by Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein (1880 – 1932)
(Sultana’s Dream was originally published in The Indian Ladies’ Magazine, Madras, 1905, in English. This edition is transcribed from Sultana’s dream; and Padmarag: two feminist utopias by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain; translated with an introduction by Barnita Bagchi. New Delhi (India) : Penguin, 2005.)
Source: UPenn Library
One evening I was lounging in an easy chair in my bedroom and thinking lazily of the condition of Indian womanhood. I am not sure whether I dozed off or not. But, as far as I remember, I was wide awake. I saw the moonlit sky sparkling with thousands of diamond-like stars, very distinctly.
All on a sudden a lady stood before me; how she came in, I do not know. I took her for my friend, Sister Sara.
‘Good morning,’ said Sister Sara. I smiled inwardly as I knew it was not morning, but starry night. However, I replied to her, saying, ‘How do you do?’
‘I am all right, thank you. Will you please come out and have a look at our garden?’
I looked again at the moon through the open window, and thought there was no harm in going out at that time. The men-servants outside were fast asleep just then, and I could have a pleasant walk with Sister Sara.
I used to have my walks with Sister Sara, when we were at Darjeeling. Many a time did we walk hand in hand and talk light-heartedly in the botanical gardens there. I fancied, Sister Sara had probably come to take me to some such garden and I readily accepted her offer and went out with her.
When walking I found to my surprise that it was a fine morning. The town was fully awake and the streets alive with bustling crowds. I was feeling very shy, thinking I was walking in the street in broad daylight, but there was not a single man visible.
Some of the passers-by made jokes at me. Though I could not understand their language, yet I felt sure they were joking. I asked my friend, ‘What do they say?’
‘The women say that you look very mannish.’
‘Mannish?’ said I, ‘What do they mean by that?’
‘They mean that you are shy and timid like men.’
‘Shy and timid like men?’ It was really a joke. I became very nervous, when I found that my companion was not Sister Sara, but a stranger. Oh, what a fool had I been to mistake this lady for my dear old friend, Sister Sara.
She felt my fingers tremble in her hand, as we were walking hand in hand.
‘What is the matter, dear?’ she said affectionately. ‘I feel somewhat awkward,’ I said in a rather apologizing tone, ‘as being a purdahnishin woman I am not accustomed to walking about unveiled.’
‘You need not be afraid of coming across a man here. This is Ladyland, free from sin and harm. Virtue herself reigns here.’
By and by I was enjoying the scenery. Really it was very grand. I mistook a patch of green grass for a velvet cushion. Feeling as if I were walking on a soft carpet, I looked down and found the path covered with moss and flowers.
‘How nice it is,’ said I.
‘Do you like it?’ asked Sister Sara. (I continued calling her ‘Sister Sara,’ and she kept calling me by my name).
‘Yes, very much; but I do not like to tread on the tender and sweet flowers.’
‘Never mind, dear Sultana; your treading will not harm them; they are street flowers.’
‘The whole place looks like a garden,’ said I admiringly. ‘You have arranged every plant so skillfully.’
‘Your Calcutta could become a nicer garden than this if only your countrymen wanted to make it so.’
‘They would think it useless to give so much attention to horticulture, while they have so many other things to do.’
‘They could not find a better excuse,’ said she with smile.
I became very curious to know where the men were. I met more than a hundred women while walking there, but not a single man.
‘Where are the men?’ I asked her.
‘In their proper places, where they ought to be.’
‘Pray let me know what you mean by “their proper places”.’
‘O, I see my mistake, you cannot know our customs, as you were never here before. We shut our men indoors.’
‘Just as we are kept in the zenana?’
‘How funny,’ I burst into a laugh. Sister Sara laughed too.
‘But dear Sultana, how unfair it is to shut in the harmless women and let loose the men.’
‘Why? It is not safe for us to come out of the zenana, as we are naturally weak.’
‘Yes, it is not safe so long as there are men about the streets, nor is it so when a wild animal enters a marketplace.’
‘Of course not.’
‘Suppose, some lunatics escape from the asylum and begin to do all sorts of mischief to men, horses and other creatures; in that case what will your countrymen do?’
‘They will try to capture them and put them back into their asylum.’
‘Thank you! And you do not think it wise to keep sane people inside an asylum and let loose the insane?’
‘Of course not!’ said I laughing lightly.
‘As a matter of fact, in your country this very thing is done! 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?’
‘We have no hand or voice in the management of our social affairs. In India man is lord and master, he has taken to himself all powers and privileges and shut up the women in the zenana.’
