The brilliant vision of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain
Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, before 1932. Photo: public domain
- In 1905, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, then probably between 25 and 28 years old, published the proto-science-fiction story The Sultana’s Dream.
- The narrator of The Sultana’s Dream is taken to a future city-state known as Ladyland, in a story whose aim is to reverse the course of history.
- Ladyland, with its two-hour workday, solar technology and flower-paved streets, is made possible by women scientists and leaders.
- When will we ever see what Sultana envisions: the abolition of fossil fuels, greener cities, detoxified masculinity, and the triumph of love and truth over fear and hate?
In 1905, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, then most likely between 25 and 28 years old (his exact date of birth is unknown), published the proto-science-fiction story The Sultana’s Dream in The Indian Ladies Magazine, a Madras-based English-language periodical published by and for women. While most of the contributors to this journal and similar journals published in British India were Hindus, Hossain was Muslim. Even more unusual was the Women’s Liberation Championship in its history.
As the author of the story, the narrator of The Sultana’s Dream practices purdah, by which women are sequestered in the “zenana” area of a house. Taken to a future city-state known as Ladyland, Sultana is initially hesitant to venture into the streets. Isn’t that dangerous for women? Her host, however, reassures her that she has nothing to fear…because, 30 years earlier, in a war that killed most of the country’s men, the surviving men were ordered to isolate indoors, where they have remained ever since.
Although the author reassures readers that this is all just a dream, one gets the distinct impression that Sultana’s host – a female scientist – transported her to the future with the aim of overthrowing the course of history. It was revolutionary stuff. Remarkably, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herlandone of the most influential feminist utopias of the early 20th century—a time I’ve described as the “radium age” of science fiction—wouldn’t appear for another 10 years.
Ladyland, with its two-hour workday, solar technology, and flower-paved streets, all made possible by women scientists and leaders, represents a world I, for one, would like to live in. That’s why I chose The Sultana’s Dream as the opening story in Radium Age Voicea collection of fiction that inaugurated MIT Press’s age of radium series of re-edited proto-SF stories and novels.
Corn The Sultana’s Dream is only part of Hossain’s rich legacy. Known after her death by the honorable Begum Rokeya (“begum” denotes a high-ranking Muslim woman), Hossain was born into a well-educated Muslim family in the Bengal Presidency, a subdivision of the British Empire in India now divided into Bangladesh and West Bengal. After her husband’s death in 1909, she would establish India’s first school for Muslim girls, going door to door to recruit students from reluctant families. In 1911, she would re-establish the school in Calcutta (now Kolkata). The Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ High School, now run by the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education, is still in operation today.
After overcoming one social, cultural, economic and political obstacle after another, Hossain offered in 1924 a fictionalized version of his real-life experiences in padmarag (“The Ruby” or “Essence of the Lotus”), a feminist and anti-colonialist utopian Bengali-language short story set in Tharini’s House, a female-run school, boarding house and welfare center in Bengal. The staff at Tharini’s House are made up of progressive activists who aim to provide equal opportunities for female students, regardless of ethnicity, religion, region, class or caste. Moreover, the instructors resist the colonialist dictates of their students’ parents, who only want their daughters to “speak fancy”, that is, to speak English with a posh accent.
All women, whether Hindu, Muslim or Christian, whether South Asian or European, are victims of oppression, we come to understand by following the different stories of the various characters. The best possible remedy for this sad state of affairs? A non-sectarian, inclusive and self-sufficient “arcology” – to use a term popularized more recently by SF writers – driven and directed by women.
Other Bengali writings of Hossain include the two volumes Matichur (“A String of Sweet Pearls”, 1904 and 1922), which brings together essays first published in magazines such as Saogat, Mahamadi, Nabaprabha, Mahila, Bharatmahila, Al-Eslam and Nawroz. Here she pleads – deploying logic, imagination, outrage and a sly wit, if necessary – for men and women to be treated equally, and argues that female education is an essential tool to overcome not only patriarchal social norms, but also colonialism, classism and religious extremism. Yet another work of non-fiction, Abarodh Basin (“The Confined Women”, 1931), offers Hossain’s critique of extreme forms of purdah which, according to his account, destroy women’s sense of self and rob them of their humanity.
In 1916, Hossain founded the Muslim Women’s Association, which advocated for the education and employment of women, and through which she advanced a controversial theory that progressive social reforms should be based on the “original teachings”. of Islam. In 1926, she chaired the Bengal Women’s Education Conference convened in Kolkata, which has been described as the first significant attempt to bring Indian women together in support of women’s rights to education. She remained a staunch champion for the advancement of women until her death in 1932, which occurred shortly after presiding over a session of the All India Women’s Conference.
To this day, Bangladesh observes Rokeya Day every year on December 9 to commemorate its extraordinary legacy of thought leadership and activism.
I think it is instructive to look back at the social ills that concerned Hossain, especially since we have made so little progress since then. Ladyland’s two-hour workday, for example, seems less and less possible for today’s workers, who are not only exploited by their employers, but led to believe that “agitation” is what gives meaning to life. And forget the flying cars. When will we ever see what Sultana envisions: the abolition of fossil fuel technologies, the greening of cities, the detoxification of masculinity, and the triumph of love and truth over fear and hate?
Joshua Glenn is a consultant semiotician and site editor Hi Lobrow. The first to call 1900-1935 science fiction age of radiumhe is a series editor at MIT Press proto-SF stories re-edited of this period. This article was first published by the MIT Press Reader and has been republished here with permission.