By Laxmi Murthy
19 June 2017
On the first feminist science fiction in the Subcontinent.
(This is a review from our July 2015 print quarterly, ‘Disaster Politics’. See more from the issue here.)
One night in October 2014, only women were seen loitering along the downtown boulevards of Bogota. They drank away the wee hours in bars that offered special ‘women-only’ cocktails and filled all the seats at special open-air concerts, making the capital of Colombia seem like a city exclusively for women. Brainchild of Antanas Mockus, the wacky former mayor of Bogota, this unusual experiment was intended to highlight women’s secondary status in society – their deep fear of assault, restricted mobility and lack of leisure time. When Mockus, a mathematician at the Colombian National University and a political novice, successfully won the mayoral post, he led many interesting social experiments to tackle endemic crime and lawlessness in the capital city. The most notable of these was the ‘Night Without Men’ on 9 March 2001. In what seems like a direct vindication of this strategy, the crime rate was significantly lower in Bogota on that day. Thirteen years later, the 2014 ‘Night for Women’ represents a more exuberant claim by women on public spaces, rather than simply keeping the men out. Although the curfew was ‘voluntary’, most men welcomed the experience of a self-imposed night curfew, something that women are usually subject to on a daily basis.
Visions of women-only spaces are not new. While American writer Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s immensely popular Herland (1915) has been widely lauded as the ‘first’ feminist science fiction, written closer home, Sultana’s Dream by Begum Rokheya Sakhawat Hossain, in fact, predates Gilman by a full decade. An exquisitely illustrated reprint of this classic piece of feminist fiction was republished by Chennai-based publishing house Tara books in 2005, exactly a century after its original publication in The Indian Ladies Magazine of Madras in 1905. The new (2014) version has the added delight of stunning illustrations by the Gond artist Durga Bai Vyam. A reprint of the book in 2014 is testimony to the timeless appeal of Hossain’s feminist utopia, and what adds value is what the book cover calls “a fascinating dialogue across time and cultures” between a tribal woman artist from Madhya Pradesh and a book written a century ago in Bengal.
Imagining the ‘promised land’
First used by Sir Thomas More in his eponymous novel, Utopia – derived from the Greek outopos (a non-existent place) and eutopos (an ideal place) – is a philosophical and intensely political portrayal of a fictional ‘model’ society. Published in Latin in 1516 and in English in 1551, the two-volume work depicts a society without private property, an emphasis on community living, tolerance of animism and multiple religions, and the right to divorce. All of this was in sharp contrast to More’s 16th-century Europe with its rigid social structures.
More recently, in the late 19th century, novelists like Samuel Butler and Jules Verne in Erewhon and The Begum’s Millions respectively, wrote of idyllic civilisations, which incorporated scathing critiques of their own societies. The use of science for human good was a common thread, as was the danger of misuse/overuse of technology. Many of the fears of exploitation of the earth’s resources seem prescient. In Master of the World, for example, Verne seems to be filled with pessimism about alternate worlds being better than ours, painting an ominous picture of what the future might hold.
A few male writers did create optimistic imaginary worlds, like Alexander Bogdanov in his 1908 science fiction Red Star which was translated into English only as late at 1984. A Communist utopia located on Mars seemed quite the Russian dream. In the utopia of H G Wells in his Days of the Comet (1906), a unique new gas literally enfuses goodwill into the atmosphere, spreading good cheer and beauty.
Yet, at the risk of sounding essentialist, it was women writers who were truly visionary, allowing themselves to transcend ground reality and oppressive social relationships in hitherto unimaginable ways. And one of the first of these was dreamed up right here in the Subcontinent.
A new world
Sultana’s Dream tackles the most obvious of the gender restrictions, with the main protagonist ‘Sister’ Sara, literally walking Sultana through the new world, accompanied by a droll and light-hearted commentary. Sultana is at first shocked and then delighted, won over by this strange land with its velvet green lawns and exquisite flowers – so different from Calcutta and even Darjeeling, where she used to stroll in its beautiful botanical gardens. In a role reversal, the timid and shy men are veiled and kept confined “in their proper places”, but Sultana, a pardanashin woman feels awkward revealing her face in public. “You need not be afraid of coming across a man here. This is Ladyland, free from sin and harm. Virtue herself reigns here,” Sara informs her. When Sultana expresses surprise at this novel arrangement, she is told, “But dear Sultana, how unfair it is to shut in the harmless women and let loose the men.” In a scathing comment about the ‘other’ world, still relevant today, Sara says, “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?” It would seem that mayor Antonas Mockus was of the same opinion as Hossain, launching his experiment nearly 100 years later in Bogota, confining men and setting the women free. Ladyland, however, has a more drastic approach to tackling male power once and for all. In response to Sultana’s innocent question about men’s role in society, Sara retorts, “They [men] should not do anything, excuse me; they are fit for nothing. Only catch them and put them into the zenana.” Indeed, men are not to be trusted even with embroidery as “a man has not patience enough to pass thread through a needle-hole even.”