‘Why do you allow yourselves to be shut up?’
‘Because it cannot be helped as they are stronger than women.’
‘A lion is stronger than a man, but it does not enable him to dominate the human race. You have neglected the duty you owe to yourselves and you have lost your natural rights by shutting your eyes to your own interests.’
‘But my dear Sister Sara, if we do everything by ourselves, what will the men do then?’
‘They should not do anything, excuse me; they are fit for nothing. Only catch them and put them into the zenana.’
‘But would it be very easy to catch and put them inside the four walls?’ said I. ‘And even if this were done, would all their business – political and commercial – also go with them into the zenana?’
Sister Sara made no reply. She only smiled sweetly. Perhaps she thought it useless to argue with one who was no better than a frog in a well.
By this time we reached Sister Sara’s house. It was situated in a beautiful heart-shaped garden. It was a bungalow with a corrugated iron roof. It was cooler and nicer than any of our rich buildings. I cannot describe how neat and how nicely furnished and how tastefully decorated it was.
We sat side by side. She brought out of the parlour a piece of embroidery work and began putting on a fresh design.
‘Do you know knitting and needle work?’
‘Yes; we have nothing else to do in our zenana.’
‘But we do not trust our zenana members with embroidery!’ she said laughing, ‘as a man has not patience enough to pass thread through a needlehole even!’
‘Have you done all this work yourself?’ I asked her pointing to the various pieces of embroidered teapoy cloths.
‘How can you find time to do all these? You have to do the office work as well? Have you not?’
‘Yes. I do not stick to the laboratory all day long. I finish my work in two hours.’
‘In two hours! How do you manage? In our land the officers, – magistrates, for instance – work seven hours daily.’
‘I have seen some of them doing their work. Do you think they work all the seven hours?’
‘Certainly they do!’
‘ No, dear Sultana, they do not. They dawdle away their time in smoking. Some smoke two or three choroots during the office time. They talk much about their work, but do little. Suppose one choroot takes half an hour to burn off, and a man smokes twelve choroots daily; then you see, he wastes six hours every day in sheer smoking.’
We talked on various subjects, and I learned that they were not subject to any kind of epidemic disease, nor did they suffer from mosquito bites as we do. I was very much astonished to hear that in Ladyland no one died in youth except by rare accident.
‘Will you care to see our kitchen?’ she asked me.
‘With pleasure,’ said I, and we went to see it. Of course the men had been asked to clear off when I was going there. The kitchen was situated in a beautiful vegetable garden. Every creeper, every tomato plant was itself an ornament. I found no smoke, nor any chimney either in the kitchen — it was clean and bright; the windows were decorated with flower gardens. There was no sign of coal or fire.
‘How do you cook?’ I asked.
‘With solar heat,’ she said, at the same time showing me the pipe, through which passed the concentrated sunlight and heat. And she cooked something then and there to show me the process.
‘How did you manage to gather and store up the sun-heat?’ I asked her in amazement.
‘Let me tell you a little of our past history then. Thirty years ago, when our present Queen was thirteen years old, she inherited the throne. She was Queen in name only, the Prime Minister really ruling the country.
‘Our good Queen liked science very much. She circulated an order that all the women in her country should be educated. Accordingly a number of girls’ schools were founded and supported by the government. Education was spread far and wide among women. And early marriage also was stopped. No woman was to be allowed to marry before she was twenty-one. I must tell you that, before this change we had been kept in strict purdah.’
‘How the tables are turned,’ I interposed with a laugh.
‘But the seclusion is the same,’ she said. ‘In a few years we had separate universities, where no men were admitted.’
‘In the capital, where our Queen lives, there are two universities. One of these invented a wonderful balloon, to which they attached a number of pipes. By means of this captive balloon which they managed to keep afloat above the cloud-land, they could draw as much water from the atmosphere as they pleased. As the water was incessantly being drawn by the university people no cloud gathered and the ingenious Lady Principal stopped rain and storms thereby.’
‘Really! Now I understand why there is no mud here!’ said I. But I could not understand how it was possible to accumulate water in the pipes. She explained to me how it was done, but I was unable to understand her, as my scientific knowledge was very limited. However, she went on, ‘When the other university came to know of this, they became exceedingly jealous and tried to do something more extraordinary still. They invented an instrument by which they could collect as much sun-heat as they wanted. And they kept the heat stored up to be distributed among others as required.
‘While the women were engaged in scientific research, the men of this country were busy increasing their military power. When they came to know that the female universities were able to draw water from the atmosphere and collect heat from the sun, they only laughed at the members of the universities and called the whole thing “a sentimental nightmare”!’
