Sultana's Dream: Still a distant Utopia?
BEGUM Rokeya, a social reformer, prolific writer and pioneer of feminist movement in the sub-continental India, wrote Sultana's Dream in English to impress her husband. It was first published in a Madras-based magazine called Indian Ladies Magazine, and is considered "a classic of feminist Utopian fiction."
She was born in 1888 into a prominent traditional zamindar Muslim family in the village of Pariabondh, Rangpur. She fought for the advancement of women when Muslim women in the sub-continent had to remain in purdah. At that time, the life of a Muslim woman was very restricted and repressed.
Begum Rokeya's parents were progressive minded for their time. It was her eldest brother, Ibrahim, who saw her love for learning and helped her to begin her education in both English and Bangla. At the time, the preferred languages for the upper-class Muslims were Arabic and Farsi.
Begum Rokeya was married at the age of 16 to an Urdu speaking magistrate. It was a love match, which was not a common thing during that period. Her husband Sayed Shakhwat Hossain also supported her quest for education. He encouraged her to write about women's issues that were not talked about. Begum Rokeya, from early on, realised that to be emancipated a woman had to be educated. So she began her life's work.
She was a lone voice fighting for the freedom and intellectual advancement of Muslim women in India. She wrote: "We constitute half of the society. If we remain backward can the society move forward? If somebody's legs are bound up how far can she walk? Indeed, the interest of women and men are not different. Their goal of life and ours are the same."
With those powerful words Begum Rokeya set the tone for feminist movement. Because of her thinking, women are now seeking equal rights and helping in the development of our nation.
In Sultana's Dream she creates a futuristic ideal world, a "feminist utopia," where women are out of the segregated zenana (purdah). They run everything and men are secluded in quarters called mardana. The paradox used here is: "If you lock up someone for their protection from yourself, shouldn't you be the one who's locked up?"
When Sultana's Dream was published in 1905, the biographical note in the edition said that her husband's reaction after reading the story was: "A splendid revenge."
She wrote: "What we want is neither alms nor gift of favour. It is our inborn right. Our claim is not more than Islam gave women 1,300 years ago." She broke all barriers, and struggled throughout her life for a better society for women who had no voice. She led the way to empowering and enlightening women.
Begum Rokeya founded the Sakhawat Memorial Girls' School in Calcutta when Muslim girls did not go to school. She went from door to door to convince parents of the need of education for a Muslim girl. At first, only five families were persuaded and the number of students was only 5.
With her realisation that in order to be independent women need to be educated first -- she led this one woman campaign against tradition, prejudice, laws of the land, and a whole lot more. When a woman becomes educated, she does not depend on the fathers, brothers or the husbands.
Over and over she had to send this message out. Her writings were mainly based on that premise. In order to gain economic freedom she also encouraged women to revive craft industries. In that sense she also paved the way for small-scale industries for women.
Begum Rokeya's writings demonstrated a confident woman with talent and knowledge.
It has been more than one hundred years since the publication of Sultana's Dream, yet the prospect of education for a girl in rural Bangladesh is a distant dream. With all the books that are written about gender and development, the fact remains that rural girls are still uneducated.
Throughout history cultural barriers and stigma have excluded women from receiving education or earning equal pay to men. This may be viewed as "a weapon to keep the girls in a relegated state so that it is possible to establish a male-dominated society and women are consigned to domestic work only."
To transform a society from centuries-old barriers takes time. In the case of Bangladesh, it is taking too much time. In recent years school enrollment of rural girls has improved, but they are forced to drop out as soon as a marriage proposal comes along. They have to enter into an early marriage.
According to a recent Unicef report, almost 50% of the rural girls are married by age 15, and 60% become mothers by age 19. When that happens, a woman cannot become a productive member of a society. Without education they cannot generate any income and become a liability in most households. Even though our religion is very clear on women's position, they are often discriminated against.
Many years after Begum Rokeya's fight for oppressed women, other conscientious women in Bangladesh emerged to take up the cause. The pioneers of human rights in Bangladesh, like late Salma Sobhan along with Dr. Hamida Hossain and Advocate Sultana Kamal (to name a few), made a lot of changes to enhance the lives of oppressed women. They are working tirelessly to improve the conditions and ensuring that equal rights for women are recognised in our society.
One hundred years after Sultana's Dream, it is way past time to make an accurate analysis of whether we as a nation have achieved what Begum Rokeya set forth for our women. Our present government has taken some of the measures that Begum Rokeya urged us to take for women empowerment.
Our current government under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina, along with other female ministers, should embrace more aggressive policies regarding compulsory education for girls, gender equality, and equal pay, which will bring in a big return in enhancing social and economic development in our impoverished land. Only then can our women be truly free.