Sultana's Dream is a 1905 feminist utopian story written by Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain, a Muslim feminist, writer and social reformer from Bengal. It was published in the same year in Madras based English periodical The Indian Ladies Magazine. The word sultana here means a female sultan, a Muslim ruler.
It depicts a feminist utopia (called Ladyland) in which women run everything and men are secluded, in a mirror-image of the traditional practice of purdah. The women are aided by science fiction-esque "electrical" technology which enables laborless farming and flying cars; the women scientists have discovered how to trap solar power and control the weather. This results in "a sort of gender-based Planet of the Apes where the roles are reversed and the men are locked away in a technologically advanced future."
There, traditional stereotypes such as “Men have bigger brains” and women are "naturally weak" are countered with logic such as "an elephant also has a bigger and heavier brain" and “a lion is stronger than a man” and yet neither of them dominates men. In Ladyland crime is eliminated, since men were considered responsible for all of it. The workday is only two hours long, since men used to waste six hours of each day in smoking. The religion is one of love and truth. Purity is held above all, such that the list of "sacred relations" (mahram) is widely extended.
Sultana lays lounging in an easy chair in her bedroom contemplating the condition of women in India. Suddenly, she realizes that a woman is standing in front of her. She identifies the women as her friend, Sister Sara. Sister Sara invites Sultana to take a walk with her to see her garden.
Sultana agrees and the two women begin walking. Eventually, Sultana starts to realize that there is something strange about her surroundings. Firstly, the woman that she had identified as Sister Sara now appears as a stranger. Additionally, Sultana notices that there are no men walking the streets. When Sultana expresses hesitancy about walking around unveiled, her guide states that she will not see a man here and that this world is "free from sin and harm." The woman introduces Sultana to 'Ladyland,' a world where men are kept away from the public sphere and women rule the society. Ladyland turns out to be a considerably more advanced society compared to India.
Sultana and her guide compare Indian womanhood to womanhood in Ladyland:
"As a matter of fact, in your country this very thing is done! Men, who do or at least are capable of doing no end of mischief, are let loose and the innocent women, shut up in the zenana! How can you trust those untrained men out of doors?"
"We have no hand or voice in the management of our social affairs. In India man is lord and master, he has taken to himself all powers and privileges and shut up the women in the zenana."
"Why do you allow yourselves to be shut up?"
"Because it cannot be helped as they are stronger than women."
"A lion is stronger than a man, but it does not enable him to dominate the human race. You have neglected the duty you owe to yourselves and you have lost your natural rights by shutting your eyes to your own interests."
The guide tells Sultana that women used to be kept in purdah in the country. However, one day refugees from a neighboring country took shelter in her town in order to escape punishment for committing a political offense. The king of this neighboring country requested that the refugees be sent back; however, the request was denied by the queen who refused, on principle, to turn out refugees. In response to this, the king declared war on the guide's country. The queen's military attempted to fight back, but the enemy was too strong and the neighboring country's army was able to invade the guide's country and reach quite close to the capital city. Since the men were all away from the city fighting, a group of women met at the palace to decide what needed to be done to save their home. When some women suggested that women were too weak to fight the enemy the Queen responded:
"If you cannot save your country for lack of physical strength," said the Queen, "try to do so by brain power."
After a moment of silence, the principal of a university, who had previously discovered how to collect unlimited sun-heat, remarked that she had an idea that she would like to try. Were this not to succeed, the principal stated, there would be nothing left to do, but commit suicide. The queen agrees to try her plan, but the principal insists that before the plan be enacted, the men must enter the zenana. The queen agrees to this and calls the men to enter the zenanas "for the sake of honour and liberty." The male soldiers readily agree to this request without much protest, as they were very defeated and wounded after the war and remained convinced that there was no hope for the future of the nation.
The principal, along with her students, reach the battlefield and direct rays of concentrated heat and light towards the enemy. Unable to deal with the intense heat and light, the enemy retreats. Since that event, there had been no other attempted invasions of Ladyland.
When Sultana asks whether the men had ever tried to come out of the zenana, her guide admits that some had wanted to be free. However, the queen had sent them word that they should remain in the zenana until their services were required. Overtime the men became used to the system and it was renamed "mardana" instead of "zenana." Women came to rule the country and it became known as 'Ladyland.' When Sultana continues to express disbelief at how the women of 'Ladyland' are able to manage without men, her guide details the on goings of her society. For instance, there is no more crime or sin so a criminal system is no longer required. Even the manual labor of the country is done by means of electricity. There is also never a shortage of rainwater because a "water balloon" was set up to draw as much water as needed. Religion in 'Ladyland' is based on Love and Truth. Transportation in the country is facilitated through fast-moving air-cars. Sultana requests her guide to take her to the country's queen. When Sultana meets the queen they have a short conversation about Ladyland:
In the course of the conversation I had with her, the Queen told me that she had no objection to permitting her subjects to trade with other countries. 'But,' she continued, 'no trade was possible with countries where the women were kept in the zenanas and so unable to come and trade with us. Men, we find, are rather of lower morals and so we do not like dealing with them. We do not covet other people's land, we do not fight for a piece of diamond though it may be a thousand-fold brighter than the Koh-i-Noor, nor do we grudge a ruler his Peacock Throne. We dive deep into the ocean of knowledge and try to find out the precious gems, which nature has kept in store for us. We enjoy nature's gifts as much as we can.'
Sultana then visits some more of Ladylands places of interest and returns to the air-car. The car's motion jolts Sultana out of her dream and she finds herself back in her bedroom.
Origin of the story
According to Hussain, she wrote "Sultana's Dream" as a way to pass the time while her husband, Khan Bahadur Syed Sakhawat Hossain, a deputy magistrate, was away on a tour. Her husband was an appreciative audience and encouraged Hussain to read and write in English. Thus, writing "Sultana's Dream" in English was a way of demonstrating her proficiency in the language to her husband. Sakhawat was very impressed by the story and encouraged Hussain to submit the piece to The Indian Ladies Magazine, which published the story for the first time in 1905. The story was later published in book form in 1908.
- Indian English literature
- Social reformers of India
- The Begum's Fortune, an 1879 utopian science fiction novel by Jules Verne
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- Rafia Zakaria. "The manless world of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain". Dawn. Retrieved 1 June 2015.
- Nesrine Malik (30 July 2009). "What happened to Arab science fiction?". The Guardian. Retrieved 30 January 2010.
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