A Utopian Curriculum

PART THREE: SULTANA’S DREAM (1905)

By Ibtisam Ahmed

Edited by Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevedo

Illustration by Iara Silva

Welcome to the new year and welcome back to the Project Myopia Utopian Curriculum series. So far, I set up a broad overview of the discipline and the series in the first post, and then looked at the anti-colonial Afrofuturism of Black Panther in the second. In part three, I will be exploring Sultana’s Dream and how it uses satire and humour to highlight how oppressed communities can create a specific vision of liberation and utopia.

The nature of utopia as the manifestation of hopes and dreams does inevitably mean that specific visions of this ideal life will be subjective. Shaped not only by the context and the crisis to which they respond, utopian stories are also intimately connected to the personal circumstances of the people who write them. As such, it is important to both understand their impact from the perspective of the time and space they are written in, and to try and learn lessons from them for our own reality.

Sultana’s Dream is a 1905 short story written by Rokeya Shakhawat Hossain. The story follows the titular Sultana as she is transported to the science fictional Ladyland, a kingdom where traditional gender roles have been reversed. I have been fortunate to already reflect on it for Project Myopia before, with special attention paid to how its fantastical society celebrates anti-colonialism, secularism, eco-sustainability and clean technology, and public infrastructure.

However, there is one contentious element to the story that needs to be unpacked and understood. In the fictional history of Ladyland, the inability of the former all-male army and ruling class had failed to stop a colonial invasion. Women, whose focus had been on the domestic sphere and the “softer” (read as non-military) sciences, offered a solution to the problem. In exchange, they negotiated a settlement where men would be sequestered the same way that women had been in the past – a fictional “mardana” instead of the established zenana (separate veiled space for women) – while women took over public duties.

While it is left ambiguous as to the exact nature of said negotiations, it is heavily implied that the desperate situation faced by the kingdom during the battle played a huge role in the decision. In other words, there is a certain precariousness involved which means that the men might not have been willing participants in the radical change that created this new utopia. How then can Ladyland claim to be a better society? And, indeed, how can subjective utopias ever speak to the greater good?

Literary Convention and Dreaming

Before delving into the more political angle behind this tension, it is important to situate Sultana’s Dream as a piece of literature. The utopian genre is known for its playfulness and wit. Thomas More’s Utopia (1615) envisioned a world where gold was used to make chains and shackles, thus devaluing its worth and reducing greed. Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World (1666) used sentient talking animals as the dominant species in order to challenge human hierarchies. Meanwhile, William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) actively used the Houses of Parliament in London as a manure warehouse, a not-so-subtle dig at leaving the politics of the past in the rubbish heap.

None of these offers literal solutions to the real-world problems facing the writers. Cavendish’s animals are actually impossible, while More’s shackles and Morris’s Parliament are extremely implausible. A similar situation applies to Hossain. While she was a strong advocate of women’s empowerment through education and political agency, the story should not be taken as a claim that the way to achieve this was by sequestering men in real life. However, the use of this action in the story serves to highlight two key utopian functions.

First is the genre’s heavy use of satire. Satirical conventions allow writers to punch up, situating their texts as tongue-in-cheek responses to structural inequities. While they do not literally want to adopt the actions they describe, they definitely want to challenge the social dynamics that required those actions in the first place. For someone like Hossain, writing at a time of increased communal tensions due to the impending Partition of Bengal and consistent censorship under existing colonial press laws, satire and humour also provided a safety net; the ridiculous nature of the story meant no legal action could be taken for “dissent” or “insidious material” even as the critique at the heart of the story retained its power.

Secondly, and more crucially, is the idea of dreams – which is so central to the story that it is in its title. Sultana’s journey is left ambiguous, and readers are left pondering whether there is any truth to Ladyland or whether it is a complete unattainable fantasy. The point is not to offer Ladyland as an actual blueprint, however, but as an aspiration. By offering such an outrageous model, Hossain normalises the idea of radical change as a real possibility.

Scholars like Sara Ahmed and Lynne Segal have explored the radical power of utopian dreams in their works, the former in challenging racism and queerphobic patriarchy, the latter in dismantling capitalism and classism. Parna Sengupta has also touched on this aspect within the broader tradition of anti-colonial literature. All three suggest that happiness in the face of extreme structural oppression is in and of itself a revolutionary act, and that playfulness and exaggeration are key aspects of these disruptive moments of joy. Therefore, Ladyland’s very existence in the literary canon is powerful because it centres and uplifts voices from the margins – in this particular case, women fighting against both colonial conquest and Islamic patriarchy.

