Feminist Visions of Science and Utopia in Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s ‘Sultana’s Dream’
'Where are the men?' I asked her. 'In their proper places, where they ought to be… We shut our men indoors.’
In 1905, “Sultana's Dream,” a science fiction short story of feminist utopia, appeared in the pages of The Indian Ladies' Magazine. As the first magazine in India established and edited by a woman for women, the periodical was an ideal fit for Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s “Sultana's Dream,” one of the earliest science fiction stories written by a woman. In Rokeya’s feminist utopia, women rule the world as society lives peacefully and prospers through their inventions of solar ovens, flying cars, and cloud condenser, which offer abundant, clean water to the population of “Ladyland.” And the men, who are deemed “fit for nothing,” are shut inside their homes.
Rokeya’s witty and cutting indictment of Indian society, and the men who rule it, also depicts an alternative, feminist science—one which better serves society. In her ideas, Rokeya was decades ahead of her time, critiquing not only the close relationship between science and patriarchy but also that between science and the colonial powers that controlled India at the time of her writing.
Born in 1880 into a Bengali-Muslim upper-class family, Rokeya had a conservative upbringing on a country estate in the colonial province of Bengal Presidency. Her mother, the first of her father’s four wives, strictly followed the practice of purdah, whereby women were secluded inside a separate part of the household—called the zenana. Rokeya was expected to do the same, receiving a traditional education at home along with her two sisters, while her two brothers were sent to one of Calcutta’s most prestigious colleges. Even within a well-educated family like Rokeya’s, only languages useful for reading the Quran, like Arabic, were allowed for women. Social languages were off-limits for fear that they would expose women to ideas outside the social norm. Despite this, Hossain’s brother taught her Bengali and English in secret, and soon she saw the value and power of women’s education. It was the beginning of a life devoted to the emancipation of women through Rokeya’s radical work as an author, activist, and teacher.
Sitting in an easychair, Sultana, an invented woman-equivalent of sultan, is “thinking lazily of the condition of Indian womanhood” when she falls asleep and wakes up in Ladyland. Welcomed by Sister Sara, Sultana is taken on a tour of this revolutionary nation, a futuristic utopia founded on feminist science, which seeks knowledge and peace rather than wealth and power. Well-educated in science, history, and politics, Sister Sara was perhaps everything that Hossain hoped women in her home nation would become. In her fictional Ladyland, a feminist revolution, led by the scientific achievements and political cunning of the Lady Principal of an all-women university, has already overthrown the men who ruled the nation. Before the revolution came, the Lady Principal’s scientific research had been dismissed by men as a “sentimental nightmare” for its focus on solving social problems rather than enhancing the state’s military power.
Developments in science and technology have long been allied with military and imperial power, and living in a time of British colonial occupation, Rokeya would have been keenly aware of this dangerous alliance. During the colonial period, voyaging scientists harnessed imperial expansion to grow their stores of scientific knowledge, collectively imposing European dominion over the rest of the world. The invention of clocks, telescopes, and telegraph machines were, in part, driven by the need to navigate, observe, and communicate during wartime as much as any civilian or scientific need; the legacy of the atomic bomb continues to dominate geopolitics today. Around the world, military budgets continue to surge, while many nation’s civilian science budgets stagnate.
Feminist critiques of science point to the relationship between science and power as one of the consequences of the historical male-domination of the sciences and, conversely, women’s exclusion from the discpline, both as practitioners and as overlooked subjects of inquiry. And so sociologists and philosophers of science of recent decades have sought a new science. Scholars such as Hilary Rose, Sandra Harding, and Donna Haraway elucidate androcentricity in the institutions of science by considering how it influences the questions that science asks and the research agendas that are set.
But half a century earlier, Rokeya was already beginning to explore these ideas in her writing. In Ladyland, under the leadership of the Lady Principal, mosquito bites and disease epidemics are a thing of the past. Strenuous work is the chore of electric machines; each street is a verdant garden; and laboratory work is completed in only two hours each day—fully-automated, luxury communism, anyone?
