The human mind is a marvellous thing. Feed it with knowledge and healthy, positive thoughts and it can help you materialise any life you want. Pollute it with prejudices and self-sabotaging negativity and it will drag you down. Tamil poet Salma’s life of rebellion, art and politics has become a testimony to this. Born Rokkiah Begum in a restrictive Muslim community in Thuvarankurichi, a village in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, she fought oppression on the grounds of faith and gender to get out of the shadows and make an identity for herself. She devoured books in secret, wrote poems while hidden in the toilet and trained her mind to dream big. Today, she is a feminist icon and a role model for scores of women who are struggling to find themselves in a suffocating patriarchal world.
A hero in her own right, Salma opens up in an interview with Soulveda about her early encounters with sexism, how she broke free and how she hopes to empower others like her.
You’ve fought oppression to become an acclaimed author and a public figure. When did you first become aware of the concept of feminism?
Well, I didn’t know the word for a long time. But I knew from my experiences that the way my gender was being treated was unfair. From a very young age, girls are taught to lower their gaze, talk softly, and not laugh too loudly. They are denied education and the right to think, talk or make decisions for themselves. They are told to remain under the thumbs of the men of the family. Watching their mothers and aunts submit to such rules without protest shows young girls that there is no way out and they end up submitting themselves.
At the age of 14, I developed the habit of reading. I extensively read Russian literature and Tamil writer Periyar’s works. It was then that I understood how my gender was being systematically oppressed.