-called minority laws make it impossible for authorities to intervene and stop child marriages, Salma told Thomson Reuters Foundation in Sheffield.

"I have stopped many [child] marriages – Hindu's only," she said. "I couldn't intervene in Muslim communities' child marriages."

Salma's husband beat her up and once again she was forbidden to leave home. 

He didn't want her to write and he threw her notebooks away so Salma began to scribble her poems on tiny pieces of paper she ripped off a calendar, while hiding inside a filthy toilet.

Eventually, her mother started smuggling out her poems under piles of laundry and her father mailed them.

Despite previous disagreements and hard feelings, her mother wanted to help her. "Secretly I wanted her to write poetry," she says in the film. 

After 20 years inside her husband's house, Salma's poems were published, to the outrage of fellow villagers. She had exposed their life and their sacred traditions to the world. Her poetry candidly speaks of sex, fierce fights with her husband, and it gives a voice to women who are expected to remain silent.

"Her writing calls for social awakening in the Muslim world. Woman deserves a better treatment, she says, but says it without offending the religion and establishment," a local reporter wrote about her poetry. 

Salma now lives in Chennai – the capital of Tamil Nadu state – with her two sons. She moved there after she was elected chairperson of the Tamil Nadu Social Welfare Board.

Her husband and their sons, who were raised in a deeply Muslim conservative environment, still disapprove of her writing, of the fact that she doesn't wear a burqa, and of her fiercely egalitarian spirit that trumped culture and tradition. 

"Children, mother-in-law, father: It's all ties and knots, you can't undo them or everything will unravel," reads one of her poems. 

This article originally appeared at Thomson Reuters Foundation, a source of news, information, and connections for action. The foundation provides programs that trigger change, empower people, and offer concrete solutions.

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