Finding the ‘Female Utopia’ in the short story “Sultana’s Dream”

Saloni Walia 


Abstract

The above quote expresses the thoughts of Bengali poet cum critic Mohitlal Majumdar on reading Begum Rokeya Sahkawat’s biography. She belonged to the aristocratic “zamindar” family of pre-partition Bengal (present day Bangladesh). She was one of the earliest social reformers and educationists of late 19th and early 20th centuries. She was home-schooled and continued to enrich herself post her marriage too. This essay explores the fantasy world in her short story Sultana’s Dream” (1905).  

 

Research Paper

It is curious that the racial pride (that makes the Bengali race see themselves as a unified whole) should be embodied in a woman- that the spirit, conscience and intelligence of Bengali Muslim society should have expressed themselves in a female icon…

                                   

The above quote expresses the thoughts of Bengali poet cum critic Mohitlal Majumdar on reading Begum Rokeya Sahkawat’s biography. She belonged to the aristocratic “zamindar” family of pre-partition Bengal (present day Bangladesh). She was one of the earliest social reformers and educationists of late 19th and early 20th centuries. She was home-schooled and continued to enrich herself post her marriage too. This essay explores the fantasy world in her short story Sultana’s Dream” (1905).    

Since upper strata of the society restricts more control over their women, it would not be wrong to infer that Begum Rokeya had a comparatively liberal upbringing as she had access to education, a rare exposure those days. This resonated in the Hindu society as well. The Sanskrit scholar and activist Pandita Ramabai in her work The High-Caste Hindu Woman (1887) discusses how difficult was the life of the upper caste woman in Hindu households as she bears the brunt of Brahminical patriarchy. However, for the Muslim women in general, the placement of nationalist discourse has been problematical. This has been extensively argued by Uma Chaudhari in her essay ‘Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History’ (1989). Muslim woman was viewed as the emblem of backwardness of the community as a whole as Purdah, Burqa, distance from vernacular and secular education hampered her growth. Furthermore, Purdah also added to her mystery as it veiled her potent sexuality. Uma Chaudhari discusses how Muslim women were kept out of this discourse. For that matter, the Dalit Hindu women also faced similar disadvantages as their Muslim sisters. Thus, if the Dalit Hindu woman was doubly oppressed because of her caste and gender, the ordinary Muslim woman was triply oppressed as the third dimension of religion also complicated her condition. However, Begum Rokeya did not suffer as much as her Muslim counterparts because she belonged to the gentry, not denying that she must have had her fair sharer of struggles. Thus, her elite social status not only gave her an opportunity for higher learning but also a voice which could speak out for the women of her community. Chandra Mohanty in her essay ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’ also argues that homogenizing women under a single category is not justified as issues like caste, class and community make women different from each other.

In this respect, Sahkawat’s efforts have always been to create a national identity for Bengali Muslim women. She even writes:

 

Civilization creates greater need for privacy. For instance, now the letters are put in envelopes and tables are covered with tablecloths. Earlier Britons painted their bodies but now wear clothes. But Purdah system has become a bit severe in our country. Young unmarried girls nine years of age observe full Purdah even in front of elderly women which hinders their education and is also unhealthy.

 

      She also raised her concern over the Purdahnashin women, “Is it possible to set up a separate university for us women with women examiners?” Moreover, the resentment Sakhawat bore towards society who shackled women was brought out in several of her essays in the English periodical Motichur where she “showed how remorseless she could be in exposing women’s oppression and the mechanizations of a patriarchal society that indoctrinated them into defending and justifying their own subjugation.” (“Sultana’s Dream and Padmarag: The two feminist Utopias”, pp. x). She even where she chastised women who chose to be powerless in her essay ‘The Degradation of Women’ (1904) published in another periodical Nabanoor. In a way, she is advocating what theorist Michel Foucault stated about power operating in binaries:

Just as sunlight cannot enter the bedrooms, the light of knowledge, too, cannot enter the chambers of our minds, since there are almost no schools or colleges good enough for us. (Women in Concert: An anthology of Bengali Muslim Women’s Writing 1904-1938, pp. 12)

 

Sakhawat wanted to point towards the mental enslavement of women as the patriarchal system was deeply internalized. Sakhawat further writes:

People feel education completely unnecessary for women as it’s impossible for them to take up jobs. (pp. 13)

 

As aforementioned, her concerns blended with her wish fulfillment is taken up in the utopian world of her short story where the gender roles are reversed to create Purdah system for men called Mardana. She also emphasizes over the importance of women’s literacy by imparting knowledge on subjects like Mathematics and Science. Begum Rokeah defines education in her essay ‘The Degradation of Women’: 

Education does not signify the blind imitation of any race or nation. Education is about developing the God- given knowledge or faculties through practice… where the uneducated sees only dust and mud, the scientist’s informed eye can see many pleasing and wonderful things. For instance, sand yields opal, mud yields china clay or sapphire, coal produces diamond while water solidifies into ice.