Hossain proceeds, through Sara, to demolish Sultana’s dearly held myths about relative physical strength and stamina, and by questioning the very notion of what is ‘natural’. These arguments, presented in all their simplicity, resonate even today in debates about gender segregation in sport, for example. The discussion a century later has gained more complexity with the recognition that gender and sex are not binaries, and rigid categorisation can be not only cruel, but also violative of fundamental human rights. In Ladlyland, it is merely absurd to believe that women are weak.
Of course, men did not go voluntarily into confinement. Sara relates how, through a combination of intelligence and sharply honed negotiating skills, all the men came to be rounded up, and put out of sight of women into what came to be known as the murdana, or male ghetto. And now that they were safely out of the way, crime rates had plunged, and there was no need for policemen, magistrates or any law-and-order enforcement process. The ideal world can now proceed to live and work in harmony. Without men.
One of the most revolutionary concepts Hossain introduces is the short but efficient working day. Sara works in her laboratory for two hours, and enjoys the rest of the day in embroidering teapoy cloths, or gardening. Hossain’s severe indictment of the wasteful office culture could be an accurate statement of any office even today. Sultana refuses to believe that men work seven hours as prescribed, and Sara has to inform her, “No, dear Sultana, they do not. They dawdle away their time in smoking. Some smoke two or three cheroots during the office time. They talk much about their work, but do little. Suppose one cheroot takes half and hour to burn off, and a man smokes twelve cheroots daily, then you see, he wastes six hours every day in sheer smoking.”
Research to make Ladyland even more perfect was conducted in universities headed by women immersed in scientific research in contrast to men who, before they were domesticated in the murdana, used to be busy increasing their military power. Hossain cannot resist having the women compete with men in their own game. With her own background as an educator, she bestows her teachers in the novel with immense respect and power. The section on how the Lady Principal of the female university wins the war against the invading King is more a case of mythological illogic than science fiction, but emphasises Hossain’s portrayal of educators as heroes, capable of accomplishing the impossible. Harnessing the power of the sun, the invading enemy is driven away by the scorching heat and light, focussed on them by the women (the men, of course, have been tucked out of sight for their own safety). Not a single drop of blood is shed, but a decisive victory puts the Queen firmly in the seat of power, free to pursue her ambition of converting the whole country into one grand garden.
The deployment of science and technology to ease domestic chores is beautifully depicted by Durga Bai. By using efficient solar cookers that do not emit smoke, the Ladylanders have worked out a way to have more individual freedom. But science is also put to social use by harvesting clouds in a manner that draw upon rain water without the mess of storms and sodden mud roads. Tilling fields with electricity is another way of “making nature yield as much as she can”. The fantasy of being able to tame nature for human use is taken a step further. When Sultana asks how climate is controlled, the reply is, “When the heat becomes unbearable, we sprinkle the ground with plentiful showers drawn from artificial fountains. And in cold weather we keep our room warm with sun-heat.”
But in 1905, by far the most exciting invention for a woman to be inside was the airplane. Writing just two years after the Wright brothers successfully launched their first flight, Hossain’s hydrogen ball and electricity-powered aircraft makes a strong impression. Durga Bai’s evocative illustration renders perpetual movement to the flying machine, which takes off after “she touched a knob and the blades began to whirl, moving faster and faster every moment.”
Sultana’s Dream knows no bounds when it comes to using technology to push the boundaries of human existence. Where Hossain stops short is in reimagining human relationships and new social equations. She has a scathing critique of men, more than patriarchy, pinning all social evils on them. Says the Queen of Ladyland, taking a side swipe at the colonialists plundering the wealth of India, “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.” With this contemptuous opinion of men, the Queen (in a seeming precursor to the trade sanctions of the 20th century) prohibits any trade dealing with countries where the women are kept in zenanas.
