By Rubanya Nanda
This article is a culmination of my effort to throw some light on the feminist movement in South Asia. The main reason I finally got down to writing it this month was the occasion of the International Women’s Day, wherein the myriad hues of womanhood are celebrated. Although, given the persisting oppression of women around the world, celebrating this day has become a sheer dichotomy. But it is pertinent to note that the fight against inequality is not something contemporary, but a fight that has been going on since time immemorial. Today I aim to tell the story of a prolific woman who fought the inequality against women by penning down her progressive thoughts. Through her work, she can be credited for leading an education reform for women in the South Asian region.
We have often come across the quote,
“If you educate a man, you educate an individual. If you educate a woman, you educate a nation.”
With this quote, I aim to emphasize the development of a women’s education movement in the Indian subcontinent in the pre independence era. It all started with a dream. This dream was depicted in a utopian work of fiction called Sultana’s Dream, originally published in the Indian Ladies Magazine way back in 1905. The brainchild behind this pioneering work is Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, also known as Begum Rokeya, born in the year 1880 in Rangpur (present day Bangladesh) in the then British Empire in India. She was born in a time when women were considered a pariah and were subjected to a system of Purdah. Purdah essentially referred to the practice of concealing the skin by the woman as a means of her protection, a practice which was predominantly present during the colonial period in the Indian subcontinent. Furthermore, the education scenario for Muslim women was in dire straits at that time. Thus, Begum Rokeya had to face many challenges in the pursuit of her education. In the age of Purdah, she was a woman who “dared to dream”. She got married very young to Khan Bahadur Sakhawat Hussain, the deputy magistrate of a district in Bihar, India. Fortunately, her husband was educated and liberal in his approach. He encouraged Begum Rokeya to pursue her passion for writing, and thus began the groundwork which later on took the form of Sultana’s Dream.
A feminist utopia
Sultana’s Dream starts with the protagonist, Sultana, encountering another progressive female character whom she addresses as Sara in her dreams. Sister Sara persuades Sultana to take a walk in the gardens where they vividly discuss situations wherein men are considered shy and timid. Then, it is disclosed that the setup is in a place called Ladyland which is free from sin and harm. Sultana is perturbed by the absence of men in Ladyland, and is informed by Sara that they shut their men indoors. There is a symbolic undertone to this, as women during that era were excluded from the rest of society and were confined to the inner parts of the house. Thus, the idea of men being confined to the indoors instead of women was something radical. In Ladyland, it is the women who work in the offices, and they do their duties diligently and more effectively than men.
Innovation by Women
Sultana is also made aware of technological innovations by women in Ladyland, such as solar heating techniques and a method for extracting water directly from the atmosphere. This part of the story is remarkable, because it talks about the development of science and reforms which were brought about by the active participation of women. The queen of Ladyland is a progressive lady who advocates freedom and equality for women. She propounds the principles of Science. This aspect of the story can also be related to contemporary times as there is still a shortage of women in the field of STEM education. Not only does the story of Ladyland bring up women’s education, it also talks about women holding positions of power, suggesting that men are overpowered not by the power of might but by the power of brains. While the men of Ladyland are busy increasing their military power, the women are engaging themselves in scientific research. For example, the story describes a battle wherein only women fighters are involved, harnessing the rays of the sun to be concentrated towards the enemy. In short, Sultana’s Dream tells a story of political, technological and societal reforms and all of them were brought forward by women. It even describes the mechanisms of a flying car which is driven by women!
A century later
Sultana’s Dream still holds relevance today. For example, Begum Rokeya described women driving flying cars during a time when women were not even allowed to step outside their homes. Women in Saudi Arabia gained the right to drive cars only last year. Thus, Sultana’s Dream had a strong element of iconoclasm which is replicated even in the modern era. Avoiding bloodshed during times of political crises is another vivid part of the story, which can be related to the current need for world peace especially in the context of ongoing civil wars. The queen in the story supports efforts to dive into the ocean of knowledge and to enjoy the gifts of nature. The story ends on a note of hope and prospect for a better society.
Apart from the aforementioned story, Begum Rokeya also wrote Pipasa, Padmarag and Narir Adhikar which also dealt with the emancipation of women. Her efforts towards women’s liberation transcended caste, religion and stereotypes, a kind of liberation which was very much the need of the hour. She established the Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ school during a time when women were not even allowed to venture outdoors. This school is still functioning today.
In conclusion, I would like to emphasise that Begum Rokeya was one amongst many women who fought for the equal rights of women. This fight for equality still continues today, and we all need to be aware of it. The efforts of individuals who strive for equal rights need to be respected, encouraged and acknowledged. After all, there can be no developed and happy society without gender equality.
Rubanya Nanda is currently pursuing her Master of Laws in Investment Treaty Arbitration at Uppsala University, Sweden. She has been born and brought up in India. She has published several articles concerning maternity benefits, international arbitration and gender justice in journals of national repute. She is a staunch supporter of the intersectional feminist movement, and aims to contribute towards this movement through the power of pen. Apart from academics, she enjoys reading fiction, trying out new cuisines and travelling.
Cover photo by Merle Ecker.