Bengal – “Sultana’s Dream”

Throughout history, women have learned that the higher they climbed the social ladder, the more their freedoms were going to be curtailed. Single ladies weren’t allowed to go anywhere without a chaperon until they got married. They then got to play hostess and run the household, effectively confining them to the home. If they were Hindus or Muslims, this confinement took the form of Purdah, a practice that dictated they spend their entire lives behind a curtain.

Purdah is a religious and social practice that requires women to seclude themselves from men – both through physical segregation and by wearing clothes that cover the entire body. In the early 1900s this practice was a fairly widespread practice among middle-class and upper-class Bengali and Indian women. These women would spend their entire adult lives sequestered in the Zenana, the part of the house that was designated as the women’s quarters. When they left, they would travel in closed palanquins with the curtains drawn and wear full-body Burkas. All their needs were handled by their husbands, male family members, and female servants. Proper ladies did not criticize Purdah, unless they were Rokheya Sakhawat Hossein, a Muslim feminist who dared to dream differently.

Men Were Naturally Born to Cook and Clean

“Oh, I see my mistake, you cannot know our customs, as you were never here before. We shut our men indoors.”

“Sultana’s Dream” was published in 1905, in the English periodical, the Indian Ladies’ Magazine. It is one of the earliest self-conscious feminist utopian stories. Rokeya wrote the story when she was twenty-five, while her husband, a deputy magistrate, was away on a business trip. She wrote the story to demonstrate her proficiency in English to her non-Bengali husband, who liked to encourage her to read and write in English. When he returned, he promptly devoured the story, and after he finished, remarked that it was “a terrible revenge”.

The story is a first person satirical narrative. While lounging in her bedroom, Rokeya dozes off and dreams she is visited by an old companion, Sister Sara who invites her to visit her garden in Ladyland, a country where women roam the streets and the shy and timid men are confined to their proper place, the zenana. The situation makes perfect sense when you think about it. Women are the ones who are usually threatened by men. Therefore it makes sense to confine them.

The situation was brought about because the queen of Ladyland invested in women’s education. When the country was threatened by a war that the men could not handle they agreed to confine themselves out of shame and for the sake of Purdah. Meanwhile the women invented devices that harnessed the power of the sun to destroy the invaders, and since they proved themselves so capable they took over the running of the country while the men learned how to cook and clean.

Ladyland is a fascinating country. In addition to harnessing the power of the sun, the locals can pump water directly from the clouds, control the weather, and they travel by aircraft. The religion is based on love and truth. Those who lie are not punished but merely asked to leave, and repentance is always an option. Honestly? It sounds amazing, except I have no desire to be confined to the house.

There are Other Feminist Utopias

“‘Even their brains are bigger and heavier than women’s. Are they not?’
‘Yes, but what of that? An elephant also has got a bigger and heavier brain than a man has. Yet man can enchain elephants and employ them, according to his own wishes.’”

I enjoyed the satire in the short story, but I didn’t identify with  its message. At the same time, I understood where it was coming from. Rokeya was also the author of The Secluded Ones, a collection of forty-seven real-world examples of how Purdah was being applied in North India. Examples include: a woman who refused to exit her burning house because the courtyard was full of strange men fighting the fire; a woman who was run over by a train because her maid refused to allow the male porters to help her climb out of the tracks; a female Hindu doctor was fetched to deal with a toothache, only to later discover that it was actually childbirth – toothaches were less embarrassing. So yes, I wholeheartedly understood where Rokeya was coming from.

At the same time, I couldn’t help but compare “Sultana’s Dream” to Herland, another feminist Utopia that written a decade later in the United States by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Herland is a full fledged novel, which I had already read and reviewed a few years ago. In this novel, the utopia is a hidden land of women with no men. When the tiny country is discovered by a group of three male travellers, the visitors are captured and then educated in the superior ways of a land populated only by sisters and mothers. However, the goal is to ultimately reunite Herland with the outside, once it’s willing to accept women on an equal footing. Here gender roles are not reversed. They’re abolished, a message I am more than ready to get behind.

Take a Stand

The Omer today is bravery in bravery, and one that is especially fitting for today’s story. Rokeya demonstrated bravery twice with “Sultana’s Dream”. First, she wrote the story in English, which was not her native language. Second, she wrote about a subject that she knew was going to be unpopular – with both men and women. It wasn’t just men who championed Purdah. Muslim and Hindu women genuinely felt that it was their place to seclude themselves from men, and that Rokeya, as an insider, was drawing negative attention to the community by openly coming out against the practice. It took a lot of courage to paint a different picture, and ultimately these efforts bore fruit.

Today, the practice of Purdah still exists throughout the Muslim and Hindu world, but it is applied and interpreted very differently. While women are still veiled to one degree or another, in most places women are no longer confined to their physical houses, and there is increasing participation in the political and economic spheres. In addition, in some places Purdah is viewed as a symbol of empowerment not oppression as women assert their rights to exercise their rights while wearing a Burka. It takes a lot of bravery to take a stand, and whether you’re removing a headcovering or putting one on, at the end of the day you need to remember the choice is no one else’s, but yours.


About the Author

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880-1932) was a Bengali Muslim writer and feminist activist who founded the first Muslim girls’ school in Calcutta in 1911.

Sultana’s Dream and Selections from The Secluded Ones

Author: Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

Publisher: The Feminist Press

Published: 1988

Pages: 90

Format reviewed: Digital