With this rather essentialist view of men, Ladyland cannot be a world with new forms of gender relations or social arrangements. Hossain’s solution appears to be to ‘do unto men as they do unto women’, that is, segregate, relegate to the domestic sphere, demean and render useless. Could such a world be a genuine and desirable utopia?
In what perhaps reflects widespread squeamishness about sexuality and reproduction in Southasia, Hossain side-steps this complex terrain, the veritable core of gender inequality. Indeed, childcare issues are under the purview of men as “gentlemen are kept in the Murdanas to mind babies”. The residents seemingly head straight for the liberal, women-headed universities. In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland – often compared to Hossain’s work – there is no hesitation in discussing sex and desire, and we see an inversion of the status quo, where men are turned into sex objects and providers of semen to produce the next generation. Like many feminist utopias, private homes are dismantled and the institution of marriage questioned. Husbands no longer hold any power whatsoever and are discarded after they successfully impregnate a Herlander. At the turn of the century, it was a breath of fresh air to imagine a complete role reversal. It was only much later that feminist fiction began to rethink the entire social order, and writing which emerged in that tumultuous era of vigorous questioning of all iniquitous social and economic institutions and relationships.
American feminist socialist and novelist, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, published in 1976, at the height of the second wave of the women’s liberation movement, embodies revolutionary thinking on sex, reproduction and child rearing. A deeply political futuristic tale, Piercy in this work also highlights mental illness, homophobia, environmental destruction, evils of the pharmaceutical industry and other social issues. But at the core, it is a vision of an alternate, more equal society. In Piercy’s vision of a just world as showcased in the imaginary Mattapoisett, the pronoun ‘per’ is used for all persons and children are brought into the world only after someone dies. Each baby is breastfed and nurtured by three adults. Piercy, like other feminists of her generation, suggests that women’s child bearing capacity is responsible for biological determinism and gender inequality. The reproductive process is thus moved outside the individual female body into a ‘brooder’. It is only the strong bonds and the compelling vision of social justice that rescues this set-up from resembling cloning factories and baby machines of the more dystopian novels, or even the unregulated embryo transfer and made-to-order-babies in the in vitro fertilisation ‘industry’ that is currently gaining ground the world over.
Utopia then must be a place where the social order itself has been rethought, and technology can only aid in this mission. The Ladyland of Sultana’s Dream is certainly one that is idyllic, where religion is humanistic, non-sectarian and does not lead to the formation of cults, or serves no potential to be discriminatory or violent to others. “Our religion is based on Love and Truth. It is our religious duty to love one another and to be absolutely truthful,” Sultana is informed. Offenders or liars are not dealt with harsh punishment but by persuading them to repent. Such a vision of crime and punishment is indeed far-sighted, carrying seeds of reformative justice that is inherently part of a progressive criminal jurisprudence. The vision of a more humane society is also reflected in Hossain’s notion of an extended kinship of ‘sacred relations’.
Begum Rokheya Sakhawat Hossain, who lived from 1880 to 1932, went on to perfect her vision of a new world in Padmarag, a Bangla novella published in 1924, almost two decades after Sultana woke up with a start from her dream. Reflecting Hossain’s own experience as headmistress of one of the first schools for Muslim girls in Bengal, she describes a female utopia in the shape of Tarini Bhavan, an educational institution where girls and women are able to flourish, staunchly rejecting marriage and domesticity. With Padmarag, Hossain vents her frustration at the denial of education to girls in the region and launches a more severe social critique of male dominated society. With utmost conviction, she makes a compelling case for women’s education being the fulcrum of social change. Her vision of a syncretic religion – the beginnings of which we see in Ladyland – are more fleshed out two decades later. Her spiritualism, derived from all the existing religions, is respectful of all faiths – perhaps an apt vision for a region fractured by religion-based conflicts. Commenting on the rich heritage that Begum Rokheya Hossain’s work represents, scholar and translator Barnita Bagchi says:
In the history of women’s emancipation and education in South Asia (a sub-continent that far too often sees the various countries in conflict, rather than cooperating to raise the shamefully low human development levels), a figure such as Rokeya is a diamond. Bangladesh celebrates her by observing Rokeya Day on December 9 each year, while India too boasts of many and growing numbers of admirers and scholars. If the Dhaka Bangla Academy publishes Rokeya’s collected works, so too do publishers in Kolkata.
Tara Book’s publication of Hossain’s dream, with illustrations that celebrate these links in black, blue and white glory, could perhaps be one small step towards developing that shared vision.
~Laxmi Murthy heads the Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange. She is also Consulting Editor with Himal Southasian.