Salma is an incredible woman who demonstrates that change is possible, even in the most deeply sad and seemingly unchangeable circumstances.

Salma grew up in the staunchly conservative rural village of Thuvarankurichi in India, where her life fell victim to archaic traditions and superstitious beliefs that have dictated the lives of women and girls like her for thousands of years. An exceptionally bright girl, Salma was taken out of school and imprisoned in her home from puberty along with the other Tamil Muslim girls in her village. She then went on the spend her entire teenage years in solitude, spending every moment inside so the sun wouldn’t darken her features and writing poetry to relieve her sadness, until the day she would be married. On moving in with her husband’s family, her life only became more restricted as she mournfully settled into a life of domestic servitude. The only aspect of her life that was not controlled was her mind, and she basked in this small freedom in secrecy and often at night when she would write poetry. With support from her mother, Salma was able to get her poems out to be published. Her work served to support her female readers, all restricted and alone, all in seemingly impossible circumstances like her own.

After 25 years of servitude and isolation, Salma’s husband allowed her to take her place in the outside world. Salma grasped freedom with both hands, successfully running for chairperson of the town Panchayat and then the Chairperson of the Tamil Nadu Social Welfare Board.

Within her political positions, Salma has worked to change harmful gender stereotypes and ensure a more equal and fair future for girls. Although she has seen some cultural change, it has come slowly and only in some pockets of Indian culture. She believes change is possible, and that it must first start in the home:

“Gender discrimination is the problem. They only think of women as the body, not the mind. This thinking comes from a long time back. I want it to change. If this thinking changes, the situation will improve drastically. The problem exists in society but also in the family home.”

Along with the need for individuals to look inward and question their own beliefs, for Salma, educating all girls is crucial for society to move forward:

“The kind of rights the husband has, the wife doesn’t have. Change needs to start from the family. Then it goes through education system and the political system.”

A representative democracy, with women’s full participation, means that women’s and girls’ needs are more likely to be prioritised. However, the struggle for women to run for leadership positions is real:

“As a woman in India it’s not easy for us to get into politics. The process is very difficult because culturally we are not supposed to even go out of our home. And even if we get the chance to run for politics, we have to work harder than men to get the same recognition and to convince voters that we are capable and have something to offer.”

Like in many other countries in the world, diversionary tactics and sexist remarks which have the effect of devaluing policies and silencing the women who make them, means that being listened to and taken seriously is only the first battle:

“When women go onto the stage, they are criticised for their dress, how they look. But when men stand up to talk, they are praised for how they speak and what their policies are.”

Although the situation is difficult for women still, Salma feels it is slowly changing for the better. “It will take some time,” she says.

Indian women are striving to break free of the domestic space and take control of their own lives. The change Salma is seeing in society and within every woman gives her hope:

“Every woman should understand their own strength. They can’t wait for someone to fight or speak for them, but find the strength within themselves. Each woman has this strength within her. If that happens then no man can take over them.”

Salma (2013) is an internationally acclaimed documentary of Salma’s life. It explores Salma’s return to her village after she has, despite all odds, become the legendary poet, activist and politician that she is.