Written in 1905 Sultana’s dream is a timeless short story written by feminist writer and reformer Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain.
It is a cutting and witty indictment of Indian society and the men who rule it. It is not only one of the earliest science fiction works in the subcontinent but it is also a beautiful satirical commentary. Written in the form of a parable it offers an alternate space for progress by critiquing 20th-century Indian society. By complete role reversal on and turning the world on its head, the author throws light on the condition of womanhood in India
Through conversations between Sultana, who represents the actual condition of women, and Sister Sarah, who represents Begum’s ideal woman, a picture of a feminist utopia called Ladyland is presented. Ladyland is an ideal world created by women for women that grow beyond man’s destructive relationship with nature and creates a space where the mind is no longer enslaved by colonialism and patriarchy.
Ladyland is hence free from hierarchical and exploitative structures and is based on a just equal and peaceful society. Hence unlike the major powers that existed during that time Ladyland is not expansionist colonizing or aggressive. No capital punishment exists there, as all human beings are seen as capable of change and progress.
Ladyland is instead enterprising and open to all. It is a revolutionary nation; a futuristic utopia founded on feminist science that seeks knowledge and peace rather than wealth and power.
Such a nation-state provides free space to explore and innovate wherein all public spaces and avenues open and accessible to all women. Hence women can and do occupy positions of power here. An important aspect here is access to higher education by women. Hence within Ladyland, there is equality of opportunity. By making science accessible to women, Sultana’s dream deconstructs the relationship between power and knowledge. This point is highlighted when it is discussed how men used science and knowledge to create weapons and downplayed women’s practical innovations as sentimental nightmares. This is a denunciation of imperialism and patriarchy’s long-standing relationship with science.
By allowing women’s access to science and by providing them a space to engage with productive forces, relationship with nature changes as well. It is now based on mutual respect – nature is no longer seen as something that should be commanded or exploited. Therefore, in the short story, futuristic technologies are talked about for example rainwater harvesting, solar energy, the use of water balloons, etc, so that development can be made sustainable and peaceful.
This allows women the space for themselves so that they can devote time to themselves and self-actualize.
It must be remembered that Begum Rokeya was writing this short story at a time when the place for women and men were clearly demarcated- women belonged to the ‘jenana’ and the men outside. Hence, women’s freedom, capabilities, and development were curtailed, shackling their future. In her later work, called “Seclusions”, she deems this practice as a ‘silent killer’, by comparing it to carbon monoxide poisoning.
In this subversive parable, women’s development has been made possible by strictly confining the men to the “mardana’’. By using this satirical device, Begum Rokeya draws attention towards the absurdity and artificiality of ‘jenana/ purdah’- a custom and separation that was the norm for women of her strata.
Begum Rokeya reverses the gender binaries and takes them to the extreme to show how gender and gender qualities are social constructions and not natural. For example in the story the word “mannish” is used to describe timidly – this points towards how in a patriarchal society a male gaze and its understanding of the world is imposed on us all. This point is further elucidated when Sister Sarah comments that men are the embodiment of Mischief and responsible for death and destruction.
Sultana’s dream highlights the oppression of women by critiquing the Indian society and imagining an alternative reality. In this ideal world, religion is based on love and truth and all relations are considered sacred. Hence the idea of ‘Sacred’ is re-invented and hierarchies are destroyed. Emotions and relations are no longer circumscribed. This gives freedom to women to come out of ‘purdah’ and enter the public space. Access to public space and work is very important for Begum Rokeya. Like Ambedkar, she talks about the importance of leisure and how necessary it is in order to contemplate, create and innovate. Hence, machinery is used to do menial jobs, and technology is used for the betterment of all. Machinery is seen as democratizing.
Women are treated as autonomous, creative individuals capable of creation and production. They are not once described in terms of their relationships.
The separation of men and women also critiques the division of public and private spheres and in turn the sexual division of labor. Work is no longer valued in terms of its monetary worth but in terms of its contribution towards sustainability and development of all. Hence there is judicious use of time and resources.
Ladyland is therefore like a ‘beautiful grand garden’ full of diversity and freedom. It is a fully automated luxury communism that follows a scientific attitude. Human beings are seen as individuals capable of change and progress having a respectful relationship with nature. Are equal and contributing citizens who live on terms that they themselves construct based on their shared interests.
Through her subversive writing, Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain points towards the unequal treatment of women and highlights the need to change. Ladyland is a feminist utopia and an overused trope in Literature and fiction today but, the very fact that this has become mainstream shows that our society needs to change. Hence, “Sultana’s Dream” sets a benchmark for modern-day India to achieve.
Saumya Singh has done Master’s in International Relations and Politics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is passionate about writing on the condition of womanhood in the subcontinent and probing international issues. She is also an avid reader, debater, and food enthusiast.