Edited by Karl Egerton
Art by Priyanka Meenakshi https://www.priyankameenakshi.com/
Utopianism has been a part of Western academia since the work of Lyman Tower Sargent in the 1970s. Taking its etymological roots from Thomas More’s Utopia, it is an interdisciplinary subject that explores human hopes and imagination in radical ways. It aims to build a better tomorrow by criticising the past and the present. It has a broad emancipatory potential which draws in a wide range of scholarship. As an avowed utopianist, I am proud to have my work counted in this field. Yet utopianism is often lacking in racial and cultural diversity. This is a major failing in a field that is supposed to be about challenging oppressive norms.
One of the reasons for this is because of the sources in the canon. Although modern works include writers of colour such as Octavia Butler, there is an assumption that classical utopian literature is almost exclusively white and male. Yet this leaves out a diverse range of texts that imagine the scope of human hope in intersectional ways. An author whose work I feel challenges this white Eurocentrism is Rokeya Shakhawat Hossain. Known in Bangladesh as Begum Rokeya, her life is taught extensively in middle school but is surprisingly absent in later education. Having first studied her biography in History when I was in my early teens, I rediscovered her work in the course of researching my thesis.
Active during the rule of the British Empire in what was then undivided Bengal, she was a writer, educationalist, Islamic reformer, feminist, social activist, and pioneer of women’s rights. She firmly believed that education was a powerful tool in tackling colonialism, classism, religious extremism and the patriarchy. As such, she dedicated much of her life to espousing the virtues of equal education for women.
Two of her most important works are Sultana’s Dream and Padmarag, utopian texts that explore the impact education and social activism can have in the fight for women’s empowerment. Both works are now available as a single volume, with the former having originally been written in English and the latter via a translation by scholar Barnita Bagchi.
Sultana’s Dream is a short science fiction story from 1905. It takes place in an alternate reality as the protagonist, Sultana, gets the opportunity to visit the fictional Ladyland. In this technologically advanced nation, gender roles have been reversed due to the effects of foreign conquest. Women, who used science instead of military might, now rule while men are confined to the “mardana” – a masculine version of the zenana (a separate veiled space for women in Muslim households). Hossain’s intent is multifaceted. On one hand, she critiques the patriarchal nature of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Muslim Bengali society, particularly its enforced seclusion of women. She is simultaneously critical of colonialism and its aggressive expansion. Hossain makes note of how the success of Ladyland is also tied to its rejection of Abrahamic faiths like Islam (critique of Bengal) and Christianity (critique of Britain) in favour of a faith based on morality: “Our religion is based on Love and Truth. It is our religious duty to love one another and be absolutely truthful.” (12)
The story acknowledges material security, but not by means of capitalist gain. Instead, the fictional Ladyland focuses on the nurturing of scientific progress and a balance with nature. The diet consists entirely of fruit, while only renewable resources like solar energy, wind power and hydroelectricity – all speculative concepts at the time – are used for work. Trade with other nations is allowed but only if they do not subjugate women or seek colonial expansion: “No trade was possible with countries where the women were kept in the zenanas and so unable to come and meet with us […] 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.” (14)
Sultana’s Dream is well ahead of its time. It was written a decade before Charlotte Perkins Gilman published Herland, often cited as the first modern piece of feminist speculative fiction. Yet its approach is more grounded; Herland creates a society that is only inhabited by women, completely isolated from the rest of the world and with a fantastical form of motherhood, while Ladyland is based on reversing gendered norms in more believable ways. This makes it a powerful piece of writing because, while its science is purely fictional, its social change is genuinely achievable.
It is that grounded approach that makes Padmarag (which translates to Essence of the Lotus and is the moniker of one of the characters), a novella written in 1924, equally impactful. Unlike Sultana’s Dream, it does not make speculative leaps in its science. Nonetheless, it is a radical text aimed at reforming women’s education. Set in a women’s boarding house and girl’s school in Bengal named Tharini Bhavan (Tharini’s House), the story follows its all-female staff. The institution is revolutionary in its secular approach to education, aimed at providing equal opportunities for local girls regardless of class, religion or caste. It was written at a time when girls’ education in Bengal was mostly restricted to domestic vocations or specific religious branches. While those who were well off could afford to provide private education to their daughters, the average Bengali woman did not receive the same academic opportunities as the men.
Hossain had been among the privileged few, receiving linguistic tutoring from her family. But she was fully aware of her circumstances and knew that improving education for women regardless of their financial means would be a radical step towards equality. Padmarag, written in the language of the masses (Bengali) instead of the colonisers (English) was therefore far more critical of classist obstacles in academia than her previous works. A detailed description of the workings of the school in Chapter Nineteen, “Holding Court in School”, points out how many parents pressured their daughters with high expectations without paying due consideration to their individual circumstances; Tharini Bhavan wanted to cater its curriculum to individual students based on their situations at home, defying parents who wanted their daughters to “speak fancy” (137).
Like Sultana’s Dream, Padmarag is highly critical of the impact of colonialism as well. It calls out the restrictive roles that British women had in the administration – officers’ wives or chaste missionaries – which reinforced patriarchal restrictions on femininity in Bengal because of the association of British life with superiority. Thus within the fiction, both parents and the British authorities criticise Tharini Bhavan for going against the grain too much instead of letting their pupils gain a “respectful English education” (151) or become “civilised as Bengal had” (161). But, by clearly positioning the staff of Tharini Bhavan as the protagonists and focusing on a story of feminist redemption, Hossain proudly calls out colonial respectability around gender.
Begum Rokeya, to pay her the appropriate respect of a Bangladeshi, is lionised in the country for being a feminist icon. Yet the most radical aspects of her work are still ignored and rarely taught in higher education. The global clout of modern Eurocentric education – meaning the system and the voices heard in the curriculum and not the language of the medium – leaves out many anti-colonial narratives from the recognition they deserve. This is not only a valid criticism of utopianism but also of education in South Asia, which is mostly aimed at creating a workforce to compete in the modern capitalist marketplace.
In both Sultana’s Dream and Padmarag, Hossain encourages an academic tradition that is based on feminist and anti-colonial politics that goes against classism and sectarianism. They are works that need to be studied in the utopian canon because they represent the fundamental tenets of the subject in every word. But they need to be taken even further. Education as a form of radical liberation and not a perpetuation of the existing system should be at the heart of all forms of academia.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland. Penguin Classics. 2010, originally 1915.
Hossain, Rokeya Shakhawat. Sultana’s Dream and Padmarag. Penguin Classics. Collected and published 2005, originally 1905 and 1924 respectively.
More, Thomas. Utopia. Verso Books. 2016, originally 1516.
About the author
Ibtisam Ahmed completed a BA in History and Politics from the University of Nottingham in 2013 and an MA in Public Policy from the University of Warwick in 2014. He is currently working on his PhD at the University of Nottingham School of Politics and IR, with a thesis that looks at the flawed attempt at utopia in the British Raj.