Human Rights Watch Film Festival: Salma

In the second of the DiA Blog’s series of reviews from the Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2013, Louisa Jones reflects on Salma, the story of a Muslim Tamil woman in India who is marginalised for striving for success.


Salma becomes a role model for women in her community. Photo: mckaysavage/ Creative Commons

Salma becomes a role model for women in her community. Photo: mckaysavage/ Creative Commons

From a young age, we are taught to make sense of our world through facts, figures and trends. British schoolchildren will forever remember the haunting mantra, “point, quote, explanation”, encouraging fastidious analysis of fact over feeling. It was therefore with an initial sense of unease that I watched the UK premiere of Kim Longinotto’s Salma at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London last Thursday. This unassuming documentary tells the bittersweet story of thirty-something-year-old Salma, a fearless Tamil Muslim who has escaped her community’s harsh customs of female seclusion, yet despite her success as a poet and politician, continues to face daily prejudice from her closest relatives.

Any other director might have packaged this absorbing plot into an audience-friendly format – a sensationalist exposé of human rights abuse, perhaps, or an uplifting gloss on the Biblical tale of David and Goliath. By contrast, director Kim Longinotto is known for her observational filming style. She passes no judgements, works no angle, only captures events as they happen. Point, quote, explanation is thrown to the dogs.

At times, the camera’s blindness to injustice had me boiling up in anger, such as when Salma recollects matter-of-factly her husband’s threat to pour acid on her unless she ceased her writing, or when her teenage nephew admonishes her for refusing her “right” to wear the burkha. Yet no matter how unsettling, it is only through these unadulterated portraits that the viewer can begin to understand the complex web of “knots and ties” (as one of Salma’s verses put it) that conspire to keep women down in her society.

Salma’s village practises the most extreme form of purdah. From the first drop of menstrual blood, every Muslim girl is incarcerated in a dingy room with only a face-sized window through which to experience the world. For years they fester, forced out of school, seeing no one, biding their time until marriage, when the punishment begins anew.

Shunning almost all reference to events and opinions beyond the domestic threshold, Longinotto’s claustrophobic cinematography reveals with painful clarity how the prison within which these women live is just as much psychological as physical. Salma writes:

If not today, then tomorrow. If not tomorrow, then another day. That’s how life has always seemed. Since the dawning of memory.

On camera, most women despaired of their existence: Salma’s sister confides that she has “wasted my life”; her niece tries to starve herself to delay puberty; her 17-year-old neighbour, finally giving in to her parents’ entreaties of marriage after three years, looks petrified.  But if things continue as they have for generations, all will end up inflicting the same fate on their own daughters. Why? Because no matter how much they detest purdah, it is – quite literally – the only thing they know. And because “the village” – a monstrous unseen entity with an unquenchable will to power – decrees it.

Perversely, 25 years after her mother locked her away, the same woman became Salma’s saviour, smuggling her poems out of her in-laws’ house and travelling all the way to Chennai – under the pretext of attending a wedding – to deliver them to a publisher. “People here think that girls shouldn’t do anything”, she confided, sharing a knowing smile with Salma. “But I wanted her to succeed.” And succeed she did. Her poetry aside, whose frank beauty has caused a sensation across the subcontinent, she now acts as an inspiring yet subtle role model for young girls in her community.

Considering my own strong reactions to her story, what was most humbling – and puzzling – about Salma was her total lack of anger at her situation. While middle-class India lashes out in fury at gender inequality, demanding new legislation and civil reform, I can’t help thinking that the real sociocultural breakthroughs in this vast country may eventually be driven by people like Salma, who do not condemn, but strive to persuade and enlighten and to challenge from the inside the prejudice that shapes their past, present and future.

After watching Salma, it occurs to me that the concept of human rights is a mixed blessing to social development. Without a doubt, there are acts of abuse so abhorrent that they are impossible to tolerate in the name of ‘culture’. However, the inference of objectivity bound up in this term tends to encourage unqualified demonisation, even hatred, of the transgressors rather than a desire to comprehend the underlying causes of their ‘crimes’. Surely such an attitude is likely to create more animosity than respect for universal values. If – as chief executive of the RSA, Matthew Taylor, suggests – the key to 21st-century enlightenment is not ‘education’ but ‘empathy’, I look forward to more documentaries as reflective and un-self consciously honest as Salma, if anything to remind us that, when it comes to development, facts and figures don’t have all the answers.

To find out more about the Human Rights Watch Film Festival please click here.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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One comment
  1. Pingback: Unveiling female realities in south India: An interview with Tamil poet, Rajathi Salma | The DiA Blog

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