By Fariha Roisin
I have a Southeast Asian Muslim background. However, I am undoubtedly also a child of the West. I was surrounded by a culture far removed from that of my parents, and a generational privilege that meant that life was far different for me than it was for my mother, her mother and the many mothers before.
My parents were liberal intellectuals and they understood the complexities of identity that I might face, but, struggling with their own identities, they felt compelled to encourage some form of conservatism within me. There were always certain things that I couldn't wear (sleeveless tops and short skirts were frowned upon), certain things that I couldn't eat and drink (pork and alcohol were out of the question) and certain topics I couldn't discuss (sex). I lived within those confinements for much of my early life and never needed to go beyond those restrictions.
But as life does, life challenges, questions and craves.
This year, British documentary filmmaker Kim Longinotto showcased a beautiful and tragic film about Tamil poet Salma. The film, also entitled Salma, premiered at the Sundance film festival, where I was fortunate enough to see it. As a film critic, I have always had a very visceral connection to film, but it's very rare that something can resonate and leave me in an overwrought state of fulfillment like this film did. After it ended I was left impassioned; I wanted to know more about this exceptional woman.
The film focuses on Salma, a renowned South Indian poet who has a hunger for knowledge and desires to make her own path. She wants to do away with the old world's paradigms and institute a social understanding where women are accepted and encouraged to cultivate themselves within society.
Salma's tale is an extraordinary one to follow. At 13, she was locked away once she got her period; she was hidden and seen as a threat. So it was in a makeshift jail that Salma grew and matured, suffocated by the expectations of society and tired of the punishment she was receiving due to the nature of her sex. She constantly felt as though she had time, "but no life." Refusing to marry the man she was betrothed to, she dreamed of another existence, one beyond what she had ever seen or known. Her eagerness for life grew with every breath and she desired to learn as much as she could about the world around her.
"I would read anything," she utters in one scene. She recalls how her mother would buy vegetables that came wrapped in sheets of newspapers and how that was a source of education for her -- how it was her gateway to gain access to the outside. "I begged to finish school, but they wouldn't let me." Instead, she was groomed for marriage as that was -- and still is -- seen as the appropriate thing for women to do. When they come of age, they must marry and they must have children. Women are not educated because they are seen as subordinates. The mentality that they have nothing to offer is a chilling sentiment that is carried throughout the film.
Longinotto makes a clear statement that this attitude towards women is not a Muslim practice, but more a regional and cultural one. Footage of a young Hindu girl (who can be no more than the age of 13) at her own wedding shows her wide-eyed and frightened, tears streaming down her face as she is no doubt aware of what comes next. After the ceremony she will be married to a man and persuaded to please him, entirely. This concept is a baffling one. The fear of female sexuality is palpable in the film's very pulse, and yet after marriage, girls are expected to perform duties that they are shunned and prohibited from learning before that very moment. Young women are seen as the spawn of Original Sin, only alive, it seems, to seduce and wile men into insidious deeds. But once they are married, they are forced to live up to a sexual necessity.
This is not unique. Women are often stifled in all societies. Our sexual needs are seen as irrelevant; we are just seen as bearers of pleasure, but not recipients. Although freedom is lacking, it's more a misunderstanding of the feminine as a concept. This attitude is evident in the scene where Salma and her sister debate with Salma's nephew about the position of women in society. He is a young man, but dislikes the idea that his mother wants to go to the movies. She chimes in that she's a human with needs, that when she was younger, she was locked away and now, finally, she'd like to live. His avowal is straightforward; it's sinful for women to watch films, as they are easily persuaded. Their duty is merely to raise children and look after the husband. To him, that is what Islam asks of them and that is what Allah asks also.
Of course, none of that is actually true.
It always surprises and nauseates me when people, generally men, spout some kind of tautology about how women in Islam are deemed to be nothing more than servants to their husbands. Khadijah, Mohammed's first wife, was a businesswoman fifteen years older than he. Long before she was married to Mohammed, she was a powerful and successful entrepreneur. There are numerous and famous headstrong women in Islam, such as Aisha, another of Mohammed's wives, who was an intellectual, and her work on Mohammed is seen to be some of the most important firsthand information we have of him today.
Historically, women have always played an important role in Islamic life. Women were given divorce rights, child support rights, land rights and abortion rights long before such things were introduced in the West. However, over the years, Islam has become entirely entangled with the patriarchy that governs so many countries and it's now polluted and pluralistic in its nature and practices. It no longer represents Islam, but instead, culture.
Salma's advice to the young women that she encounters throughout the film is, "to stay in school." She encourages the mothers of such children to allow their daughters autonomy, and to push them towards expanding their mind.
I walked away from Salma with a resounding hope. It's evident that change for women is bubbling at the surface, and it is thanks to the work of extraordinary women like Salma who are consequently demanding that change. I am left with the excitement that perhaps, soon, women will be allowed to live in their own right. To live the lives that they want, unbridled by societal expectation -- and I am confident, because it seems sisters are doing it for themselves.
Fariha Roisin is a Film and cultural critic