Some feminist critiques of science go further, questioning even the methodology and epistemology of science. They examine not only the problems that are chosen to be solved, but how hypotheses are formed and what counts as evidence. In the 1980s, Sandra Harding sought to establish a “successor science,” which accommodates social and political values. By understanding their influence within science—and so scrutinizing how knowledge is produced in the same way that the objects of knowledge are scrutinized—she argues that scientists can achieve a truer understanding of the world and a better science.
One example of bad science that has resulted in male-domination of the sciences is in scientific studies of women, which historically have rationalized gender stereotypes and led to patriarchal control of women’s bodies. In Primate Visions, Donna Haraway analyzes how the gaze of male and female primatologists differs in the type of observations made and the conclusions drawn— consequently leading to very different theories about the origins of nature and culture.
Rokeya too points to the social construction of gender and, with characteristic irony, dismantles the gender binary. When the protagonist, walking through the streets of Ladyland, is laughed at for appearing “mannish,” she asks what the passersby mean. “They mean that you are shy and timid like men,” Sister Sara replies.
Sociologist Hilary Rose, points to the roots of masculine science in the philosophy of Francis Bacon, who is often called “the father of empiricism.” In his 1597 Meditationes Sacrae, Bacon famously equated knowledge with power, and he later considered how understanding nature allows it to be commanded. Rather than tying knowledge, and so science, to the values of power and domination, Rose advocates the importance of a science that also embodies the value of love, which she defines as a sort of “caring respect.” In a reflection of these ideas, when the protagonist of “Sultana’s Dream” inquires about the religion of Ladyland, Sister Sara explains: “Our religion is based on Love and Truth.”
While ahead of its time, “Sultana’s Dream” is not the earliest critique of patriarchal science. In her book Love, Power and Knowledge, Rose reflects on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as an exploration of the dangers of science, “which denies women and love their part in creation.” Stories like these led the way in offering alternative realities that transcend what Rose describes as “men’s violent relationship with nature” and the possibility of freeing minds enslaved by colonialism and patriarchy. Rokeya’s writing, in this sense, is deeply subversive, allowing readers to see the structures of society for what they are. As Rose writes: “Feminist science fiction creates a privileged space—a sort of dream laboratory.”
And Rokeya’s dreams did, in part, come true. In 1909, with money bequeathed from her deceased husband, she founded the Sakhawat Memorial Girls' School, the first school in Bengal for Muslim women. And in 1916, she founded the Muslim Women’s society, which fought for women’s education and employment. Rokeya was one of the founders of the women’s rights movement in Bengal, a movement that demonstrated how women were crucial to the political advancement of the nation and its liberation from colonial powers.
By offering an alternative reality in which women are scientists, in positions of power, Rokeya’s writing is ingrained in her broader ambitions to emancipate women in Bengali society. “Sultana’s Dream” is also Rokeya’s denunciation of imperialism’s long standing relationship with science. “We do not covet other people's land. We do not fight for a piece of diamond,” Rokeya writes. “We dive deep into the ocean of knowledge and try to find the precious gems which nature has kept in store for us.”
Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, Sultana’s Dream, The Indian Ladies Magazine. 1905.
Ed. Mohammad A. Quayum and Md. Mahmudul Hasan. “A Feminist Foremother: Critical Essays on Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain.” Intellectual Discourse 25 (2) (2017).
Mahmudul Hasan, “Commemorating Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain and Contextualising her Work in South Asian Muslim Feminism,” Asiatic, Vol. 7, No. 2, December 2013 39.
Image credit: Cover of “Sultana’s Dream.” Text by Begum Rokheya Sakhawat Hossain and illustrations by Durga Bai for ‘Sultana's Dream.’ Original Edition ©️Tara Books Pvt Ltd, Chennai, India www.tarabooks.com.