On February 22, 2021, The British Library hosted "Sultana's Dream: Contemporary Fiction of Bangladeshi Origin", a free virtual session on Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain's feminist utopian novella. Part of The British Library's ongoing exhibition, "Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women's Rights", the event was moderated by novelist and anthropologist Tahmima Anam, who drew British-Bangladeshi author Monica Ali, Bangladeshi writer-filmmaker Leesa Gazi, and British-Bangladeshi performance poet Nasima Bee into a lively discussion on Begum Rokeya's legacy, on women's experiences in the domestic and public spheres, and the politics of writing as authors of colour.
"The women of her generation were confined to the zenana—the women's quarters of their homes, and it was against this confinement that she raged her entire life. But she raged with wit, passion, and compassion, and nowhere is this more evident than in her work, Sultana's Dream", Tahmima Anam said of Begum Rokeya, whose most prominent legacies remain this novella and the Sakhawat Memorial School which she founded in 1909, the first formal institution for Muslim women's education in Bengal.
First published in The Indian Ladies' Magazine, Sultana's Dream (1905) paints a portrait of Ladyland, a place where men are confined to their homes and women rule the society—a society boasting flying cars, solar ovens, and clean water for its inhabitants. Leesa Gazi, the only writer on the panel having grown up in Bangladesh, spoke about the impact this story has had on generations of women readers, who could relate to Begum Rokeya's experiences and draw courage from the utopian world she painted. The science fiction elements were ahead of its time, but what inspired these women more, Gazi stresses, was the idea that their minds are powerful.
"We still see it—men are threatened to see a woman with a pen or a book. There have been advances in education, but that's only for a handful of women. We can relate to [Rokeya's] anger. We own her anger", Gazi said, highlighting why the novella still endures.
The panellists' relationship with such an iconic literary classic from Bengal drew attention to how well—or otherwise—advances in Bengali literature, culture, and politics are incorporated into global discourse. Feeding primarily on the Western canon with a sprinkling of Naipul, Narayan, and Tagore (in translation), Monica Ali shared that she did not have access to Bengali literature while growing up. "I now feel a bit sorry for my younger self. I didn't have such models in front of me", she said of contemporary Bangladeshi authors like Tahmima Anam, Nadeem Zaman, and Shahnaz Ahsan who are writing for a global audience.
Despite their work, authors of mixed or South Asian origin are expected to fit into a mould and write only about "their own culture" or are asked, in the case of Monica Ali, if they are trying to "escape" a reality when they write about other cultures; all of this while also having the quality of their work judged because of Western publishers' initiatives highlighting Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) writers.
"To me that's an existential question [that] feels like a kind of obliteration [...] I was naïve to think that I could have the same privilege as a white male writer who is allowed to write about anything and is credited with great imagination for doing so," Ali said.
When Manchester-based Nasima Bee read out a passage from Sultana's Dream accompanied by a musical score by Aliya Hussain, she spoke of coming from a household where the practice of Islamic ethos is strong. This, she shared, allowed her a clear knowledge of her rights as a woman from a young age. Encountering Begum Rokeya's text revealed to her that feminism "has always exist[ed] in Bangladesh".
And yet, as Tahmima Anam points out, it was against the religious stronghold on her household and community that Begum Rokeya had to protest, to experience freedom. "What I find great about her work is that she wrote about it without attacking the religion or the culture. She talked simply about rights and access to education. Somehow, because of the accessibility of her work, the humour, the warmth, she almost turned them into national policy", Anam said.
The Bengal Trilogy with which Tahmima Anam debuted had female protagonists and women-dominated narratives across all three novels; the men, particularly in A Golden Age (2007) and The Good Muslim (2011), have a much harder time remaining clear sighted about their personal ethos. Both Nasima Bee, who likes to "say one thing and sway from what [she's] actually saying", and Monica Ali relish in feminist parables that are more about the fun of storytelling than they are about promoting an agenda. Leesa Gazi's film Rising Silence (2019) sought to break the taboos around the sexual violence perpetrated against women during Bangladesh's Liberation War, and her novel Rourab (2010), translated as Hellfire (Westland Publications, 2020) by Shabnam Nadiya explores how patriarchy reigns in a household where there are no men.
As the conversation revealed, half of the panel at this event had not grown up reading Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain's fiction or knowing about her graceful activism for the lives of South Asian women. However, the discussion session teased out traces of Begum Rokeya's feminist fiction in the works of all four writers.
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