 

This is what the universities in the story do. They hone the intellectual skills of women and thereby increase their work efficiency. For instance, Ladyland develops water balloons which act like reservoir and the invention of solar heaters which are used as nuclear weapons in fighting the war declared by the neighboring country. Other technological advancements include “air conveyance” and tilling of land by electricity.

     Talking about the role of educators, Sister Sara and the Queen in the story are like

Sakhawat’s ‘genies’ who fulfill her desire in the story. They carry out several reforms like opening of schools and colleges for girls, stopping child marriages, abolish the Purdah system for women and encourage trading business initiated by women.

     Critic Abul Hussain found the story sharing similarities with the Book III (A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan) of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). According to him, extreme measure of secluding men in Ladyland was a “reaction to the prevailing oppression and vulnerability of our women… perhaps Mrs Pokeah Hussain Sakhawat wrote this to create a sense of self confidence among the very vulnerable Bengali women… that women may possess faculties and talents equivalent to or greater than men- that they are capable of developing themselves to a stage where they may attain complete mastery over nature without any help from men and create a new world of perfect beauty, great wealth and goodness… I hope the male readers would try to motivate the women of their families toward self-realization…” (Sultana’s Dream and Padmarag:The two Feminist Utopias).   

Was the female Utopia of ‘Ladyland’ a perfect answer to the bitter reality of the patriarchal world?

To begin with, the text severely attacks men as the first reference to them is as “men servants” (pp.  2). Even Sara tells Sultana, “The women say you look very mannish”, thus hinting towards the qualities of shyness and timidity are attributed to men. Furthermore, the men observe the Purdah system of Mardana to protect their ‘virtue’ and ‘honour’. However, women acknowledge their physical weakness, “We shut the men indoors… It is not safe for us to come out of the zenana as we are naturally weak.”  This shows that the inferiority of men is not in terms of their physical strength but refers to their low intellect, “Men are overpowered by brains”.

            Moreover, Sister Sara equates women to lions, “A lion is stronger than man, but it does not enable him to dominate the human race. Men have neglected the duty you owe to yourselves and you have lost your natural rights by shutting your eyes to your own interests”.  It alludes to women being used for mental slavery. Further, male militarism is also condemned by Sahkawat suggesting that physical power is not required to govern a nation.

     Sahkawat takes up the question of gender identity in the society through the dialogues of Sultana and Sister Sara. The traditional roles of “masculinity” and “femininity” are played with.

Through Sultana, the writer ridicules Indian customs. Women in Ladyland are powerful but to exercise their power, Sahkawat does not find it necessary to eliminate men or to propose anything drastic like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland (1915) in which ‘parthenogenesis’ (human conception without fertilization by a man) was the means for continuing a unisex society. In ‘Ladyland’, men are part of the society but divested of any power. They live in seclusion and look after the house and children. Women do not find men fit for any

skilled work. Here, it is important to raise a pertinent question- since when did doing domestic chores, child bearing and nurturing become an inferior activity?

Also, how is the Matriarchy as practiced in the story an alternative to Patriarchy? According to Althusser’s essay ‘The Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes towards an Investigation’ (1970), the dominant class in any society exercises its hegemony over the weaker class. If Sahkawat herself promoted gender equality, then this idea of matriarchy is contradicting her purpose because matriarchy does not seek equality as feminism. It wants female domination over the men. Therefore, this text can not be called a feminist text. A utopian society would be an equal society. ‘Female Utopia’ is a paradoxical phrase over here. Role reversal would not alone solve the problem. The issues will remain the same as now the men would be subjugated. This is what Chandra Mohanty also argues in her essay ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’ (1988). She believes that if powerless women are given power, “…then the new society would be structurally identical to the existing organization of power relations constituting itself of the simple inversion of what exists.”

            Thus, the use of the term ‘Female Utopia’ itself is found to be problematic even before referring to the story. Utopia should be a genderless idea which promotes equality in all spheres.

 

Works Cited

Akhtar, Shaheen and Bhowmik, Maushami. Women in Concert: An anthology of Bengali Muslim Women’s Writings 1904-1938. Stree, Kolkata, 1998, pp. 12-13

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes towards an Investigation” (1970).

Beauvoir, de Simone. The Second Sex (1949). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2012

Gilman, Perkins Charlotte. Herland (1915), Tutis Digital Publishing Pvt. Limited, 2008

Sahkawat, Hussain Rokeya. Sultana’s Dream and Padmarag: The two Femisnist Utopias. Penguin Group, New Delhi, 2005, pp vii-xiii

_________________________ “The Degradation of Women” (1905). Women in Concert: An Anthology of Bengali Muslim Women’s Writings1904-1938. Stree, Kolkata, 1998

________________________ “Burqa” (1904)). Women in Concert: An Anthology of Bengali Muslim Women’s Writings 1904-1938. Stree, Kolkata, 1998

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Bio Note: My name is Saloni Walia. I am a 2nd year Ph.D. Scholar (Literature) at the department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Jammu. My research interests are varied which include Gender Studies, Postcolonial Studies, Literatures of Africa, Post-Colonial Literature to name a few. I am working on Queer Studies for my Doctoral Thesis. I wish to join the world of academia as an Educator after completing my Ph.D.


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