Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain — a pioneer of women’s education who strove for a feminist utopia

Art by Priyanka Meenakshi

Where are the men?’ I asked her.
‘In their proper places, where they ought to be… We shut our men indoors.’

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s seminal science fiction short story ‘Sultana’s Dream’ depicted a feminist utopia, and was one of the first fictional works in India to do so. However, it never really received the fame and recognition that the work of later feminist authors did.

Born in 1880 to a zamindar family in Pairabondh (now Bangladesh), Hossain lived a caged life under the watchful eye of her parents. She grew up in an orthodox environment that only allowed English lessons for the men of the family and reserved Arabic lessons for women so that they could read the Quran.

It was through her husband and brother that Hossain eventually found freedom from these patriarchal shackles. Seeing her sister Karimunnesa, who often wrote poetry, getting married off at the age of 15 solidified Hossain’s faith in education and individual rights for women.

And from this belief emerged ‘Sultana’s Dream’ where Hossain traverses an alternate world where reality has been flipped and women rule the world while men remain indoors. It is a story that takes place in a dream sequence of Sultana — an upper class woman much like Hossain herself.

On her 140th birth anniversary and 88th death anniversary on 9 December, ThePrint looks at the feminist rebel Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain
Science, power and patriarchy

Through Sultana, Hossain presents her critique of not just society and the minimal role of women, but also the intertwined relationship between science, patriarchy and power.

In “Ladyland” — the alternate world that Sultana travels to — there is peace and prosperity as the society enjoys the inventions of “solar ovens, flying cars, and cloud condensers, which offer abundant clean water”.

Historically, any development in science or technology has been a consequence of the need for a powerful military. “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,” wrote Bangladeshi scholar Mahmudul Hasan in his essay on Hossain.

The dominance of men and the absence of women in this field is responsible for this trend, and this is exactly what Hossain turns on its head.

In Ladyland’s search for “knowledge and peace rather than wealth and power”, Hossain explored the transactional nature of the relationship between science and power and how living in a male dominated society played into this dynamic.

At least 50 years ahead of scholars like British sociologist Hilary Rose, American philosopher of feminist and postcolonial theory Sandra Harding, and American professor of feminist studies at University of California Donna Haraway, who highlighted why women were shunned from the sciences, Hossain is yet to get due recognition for her contribution

Hossain’s feminist utopian vision

By flipping gender roles, Sultana’s Dream offers a reality where women reign supreme and men are repressed. And it is through this reversal that Hossain argued for equality.

“Though Sultana’s Dream posited an extreme example, Begum Rokeya knew what she was doing, pointing out the inherent absurdities of this subversion within the story to argue a case for equality,” wrote columnist Gautham Shenoy in FactorDaily.

One of the first and finest examples of feminist science fiction from India, Hossain’s visionary utopian fantasy and the ‘awakening’ of women in it — a terminology she strictly subscribed to — primarily focused on the desperate need for educating women.

For Hossain, that was the only route that could convert Sultana’s Dream into a version of a reality that’s more acceptable, one where equality persists.

Despite being written over a century ago, her criticism of patriarchy in science has unfortunately stood the test of time.

The loss of lives and livelihood due to coronavirus may be the biggest news of the year, but women in science and the progress they have made have become collateral damage. Even now, women struggle with gender discrimination in the field of science.

According to a letter by 35 female scientists, the pandemic made visible the inherent sexism in the sciences.

“Highly visible articles in The New York Times and other media outlets about the scientists involved in the response are biased towards men, even though there are plenty of qualified women on the front lines of the Covid-19 response that could easily be identified by checking author lists and scientific websites,” they wrote


School for women’s education

Through Sultana’s Dream, Hossain fought for the freedom and emancipation of Bengali women when the purdah system was flourishing. A pioneer of her time, Hossain’s belief in education and a world where women could enjoy freedom did not remain exclusive to Sultana’s Dream.

After losing her husband early into the marriage and two children at infancy, she shifted her focus towards her fight for education. With the money her husband left behind, Hossain set up a school in Bhagalpur — Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ High School — for the education of girls in 1909.

The school was subsequently shifted to Kolkata and an effort that started out with just five students is today one of the best schools in the city, run by the state government.

Hossain also launched the Anjuman-e-Khawateen-e-Islam (Islamic Women’s Association) with an aim to provide “financial and educational support to downtrodden Muslim women, over and above raising public opinion regarding the issue of Muslim women’s rights”.

The pioneer of women’s rights at a time when the country was not ready for that level of discourse, Hossain wrote extensively and unabatedly about social prejudices in Matichur, what the purdah system did to her community’s women in Abarodhbasini, education and her progressive ideology about equality in Padmarag and much more.

She breathed her last on 9 December 1932 and it is believed that till 8 December, she was working on an unfinished article ‘Narir Odhikar’ (women’s rights).

In the 52 years of her life, where she was born and raised behind the purdah, she made sure to shine above and beyond it — figuratively and literally.

Originally published in the Print

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