Salma: The escaped butterfly

Salma – a pseudonym – is an ordinary woman with an extraordinary life story. When she was only thirteen years old, Salma was locked up in her parents’ house in Thuvarankurichi, a small village in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. According to local Muslim tradition, girls are forbidden to leave the house from the moment they hit puberty until the day they marry.

But Salma refused to get married for 9 years. ‘I was angry. I did not want to get married, I wanted to go to school.’ During those years, the only people she saw were relatives who came to the family home. ‘I was very lonely. The only thing left to do was read.’ She did so, voraciously. Inspired, she began writing herself: poetry at first, short stories later on. ‘I wanted to express my feelings. I was so upset about the plight of women in my culture. I was crying for freedom.’

Shocking the family

Secretly, Salma got her poetry out of the house. She succeeded to get her work into the hands of a publisher, who printed some of her poems in a small magazine in Tamil Nadu. Salma was only fifteen years old. She did not use her pseudonym yet, so when the news broke, her family was shocked and the local community was angry. Salma had not just spoken out – which is not done for women according to local custom – she had also criticised the moral codes and town traditions, highlighting the injustice done to women.

Escaping her isolation

After 9 years of isolation, Salma finally agreed to get married. ‘It was the only way to escape.’ As the wedding approached, her poetry became an issue again. That’s when she agreed to start using a pseudonym. Over the years, Salma’s body of work has grown extensively. In 2000 her first collection of poems was published, titled Oru Maalaiyum Innoru Maalaiyum (An evening and another evening). In 2003 another poetry collection called Pachchai Devathai (Green Angel) followed, and in 2004 she published her first novel Irandaam Jaamangalin Kathai (Midnight Tales).

Enjoying freedom

As Salma’s star as a poet rose, her influence in society increased as well. In 2001, she was elected as the head of the village council. In 2007, she was appointed chairperson of the Tamil Nadu Social Welfare Board, set up by the Ministry of Women and Child Development to help women and children in distress. Leaving the conservative village where she grew up, Salma moved with her two sons and without her husband to Chennai, the state capital on the southeast coast.

‘I feel like an escaped butterfly here,’ Salma says today. ‘For so long I was crying for freedom, now I’m finally enjoying it. I can fly around. I can meet other women, share my experience and offer my advice.’

By Maarten van der Schaaf