Like every other woman in her village in Tamil Nadu, at the first sign of puberty Rajathi Salma was confined within the four walls of her family home. Deprived of any further education or social contacts, she began to write. After 25 years of isolation, a twist of political fate saw her elected to lead her local panchayat (village council). This was followed by four years as the head of the state’s Social Welfare Board. Today she is considered one of the most outspoken women poets in India.
Following on from our review of Kim Longinotto’s documentary, Salma, at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Blog Editor Louisa Jones talked to this inspirational woman about the challenges of talking openly in a conservative society.
Throughout your life you have been under constant pressure to do the things expected of a woman in your village. How have you found the strength to defy this?
In my early years – before thirteen – I read a lot, then I tried to write poetry. After some time I got some good friends, famous writers in Tamil Nadu. Then I had the strength: there were people behind me who would support me. I am a writer, I have to be proud about that; after that I don’t care about anything.
I also took a pen name. This is important, because now nobody knows who I really am. Before marriage I wrote under my own name. After the marriage, I faced daily problems from my husband’s family because of my writing. I was very depressed. I didn’t know what I could do, but I could not be without writing, without reading. When I was 22, I changed my name to Salma. Now I can write without any fear.
What consequences do you face for writing about women’s suppression and sexuality?
When my poems were published in the Tamil magazine Kalachuvadu my village criticised me. Some men from the male-dominated society outside the village said that I wrote ‘porno poetry’.
My novel openly spoke about women’s issues, and for this religious people also got angry with me, saying I was not a proper woman, a proper Muslim woman.
My writings never criticised religion directly. I only spoke about the system, the culture and the tradition, about how our male-dominated society is controlling of women. They don’t give any proper freedoms, rights, to them. Islam permitted something for women, but the religious people in our place won’t give us those rights. However, many people confuse the two. They say that I attack religion.
People always criticise me, but I am trying to write something about society. Really, I love my people. I want change to happen. But people do not understand my writings, my views. Everywhere I can face problems because of this.
Who in your country is supportive of your writings?
Only the high-level people – the upper-caste people or college students – are happy about my writings. I have met with university students many times. They say, you are talking openly about everything, you are doing a good job, we really get strength from you.
Sometimes other women try to write. They ask me for suggestions. I always tell them, write the truth, and only the truth. We should not lie anywhere.
In your opinion, what are the most important freedoms that Indian women should be given?
Education is most important, I think. In our country, this is a problem. After 13, 15 years old, women are getting forced into marriages in our society. They are isolated in the house. They have no common places. They do not mingle with other people. They don’t get any awareness about social things.
Compared to other countries, our education system is very poor. Education should change our views, our thoughts. But in India we are taught only to read books and write exams. That’s it, finished. Even after education, girls are still getting married with dowry. That is a criminal act. When a woman and a man get married, they are starting a new life together. Why should one give money to the other? Most women don’t think about that. That is the failure of the system.
Do you think that art has the power to change people’s views about the role of women in Indian society?
Yes, of course. Literature and art, painting: everything is trying to change society. When people read modern literature, they can try to understand women’s issues. All writers want to create change for this country. Together we can do it. We believe it.
How difficult is it for women to be artists in India?
Difficult means we are free to write, but we should very carefully write. We should not focus in on anything. When we talk openly, people get angry with us. Deepa Mehta has had many problems because of her films [Fire (1996) and Water (2005)]. It’s happening to all women writers, activists and artists.
You were the Chairperson of the Tamil Nadu Social Welfare Board from 2007-2011. What do you think was your best achievement during that time?
Personally, I helped to save the lives of many women from their family, their husbands. I also did some awareness programmes for women and children. First we need awareness about the problems faced by women or nothing will happen. After that, we can go to the law. I believe only in awareness. I don’t believe in punishment.
One more thing I tried to change. I’m really very worried about the experiences of child beggars: I can’t see how a child can go begging without education. That’s why I tried to create a programme for them, connecting all the NGOs. But after some time, my term ended. Someone else took my place, and they did not care about this project. All our politicians are corrupted. They have no idea about society; they don’t care about society.
How has your life changed since the release of Kim Longinotto’s documentary film, ‘Salma’?
Before, I was working only in Tamil Nadu. But since the film, I have been travelling a lot. I am meeting many new people and having many new experiences. My book was published by OR Books in New York. Suddenly Amnesty International has found out about me and my work. We are doing some work together: a few days ago I spoke in the Canadian Parliament, Ottawa, about forced child marriages. We also did some campaigning against the Commonwealth conference happening in Sri Lanka [CHOGM 2013, overshadowed by controversy regarding the host’s human rights record]. These kind of things happened because of the film.
Do you have a message for girls who are trying to win more freedoms in a male-dominated society?
I think women are stronger than men. We can do everything, but we don’t know it. This is the problem. Men know; that’s why they want to stop us. I write my poems about this. We should know about ourselves. Then we can fight for our rights.
Salma: Filming a Poet in her Village is available from OR Books, as a paperback (£11/$16) and ebook (£7/$10).
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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