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.
“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.”
Tell us about your personal encounters with sexism. In what ways would you say your individuality and creative energy were stifled in your early years?
After puberty, I was forbidden from leaving the house. I couldn’t go to school anymore. I was constantly advised to keep myself beautiful and presentable at all times so that people would see me as marriage material. But there were no such rules for the boys. They did what they wanted, even if it was something that was considered wrong by the society, and they got away with it. And the women in their lives often had no choice but to put up with it.
People tend to think that Muslim women are naturally submissive, that they are accepting of their oppression. But it is far from truth. They–like any other woman–have their own thoughts, dreams and desires. And they are often trapped in suffocating, dissatisfactory lives. They talk about it amongst themselves, they crib about how disappointing their marriages are and they lament over their helplessness. I remember overhearing countless such conversations. This is what I have documented in my novel Irandaam Jaamathin Kadhai (The Hour Past Midnight).
Given your experiences, do you still identify as a Muslim woman?
I am not religious, but wherever I go, I am recognised as a Muslim writer, speaker and politician. It has more to do with my background than my current beliefs. I believe in a higher power. I believe in humanity, in being humane. But religion has very little to do with it.
Tell us about your pen name ‘Salma’. How did you come up with it?
People in my village know me as Rajathi. That was the name I used when I started writing books and poetry. But once I began facing problems in my village because of the nature of my writing, I decided to write under a different name. In Khalil Gibran’s poems, he addresses his lover as Salma. I always loved that name, so I adopted it.
It’s still an Islamic name because I want people to know where my voice is coming from and what my background is. I want to document my thoughts and experiences as a woman belonging to the Muslim community.
“Free yourself mentally from the boundaries that the patriarchy has set for you. This will give you the courage to stand up for yourself and start asking questions the next time someone tries to control you.”
You’ve talked extensively about oppression of women. Would you agree that a majority of women don’t have the luxury of walking away from oppression?
A lot of things decide the fate of a woman who chooses to walk away. Is she educated? Can she support herself financially? And more importantly, does she have the strength to hold her own in the face of a disapproving society? Not many women are prepared, so not everyone can afford to walk away. I have faced it myself. At one point, when my marriage was causing me problems, I considered a divorce. I was mentally strong, but I knew my family wouldn’t support me. I wasn’t educated, nor did I have a stable source of income. So, I didn’t go through with it. It is not easy for a young woman to live by herself today. She has to prepare herself for harsh criticisms, unwanted sexual advances and many other difficulties.
What, in your opinion, is the root cause of oppression of women?
Fear. The patriarchy fears women and their immense potential. This is what is at the root of all oppression. I’ve even written a poem about this. In it, I say that it is men’s fear and not their strength that has kept women in shackles through the ages.
In the recent times, you have become something of a role model for young women. Besides your writing, in what ways do you hope to influence the way they think?
I don’t know if many people read my books. Literature may not reach every level of society. So, I take part in many public programmes. I speak in colleges and take part in debates. I appear on TV every now and then. Even if my writing doesn’t inspire them, I want young women to watch me and get out more, speak more and develop more skills.
What would you say to women who frequently have to deal with gender discrimination?
I would say, understand what gender is first. What differentiates a man from a woman? What is the discrimination based on? Once you learn that, see if you have internalised some of the biases yourself and try to overcome them. Free yourself mentally from the boundaries that the patriarchy has set for you. This will give you the courage to stand up for yourself and start asking questions the next time someone tries to control you. Educating yourself is the first step of revolution.