In one of her poems American feminist poet Maya Angelou says-
“I’m a woman
Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, the firebrand Bengali feminist of her kind is such a phenomenal woman and a woman phenomenally. Her Sultana’s Dream is a groundbreaking achievement in championing the rightful cause of women. A brilliant polemic against what Pakistani feminist writer Mahvesh Murad calls the “overcoat of patriarchy and colonialism”, this short story inverses the traditional role of male and female in society, and thereby exposes the grim reality of the patriarchal society inside out. Through satirical style and sci-fi genre, Begum Rokeya debunks the “myths perpetuated by parochial patriarchal systems of the time” (Murad), and offers an optimistic picture of women’s potentials in intellectual spheres and leadership role. Apart from these aspects, Sultana’s Dream advocates female education and the study of science and technology, criticizes war and colonialism, promotes environmental thinking, champions women empowerment, and emphasizes moral virtues in making a peaceful society.
Sultana’s Dream satirizes the patriarchal system which always exerts its tentacles over women, coercing them to conform to values set up in line with male hegemony. American feminist writer and activist Gloria Anzaldua rightly observes, “The culture expects women to show greater acceptance of, and commitment to, the value system than men” (Borderlands/La Frontera, P.39). More or less, the value system favors men over women. The Bengali society, in this case the Muslim Bengali society in Rokeya’s time, is no exception. Hence is Muslim women’s strict maintenance of the purdah code, remaining inside the zenana mahal, and denial of education – all under the existing value system and tradition. Contrary to the practical social reality, Begum Rokeya puts men in women’s shoes and pushes them into the places conventionally preserved for women, thus taking what her husband Sakhawat Hossain famously terms a “splendid revenge”. This provocative reversal of role presented in a casual and sarcastic manner in the story is meant to give men an account of their behavior toward and treatment of women, in general. Besides criticizing patriarchal hegemony, Begum Rokeya criticizes nonsense behavior of men in terms of engagement in unnecessary warfare, bad habits like smoking, whiling away of time, speaking more but working less, and many more unacceptable activities. She boldly dismisses pseudo-scientific statement that women have weaker and smaller brain, and also discards men’s relatively more physical strength as anything worthwhile, by drawing animal metaphors in both the cases. She is also vociferous against early marriage of girls. In fact, Begum Rokeya challenges the conventional value system and tradition in order to initiate a better society for women, through her satirical presentation of role reversal of the sexes.
Another important aspect of Sultana’s Dream is that it underscores the need of education for women to empower them. Rokeya expects that women should study science and technology and get themselves involved in intellectual activities for the greater development of society. For example, in the story we come to see that female students of one university invented a device to collect water from cloud. They also developed a system to supply water, where or when necessary. In a healthy competitive zeal students from another university devised a mechanism and invented a machine to accumulate solar heat for multiple purposes. Women of the Ladyland utilize the scientific discoveries and inventions for further development of society. They can take shower drawing water from “artificial fountains”. They can keep warm or cool maneuvering temperature by using scientific means. They use solar heat in cooking. They also once safeguarded their country from foreign invaders by using solar technology. The common mode of transportation is air-car that helps them avoid road crashes and casualties. The roads are used for free movement. The bottom-line is Begum Rokeya dreams for a society where education, science and technology will culminate and women will be a substantial part of the process. Indian writer and critic Barnita Bagchi,in this connection, concisely remarks that “the driving force behind the utopian feminist country of [the] Ladyland is women’s education”. In short, education plays a big part in Rokeya’s mission of female awakening.
Sultana’s Dream is very bold in its anti-war and anti-colonialism stance. By denigrating men always ready to engage in sanguinary warfare and takeover of foreign lands, Rokeya delineates her anti-war position and anti-colonial commitment. It is really very bold of a woman from the then British India to make direct allusions to the plundering of the “Koh-i-Noor” and the “Peacock Throne”, which was actually perpetrated by the British colonial masters. Moreover, the driving away of the foreign invaders without bloodshed and the burning down of their arsenals are a fine example of anti-war suggestion on the part of the writer. In short, war and colonialism receive a strong disapproval of Begum Rokeya.
Environmental thinking is a key part of Rokeya’s utopian society and it gets an entry into the story of Sultana’s Dream. The whole country/city of the Ladyland is a green zone with no chimney or coal or other pollutants to contaminate it. Kitchens are lodged in vegetable gardens. Flower plants and shrubs are used to erect attics, arbors and for decorative purposes. Going green is a part of their aesthetics. Solar heat rather than wood fuels is used in cooking. The whole country itself becomes a big garden. To sum up, the story shows that Begum Rokeya is a progressive environmental thinker.
Human virtues receive a high status in Sultana’s Dream betraying its writer’s moral preference. The religion of the Ladyland is based on “Love and Truth”. Relations are viewed to be sacred and treated in that manner. Crimes are discouraged. Liars and criminals are driven out of their country. Political takeover of foreign land or plundering of a gem pricier thousand-fold than “Koh-i-Noor” is an impossibility. In fact, virtues are highlighted in the utopian scheme of Rokeya as manifested in this story.
Women empowerment and female leadership are very important issues in Sultana’s Dream. It must be noted that a global campaign was going in demanding universal suffrage for women toward the beginning of the twentieth century. Rokeya shows how female leadership can bring about peace and stability in the country. The Queen of the Ladyland is ant-war leader who promotes peace and amity instead of having colonial or imperial ambition. Women being natural managers of household affairs can better manage the statecrafts. This is the very female factor that transforms the country of Ladyland into a big garden. In brief, women empowerment is very important in all out social and national development.
However, Sultana’s Dream is vulnerable to misinterpretation due to its apparently anti-male stance. But it is hardly so. Rather, it means to strike the collective conscience of all men to be aware of their treatment of women and its ramifications. The country of the Ladyland becomes the “city where men are mended” (The Stones), to use Sylvia Plath’s phrase in a poem. The story also purports to explore potentials of women if they are given chances and opportunities. The intent of apparent bashing of men by Rokeya can be nicely explained through these lines from a Sylvia Plath poem: “Love is bone and sinew of my curse. / The vase, reconstructed, houses / The elusive rose /”. If the society goes through reconstruction, it will become as beautiful as a rose. Rokeya’s cursing of men can be appreciated as another way of expressing love to them. In sooth, Sultana’s Dream implies collective well-being of humanity regardless of sexes.
Begum Rokeya has always been an inspirational and iconic figure across the sub-continent as a crusader for female education. Her utopian view of a healthy and welcoming society for women in general and Bengali Mulsim women in particular, as adumbrated in Sultana’s Dream has a link with practical reality. That women’s recuperation and emancipation can ensure holistic development of society, is a very realistic standpoint. In fact, Sultana’s Dream serves as a fictional manifesto for female awakening project undertaken by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain.
- Angelou, Maya. Phenomenal Woman, Poem Hunter. The link is:
- Ibid, Still I rise, ibid. The link is: ibid
- Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera, 3rd edition, Aunt Lute Books, USA
- Barnita, Bagchi, Introduction to Sultana’s Dream , Modern Classics, Penguin Books
- Murad, Mahvesh, Under the Radar: Sultana’s Dream. The link is:
- Plath, Sylvia, The Stones, Selected Poems, faber and faber, London.Boston
Liton Chakraborty Mithun studies English (MA, Lit) at the University of Dhaka. The article first appears in Mahasweta, Volume-4.