Salma, Salma, Let Down Your Hair: The window of feminism in the captive life of a young Tamil Muslim girl

Through the cobwebs formed across the rusty bars of a small window, Salma’s face is faintly visible. “This window was made to shut women off from the outside world.” She laughs. “Why’s it here? You can’t see anything.”

Renowned Tamil poet and social activist, Rajathi Rokkiah alias Salma returned to the village where she was kept locked up by her family for 25 years. After reaching puberty, young Muslim girls in Thuvarankarichi, Tamil Nadu were to remain in the confines of their homes till they were married off. Locked up in a room with one single window, Salma’s life may seem to resemble that of a modern-day Rapunzel. But the two stories are neither as similar nor as different as one might perceive. British filmmaker Kim Longinotto takes us through the titular Salma’s journey in her 2013 documentary.

Locked up in a dingy room, she fought with her sister over the only window to the outside world. But perhaps, for Salma, the turmoil on her side of the window was far more profound than anything on the other side of it.

‘Writing is an extremely political act’

Salma was locked up for nine years before she agreed to marry after her mother faked a serious illness, blackmailing her into giving up. Her anger and frustration needed an outlet, and she turned to poetry, much to the initial disapproval of her husband’s family.

Oppression breeds resistance; resistance brings freedom. Her creative prowess has its origins in the reality of her oppression and captivity. There is no denying that to say so — although an intriguing proposition — is highly reductive of her struggles. One may question as to whether in a larger sense, would freedom then curb creativity? Or is art inherently a form of resistance itself?

Salma considers her writing a revolution. Carol Hanisch’s ‘the personal is political’ (Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation, 1970) is a second-wave feminist rallying slogan meant to blur the lines between personal experiences and political structures. “Writers can rise above politics, but writing in itself is an extremely political act,” Salma tells The Hindu.

Yet constant chaos ensued between her revolution and her domestic life, as often does in many traditional systems. Where does one draw the line between the personal and the political? Subscribing to a domestic life has connotations of anti-feminism, whereas that is precisely where the complexity of Salma’s outrage lies. Considerations of family life and duties fit into Salma’s ideologies as an activist and an individual in ways much different from the conventional, linear feminist tales.

The women around Salma

An old lady relaxing on a plastic chair stares out a large window, as Salma helps her mother prepare food in the kitchen. Salma’s mother, having given birth at the age of 17, was forced to give her away, only too see her again after years. “I suppose I was too young to care,” she laughs slightly painfully. The women Salma grew up with played an extremely monumental role in shaping her feminine sensibilities, even though she challenged them later through her writing. A classic mother Gothel (from Rapunzel) complex emerges here, as one navigates Salma’s fight against a system that is oppressive to women and yet is also perpetuated by them in a domestic setting.

The traditions of their village bred a collective feeling of escapism. Her aunt recalls Salma’s constant bravery and the time Salma stuck her finger in an electrical socket. “She didn’t talk to me for ages after that. When I asked her why she’d go like this,” she said tearfully, imitating the glum look on young Salma’s face. “I couldn’t do anything, I didn’t have any money,” she said. Poverty, too, is a major enforcer of internalised misogyny across generations. “Allah has written this fate on our heads,” Salma’s mother told her, fuelling her rage.

“As she takes leave on her wedding day, her elder sister pushes her face inside the purdah and instructs her on making love,” goes one of Salma’s writings, against memories of her own forced marriage interspersed with the visuals of the wedding of her neighbour.

‘The men are coming’

During the wedding ceremony at the neighbour’s house, a large group of women are seen sitting together in the living room. Someone realises that ‘the men are coming,’ and they all disperse inside. Relationships with power dynamics borrow from existing political structures. At a Hindu wedding, a young girl looks absolutely terrified, as Salma’s words play:

“To hold some power over you, if I can

Knowing all this, my vagina opens.”

Salma would write in secrecy, in notebooks and on scraps of paper. Her husband, Malik would threaten suicide and acid attacks if she did not stop writing, and threw out whatever he could find, which Salma recalls with a disconcerting smile on her face. Salma’s poems were smuggled out of the house with her mother’s help and sent to publishers. She gradually gained acclaim for her work and exposing the oppressive village culture. After this, Malik made her stand for Village Council Leader, winning which was the major turning point in her captive life.

A sense of dependency on her oppressors — for lack of a milder word — puts some pressure on the freedom attained through this and emphasises the role of male figures in the lives of these women. Malik shows a fairly genuine change of heart as he accepts that he had underestimated Salma’s talent. Worthy to mention here is the responsibility on the shoulders of women to attain greatness to be considered deserving of basic respect, which shows in the eyes of Salma’s sister Najma as she laments that she could not be like her great sister. Her son recites the same ideals of the oppressive system they live in.

The window

Salma has continued to make valuable contributions to the world of literature and was honoured with the Mahakavi Kanhaiyyalal Sethia Award for Poetry at the 2019 Jaipur Literature Festival. She believes in the freedom of dissent and resistance, and in March 2020, she professed the same through her presence in solidarity with a sit-in at Jamia Milia Islamia University against the Citizenship Amendment Act, along with Mamta Sagar, a Kannada poet, and Anitha Thampi from Kerala. When asked if she sees hope, she tearfully said, “I want to but I don’t think so.” Her fellow artists joined her as they proclaimed unequivocally, “We are clinging on to hope, and we will.”

At the beginning of the film, she lets painted walls pass her by through the window of the car she is travelling in. Clinging to hope, she says in the background,

“If not today, then tomorrow.

If not tomorrow, then another day.

That’s how life has always seemed,

Since the dawning of memory.”

In the final scenes, she is sitting on a terrace, staring into the distance and seemingly lost in her thoughts. Her hair is let loose; flowing in the soft breeze. The same message plays once again.

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Shirin Kumar

Shirin Kumar

Media student, Xavier's, Mumbai. Published author with experience in writing, film and theatre. Interested in stories and making a difference in the world.