Review: Sultana’s Dream

Jessica Syed interrogates feminism in the Global South, as elucidated in Sultana’s Dream

Artwork by Tanushri-Radha Saha

On its face, Sultana’s Dream sounds like a book about raisins. Lo and behold, it is actually a 1905 science-fiction novella of sixteen pages, depicting a futuristic feminist utopia. The author of the novella, Muslim feminist Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain christens this utopia as ‘Ladyland.’ The piece embraces a range of progressive ideas, enshrined in Hossain’s delicate, yet assured prose. We follow the protagonist Sultana, who dreams lucidly about her encounters in Ladyland, a space exclusively occupied by women.

Hossain’s vision for Ladyland is not confined to feminist ideals – in Sultana’s Dream, solar power exists abundantly. Sultana expresses awe upon being told that women pursue education in science, which led them to the observation that heat can be converted into solar energy. We can commend Hossain for being so environmentally conscious in her blueprint of Ladyland. But more interesting is her subtle dig that focusing on military prowess hinders actual scientific progress. She takes this a step further by declaring militarism a male preoccupation, a comment which perhaps hints at a link between toxic masculinity and militarism. Living in Bengal under British rule, Hossain’s observation isn’t all too unfounded. Not only was she writing as a woman in a patriarchal society, but in a climate where she was also viewed as racially inferior. Similarly, Hossain subtly discusses colonialism in a tongue and cheek manner. When Sultana speaks to the Queen of Ladyland, she finds that the State staunchly refuses to engage in the “covet of other people’s land.”

Some would argue that the existence of the monarchy, and presumably a class hierarchy, stymies a genuine feminist utopia.

But we can’t be too unfair or ahistorical in critiquing Sultana’s Dream, as its publication preceded the emergence of class-based revolutions within the Indian subcontinent by four decades.

Nor can we be overly critical of Hossain herself. Histories of feminism are told in a crystallised narrative of the first, second and third waves. As a cultural norm, first-wave feminism is almost exclusively associated with the West – whether it be British suffragettes jumping in front of horses for universal suffrage or American feminists establishing laws granting them property rights. These women are lauded for being at the forefront of the feminist movement- its “mothers”, so to speak. First-wave feminism has been commonly defined as a period of activity and thought which occurred during the 19th and early 20th century throughout the Western world, focusing on legal issues such as gaining the right to vote.

Yet, such a narrow framing is problematic for several reasons. Firstly, it completely undermines, or worse erases, the valuable contributions made by feminists within the Global South, or what white liberal feminists today still term “the orient.” Indeed, Hossain openly wrote about a world which functioned soundly without men – a framework highly radical for its time. Secondly, Sultana’s Dream is even more impressive when noting that Hossain wrote it while under the rule of a masculine, racist European colonial administration.

But this novella was hardly her only feat. Hossain’s broad legacy includes establishing the first Muslim girls’ school in Kolkata and founding the Bengal Women’s Education Conference.

She faced bitter hostility from conservatives throughout her entire career, but nonetheless, persisted with her activism.

We need to interrogate the normative view that firstwave feminism began in the West. Moreover, it was not restricted to the fight for suffrage and acquisition of property. Hossain and other women of colour were expressing equally important concerns.

The fact that the contributions of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain are undervalued in Western imaginaries of feminist history, and exist only in the consciousness of Desi people, is an unsurprising yet disheartening reminder of the rigid bounds of white feminism. While Hossain’s British counterparts may have lacked the context to critique the same issues she did, intersectional feminists of today should deeply appreciate the nuances of her anti-militaristic, anti-imperialist and ecofeminist outlook

This article appeared in the autonomous ACAR edition, ACAR Honi 2018.