A 115-Year-Old Feminist Utopia: A Reflection of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s “Sultana’s Dream”

Source: Relief prints by Chitra Ganesh titled Sultana’s Dream, released by Durham Press


BEGUM ROKEYA DAY SPECIAL – BOOK REVIEW


Tasnia Shahrin


During 1905, somewhere within the pages of The Indian Ladies’ Magazine, a short story written by the prominent Bengali feminist thinker Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, was published and it was titled Sultana’s Dream. This story talks about “Ladyland”, where women have created a peaceful and developed society through their inventions of flying cars, solar panels, etc. And when it comes to the men, in Ladyland, they are “In their proper places, where they ought to be… We shut our men indoors” (Rokeya 2). On a date when this prominent writer of our country took birth and her last breath at the same time, I decided to pen down my reflection on her feminist utopia that is seen as a part of the major feminist texts around the world.

While creating the setting of this story, Rokeya was decades ahead of her time in terms of technological advancements, as she critiqued the constant relationship of man and science. This story is also filled with numerous imaginations and dialogues that place it as an example of a utopia that celebrates women. Hence, in this discussion, the short story by Begum Rokeya will be seen through the lens of a feminist utopia that places women as the most superior being of a peaceful society.

As she was born into an upper-class Muslim family, Begum Rokeya was given a conservative upbringing where she grew up watching her mother strictly doing ‘purdah’. The system of Purdah refers to the act of secluding women in a particular part of household known as “Zenana”. While her brothers had received the opportunity to pursue study in well-established institutions, it was expected from Rokeya that she would too, just like her mother, carry the suffocating tradition of Purdah by sacrificing her ambitions. Such norms of the patriarchal society had led her to imagine Ladyland where she is welcomed by Sister Sara. 

Ladyland is presented to the readers as a futuristic nation founded by female scientists who crave for tranquility and skills rather than wealth and domination. The character of Sister Sara is equally significant as the setting, because we see her as a well-educated woman who possesses significant knowledge about science, politics, and history. The reason she can be considered one of Rokeya’s utopian elements is because Sister Sara was perhaps everything that she hoped for the women living in the then male-dominated society. Moreover, in the fictional Ladyland, the real-life dominating men are already overthrown by the female geniuses who led the society towards progression through their scientific-achievements.

The exclusion of females from the branch of science is often considered a reason behind the historical male-domination and women-subjugation. In her short story, Rokeya criticised such real-life conventions through the leadership of Lady Principal who has managed to make mosquito-bites and epidemics a matter of the past. Her scientific breakthrough has made difficult works like the tough and time-consuming laboratory works to be completed in only two hours each day. Rokeya also mocks the social construction of gender as when the protagonist asks what “mannish” means, she replied, “… (it) means that you are shy and timid like men” (Rokeya, 3). Apart from that, when the protagonist further inquires about the religion of Ladyland, Sister Sara explains: “Our religion is based on Love and Truth” (Rokeya, 3).

 

To conclude, by offering an alternative reality in which women are scientists and in positions of power, Sultana’s Dream portrays Rokeya’s ambitions and hopes for the women struggling in a patriarchal society. It also shows her frustration towards the long-established relationship of man with science by neglecting the brilliance of women. As Rokeya writes in her story that, “We do not covet other people’s land. We do not fight for a piece of diamond. We dive deep into the ocean of knowledge and try to find the precious gems which nature has kept in store for us” (Rokeya, 4). It can be considered that Sultana’s Dream is a brilliant piece of feminist utopia that mocks the prejudices established by men towards women, as well as creates a dream that hopes for the betterment of the subjugated women.

 


The writer is a proud Slytherin who loves binging on poetry and graphic novels in her free time. She is also a part of TDA Editorial Team.

 

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