‘Your achievements are very wonderful indeed! But tell me, how you managed to put the men of your country into the zenana. Did you entrap them first?’
‘It is not likely that they would surrender their free and open air life of their own accord and confine themselves within the four walls of the zenana! They must have been overpowered.’
‘Yes, they have been!’
‘By whom? By some lady-warriors, I suppose?’
‘No, not by arms.’
‘Yes, it cannot be so. Men’s arms are stronger than women’s. Then?’
‘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 their own wishes.’
‘Well said, but tell me please, how it all actually happened. I am dying to know it!’
‘Women’s brains are somewhat quicker than men’s. Ten years ago, when the military officers called our scientific discoveries “a sentimental nightmare,” some of the young ladies wanted to say something in reply to those remarks. But both the Lady Principals restrained them and said, they should reply not by word, but by deed, if ever they got the opportunity. And they had not long to wait for that opportunity.’
‘How marvelous!’ I heartily clapped my hands. ‘And now the proud gentlemen are dreaming sentimental dreams themselves.’
‘Soon afterwards certain persons came from a neighbouring country and took shelter in ours. They were in trouble having committed some political offense. The king who cared more for power than for good government asked our kind-hearted Queen to hand them over to his officers. She refused, as it was against her principle to turn out refugees. For this refusal the king declared war against our country.
‘Our military officers sprang to their feet at once and marched out to meet the enemy. The enemy however, was too strong for them. Our soldiers fought bravely, no doubt. But in spite of all their bravery the foreign army advanced step by step to invade our country.
‘Nearly all the men had gone out to fight; even a boy of sixteen was not left home. Most of our warriors were killed, the rest driven back and the enemy came within twenty-five miles of the capital.
‘A meeting of a number of wise ladies was held at the Queen’s palace to advise as to what should be done to save the land. Some proposed to fight like soldiers; others objected and said that women were not trained to fight with swords and guns, nor were they accustomed to fighting with any weapons. A third party regretfully remarked that they were hopelessly weak of body.
‘”If you cannot save your country for lack of physical strength,” said the Queen, “try to do so by brain power.”
‘There was a dead silence for a few minutes. Her Royal Highness said again, “I must commit suicide if the land and my honour are lost.”
‘Then the Lady Principal of the second university (who had collected sun-heat), who had been silently thinking during the consultation, remarked that they were all but lost, and there was little hope left for them. There was, however, one plan which she would like to try, and this would be her first and last efforts; if she failed in this, there would be nothing left but to commit suicide. All present solemnly vowed that they would never allow themselves to be enslaved, no matter what happened.
‘The Queen thanked them heartily, and asked the Lady Principal to try her plan. The Lady Principal rose again and said, “before we go out the men must enter the zenanas. I make this prayer for the sake of purdah.” “Yes, of course,” replied Her Royal Highness.
‘On the following day the Queen called upon all men to retire into zenanas for the sake of honour and liberty. Wounded and tired as they were, they took that order rather for a boon! They bowed low and entered the zenanas without uttering a single word of protest. They were sure that there was no hope for this country at all.
‘Then the Lady Principal with her two thousand students marched to the battle field, and arriving there directed all the rays of the concentrated sunlight and heat towards the enemy.
‘The heat and light were too much for them to bear. They all ran away panic-stricken, not knowing in their bewilderment how to counteract that scorching heat. When they fled away leaving their guns and other ammunitions of war, they were burnt down by means of the same sun-heat. Since then no one has tried to invade our country any more.’
‘And since then your countrymen never tried to come out of the zenana?’
‘Yes, they wanted to be free. Some of the police commissioners and district magistrates sent word to the Queen to the effect that the military officers certainly deserved to be imprisoned for their failure; but they never neglected their duty and therefore they should not be punished and they prayed to be restored to their respective offices.
‘Her Royal Highness sent them a circular letter intimating to them that if their services should ever be needed they would be sent for, and that in the meanwhile they should remain where they were. Now that they are accustomed to the purdah system and have ceased to grumble at their seclusion, we call the system “Mardana” instead of “zenana”.’
‘But how do you manage,’ I asked Sister Sara, ‘to do without the police or magistrates in case of theft or murder?’
‘Since the “Mardana” system has been established, there has been no more crime or sin; therefore we do not require a policeman to find out a culprit, nor do we want a magistrate to try a criminal case.’
‘That is very good, indeed. I suppose if there was any dishonest person, you could very easily chastise her. As you gained a decisive victory without shedding a single drop of blood, you could drive off crime and criminals too without much difficulty!’