Response to Oppression

The other aspect to consider is the political question of justice and nation building in the story. Often, utopian societies depict a completed quest for a “good” society, with equality for all and no lasting consequences for former oppressors. Some stories remove the oppressors completely, but without any explanations as to how they do so. This is certainly more optimistic but, as Barnita Bagchi points out, its neatness ignores the transformative nature of utopian grassroots change.

Equality for all is a worthy ideal, but it can become superficial if not tempered with justice. It is made explicitly clear that Ladyland’s past was not a particularly good place for women to live in. Although the story’s brevity means it is light on details, the allusions to Hossain’s own experiences of being a woman in colonial-era Bengal are enough to infer that the zenana system was unfair and oppressive. The empowerment of women and their new access to resources is a form of redistributive justice in that it shifts the power dynamics to address the prior inequities.

The creation of the mardana is more contentious and veers more into punitive justice or even outright revenge. Again, it is important to stress that the lesson here is not to take Ladyland literally and punish oppressors (in this case, men) with a complete role reversal. However, meaningful change towards a just society must grapple with the fact that previous wrongs must be addressed in substantial ways. Bagchi’s work on colonial and post-colonial speculative feminist literature privileges the need for human rights as the model for change.

A fruitful comparison here would be to consider such demands and policies as reparations, minority quotas, and anti-discrimination protections. These ideas are not about giving vulnerable communities an unfair advantage, but about acknowledging that there needs to be a reckoning for the disadvantages, they have already faced. Furthermore, utopian politics are not static, so there is a hope that corrective measures will themselves be changed once they have achieved their purpose – perhaps an aspiration for the mardana in Ladyland’s own future.

Still Relevant

Sultana’s Dream may have been written over a century ago, but some of its concerns remain painfully relevant, including and especially in South Asia. Religious fundamentalism, settler occupations of indigenous and minority lands, entrenched misogynist violence, and ecological collapse are all present, and their interconnected nature is becoming increasingly clear. While Ladyland may be too fantastical to treat as a blueprint, its ethos of joyful change is a valuable model to aspire towards.

Key Text

Hossain, R. S. (1905), Sultana’s Dream. Indian Ladies Magazine. Available online at https://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/sultana/dream/dream.html

Works Cited

Ahmed, S. (2014), Wilful Subjects. Duke University Press.

Bagchi, B. (2020), “Speculating with human rights: two South Asian women writers and utopian mobilities”, in Mobilities, 15(1). Pp. 69-80. Available at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17450101.2019.1667100

London Science Fiction Research Community (2020), “Reading Group Report: Sultana’s Dream & The Distance From Here”, in LSFRC. Available at http://www.lsfrc.co.uk/reading-group/reading-group-report-sultanas-dream-the-distance-from-here/

Segal, L. (2018), Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy. Verso Books.

Sengupta, P. (2020), “Writing, Dreaming, and Freedom: Rokeya Hossain at the Limit of Reform in colonial Bangladesh”, in Genre & Histoire. Available at https://journals.openedition.org/genrehistoire/5051

Supplementary Reading

Bagchi, B. (2009), “Towards Ladyland: Rokeya Shakhawat Hossain and the movement for women’s education in Bengal, c.1900–c.1932”, in Paedagogica Historia, 45(6). Pp. 743-755.

Chaudhuri, M. (2016), “Ecology and Virtue in Rokeya Sakhawat Hussein, Sultana’s Dream”, in K. Smits and S. Bruce (eds.), Feminist Moments. Bloomsbury.

Hasan, M. (2013), “Commemorating Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain and Contextualising her Work in South Asian Muslim Feminism”, in Asiatic, 7(2).

Quayum, M. A., and Hasan, Md. M. (eds.) (2017), “A Feminist Foremother: Critical Essays on Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain”, in Intellectual Discourse, 25(2). Available at https://journals.iium.edu.my/intdiscourse/index.php/islam/article/view/1041

Ray, S. (2000), “Woman as Nation and a Nation of Women: Tagore’s The Home and the World and Hossain’s Sultana’s Dream”, in En-Gendering India: Woman and Nation in Colonial and Postcolonial Narratives. Duke University Press.

Ibtisam Ahmed (@Ibzor) is a Doctoral Research Student at the School of Politics and International Relations, the University of Nottingham. He is completing his thesis, titled “The Decolonial Killjoy: the British Raj as a space of political utopia” in which he challenges the notion of imperialism as a benign civilising force while highlighting the radical power of grassroots anti-colonial movements. He has co-edited and been published in multiple books, journals, and websites. He is also heavily involved with queer activism in his home country of Bangladesh and in the campaign to decriminalise homosexuality in the Commonwealth.

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