Begum Rokeya, <i>Sultana's Dream</i> and woman power
`But dear Sultana, how unfair it is to shut in the harmless women and let loose the men.'
`Why? It is not safe for us to come out of the zenana, as we are naturally weak.'
'Yes, it is not safe so long as there are men about the streets, nor is it so when a wild animal enters a marketplace.' ---
Sultana's Dream in Begum Rokeya Rachanabali, 3rd edition (Feb 2010), published by Bornayan.
Sultana, a woman in seclusion (purdah) in British India, had a daydream of a lady land, free from sin and harm, where virtue itself reigns. Men are kept in confinement in that cherished lady land to safeguard society from crimes like theft, murder, arson, rape, plunder, burglary and so many other evils. The 'logic' of a 'stronger' physical composition of men to dominate women is overruled in that state on the principle that 'a lion is stronger than a man, but it does not enable him to dominate the human race.' As men are confined to mordana (men's secluded area) in that lady land, society no longer needs lawyers in the courts and there is also no warfare and bloodshed. Women look to the official duties and also manage the home as, naturally, better time managers. It needs a woman only two hours to finish office chores as she is seldom a habitual smoker like men (a man smokes twelve cigarettes daily and if one cigarette needs half an hour to be burnt off, he wastes six hours every day in sheer smoking).
More or less everyone who is part of the Bangladeshi educated class will have heard of the reputed feminist utopia epitomised in Sultana's Dream by Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, the first Bengali Muslim feminist thinker, writer and activist educator. She was born in Pairaband Union of Rangpur district in 1880 to a conservative landlord family and passed away on 9 December 1932. In a relatively short span, a mere 52 years', of life, Rokeya authored around ten volumes of write-ups, including essays on feminism and other social issues, utopias, novels, poems, humour and satirical articles. Apart from writing, she established a girl's school for Muslim women and argued all her adult life, with the patriarchs of the then Muslim society, in defence of the necessity of women's education.
Although Rokeya's father was orthodox in his attitude to women, his elder brother Ibrahim Saber helped her learn Bengali when it was forbidden for even elite Muslim women to learn anything except the holy Qu'ran in Arabic. Rokeya's elder sister Karimunnessa was also an eager learner of Bengali language and literature. But this 'eagerness to learn' made her parents worried and she was given away in marriage at the age of only fourteen. Rokeya was also married off at the age of eighteen in 1898 to a man more than twice her age. He was a widower and his name was Khan Bahadur Sakhawat Hossain. He was placed in a dignified government position at Bhagalpur, Bihar province of India. Fortunately enough, Sakhawat Hossain inspired Rokeya into learning English, which she managed to do very quickly. She emerged as an authoress in 1902 for the first time. She established the 'Sakhawat Hossain Memorial Girls' School' in 1909 within five months of her husband's death. But her step-daughter and step-son-in-law tried to create confusion over the ownership of her property and hence she came to Kolkata from Bihar. In 1911, she re-started the school in her husband's name in Kolkata. Although Rokeya gave birth to two children, none of them survived more than six months. A childless Rokeya died in 1932.
The major books penned by Rokeya are Matichur- first volume (1904, it's a collection of columns in different magazines and newspapers, particularly on women's condition in the then India), Matichur- second volume (1907), Sultana's Dream (authored in English in 1908), Padmarag (novel, 1924), Oborodh Bashini (Women in Purdah, 1931) and compilations of short stories and utopias. Of them, Sultana's Dream, Padmarag, Oborodh Bashini and Gyanphol (Fruit of Knowledge, another feminist utopia) are unique for their insight, satirical observations, critiques of social taboos and freshness of perspective.
In Sultana's Dream, the protagonist Sultana visits a faraway lady land (nari rajya) in her dream. She is accompanied by a lady named Sister Sara. When Sultana walks on the streets of the lady land, she finds no man there and the female pedestrians laugh at her. As Sultana wants to know why they are laughing at her, Sara replies that Sultana looks as 'timid and shy' as a man. Later Sultana comes to know from Sara that even fifty years earlier this lady land had been just like another male dominated society. But when the last king died and his daughter came to the throne, she took huge initiatives to educate women, establish women's schools, colleges and universities and particularly endeavored to train women in scientific knowledge. At that point the position of the commander-in-chief, all cabinet posts, indeed the power structure, were controlled by men. But, when a war broke out with a neighbouring country, the warriors of the country, all male, fought with huge courage but ultimately failed to achieve victory. A woman scientist of the state then urged the queen to keep the men at home for some days and let her look into the matter. The injured and tired men easily gave up. The lady scientist defeated the enemy army with the help of technology and after that men in that lady land began to stay at home.
It is said that Rokeya's husband handed over this write-up in English to one of his senior British supervisors, the purpose being to check the language. The supervisor did not change a word and just replied, 'What a terrible revenge!' after reading it. In Gyanphol (Fruit of Knowledge), Rokeya questions conventional views regarding the Semitic myth or the common myth in Judaism-Christianty-Islam wherein Eve or the first woman is condemned to seduce Adam into eating the forbidden fruit of Eden. The two thus lose their innocence and are sent to earth by an indignant God. In Gyanphol, the writer shows that Eve was so passionate about knowing everything and so eager about taking up challenges that she influenced Adam into eating the fruit. Thus they gained knowledge, came to earth and established this great human civilization. Without the inspiration of Eve, life would not have been possible on earth. But it is the ungrateful Adam who still condemns Eve rather thanking her for this contribution.
It is in men's nature to reproach women. But, again, it is men who cannot live without women. Thus Rokeya mocks the ever impulsive nature of men. In her outstanding novel Padmarag, an extremely secular and feminist Rokeya reveals how women are oppressed in all communities and countries irrespective of their distinctive faiths and social customs. In this novel, oppressed women from Hindu-Muslim-Christian communities take shelter in a home set up by Mrs. Tarini Sen, a Brahma or a Hindu reformer. Jainab, an aristocratic and educated young Muslim woman and abandoned by her in-laws over her family's failure to arrange her dowry, comes to this home after losing her elder brother. Subsequently her husband understands his and his family's fault and comes to take her back. But Jainab answers, "If today I get back with you, our conservative grandmothers will say to other women rebelling against gender injustices, 'Look, even a rebel like Jainab has also surrendered.' I don't believe that only married life can be the ultimate success for women."
In her fiery essays, Rokeya called upon parents to educate their daughters properly so that 'they can earn their livelihoods on their own and need not depend upon men.' She even noted that 'as the Holy Scriptures are all authored by men, they have always tried to subjugate all women who have tried to raise their voices against injustices over the centuries!'
We salute this pioneer of women's freedom on her 130th anniversary of death.. The trail she blazed all those years ago is yet ours to travel on.