‘Now, dear Sultana, will you sit here or come to my parlour?’ she asked me.
‘Your kitchen is not inferior to a queen’s boudoir!’ I replied with a pleasant smile, ‘but we must leave it now; for the gentlemen may be cursing me for keeping them away from their duties in the kitchen so long.’ We both laughed heartily.
‘How my friends at home will be amused and amazed, when I go back and tell them that in the far-off Ladyland, ladies rule over the country and control all social matters, while gentlemen are kept in the Mardanas to mind babies, to cook and to do all sorts of domestic work; and that cooking is so easy a thing that it is simply a pleasure to cook!’
‘Yes, tell them about all that you see here.’
‘Please let me know, how you carry on land cultivation and how you plough the land and do other hard manual work.’
‘Our fields are tilled by means of electricity, which supplies motive power for other hard work as well, and we employ it for our aerial conveyances too. We have no rail road nor any paved streets here.’
‘Therefore neither street nor railway accidents occur here,’ said I. ‘Do not you ever suffer from want of rainwater?’ I asked.
‘Never since the “water balloon” has been set up. You see the big balloon and pipes attached thereto. By their aid we can draw as much rainwater as we require. Nor do we ever suffer from flood or thunderstorms. We are all very busy making nature yield as much as she can. We do not find time to quarrel with one another as we never sit idle. Our noble Queen is exceedingly fond of botany; it is her ambition to convert the whole country into one grand garden.’
‘The idea is excellent. What is your chief food?’
‘How do you keep your country cool in hot weather? We regard the rainfall in summer as a blessing from heaven.’
‘When the heat becomes unbearable, we sprinkle the ground with plentiful showers drawn from the artificial fountains. And in cold weather we keep our room warm with sun-heat.’
She showed me her bathroom, the roof of which was removable. She could enjoy a shower bath whenever she liked, by simply removing the roof (which was like the lid of a box) and turning on the tap of the shower pipe.
‘You are a lucky people!’ ejaculated I. ‘You know no want. What is your religion, may I ask?’
‘Our religion is based on Love and Truth. It is our religious duty to love one another and to be absolutely truthful. If any person lies, she or he is….’
‘Punished with death?’
‘No, not with death. We do not take pleasure in killing a creature of God, especially a human being. The liar is asked to leave this land for good and never to come to it again.’
‘Is an offender never forgiven?’
‘Yes, if that person repents sincerely.’
‘Are you not allowed to see any man, except your own relations?’
‘No one except sacred relations.’
‘Our circle of sacred relations is very limited; even first cousins are not sacred.’
‘But ours is very large; a distant cousin is as sacred as a brother.’
‘That is very good. I see purity itself reigns over your land. I should like to see the good Queen, who is so sagacious and far-sighted and who has made all these rules.’
‘All right,’ said Sister Sara.
Then she screwed a couple of seats onto a square piece of plank. To this plank she attached two smooth and well-polished balls. When I asked her what the balls were for, she said they were hydrogen balls and they were used to overcome the force of gravity. The balls were of different capacities to be used according to the different weights desired to be overcome. She then fastened to the air-car two wing-like blades, which, she said, were worked by electricity. After we were comfortably seated she touched a knob and the blades began to whirl, moving faster and faster every moment. At first we were raised to the height of about six or seven feet and then off we flew. And before I could realize that we had commenced moving, we reached the garden of the Queen.
My friend lowered the air-car by reversing the action of the machine, and when the car touched the ground the machine was stopped and we got out.
I had seen from the air-car the Queen walking on a garden path with her little daughter (who was four years old) and her maids of honour.
‘Halloo! You here!’ cried the Queen addressing Sister Sara. I was introduced to Her Royal Highness and was received by her cordially without any ceremony.
I was very much delighted to make her acquaintance. In the course of the conversation I had with her, the Queen told me that she had no objection to permitting her subjects to trade with other countries. ‘But,’ she continued, ‘no trade was possible with countries where the women were kept in the zenanas and so unable to come and trade with us. 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. We dive deep into the ocean of knowledge and try to find out the precious gems, which nature has kept in store for us. We enjoy nature’s gifts as much as we can.’
After taking leave of the Queen, I visited the famous universities, and was shown some of their manufactories, laboratories and observatories.
After visiting the above places of interest we got again into the air-car, but as soon as it began moving, I somehow slipped down and the fall startled me out of my dream. And on opening my eyes, I found myself in my own bedroom still lounging in the easy-chair!