Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was born (on December 9, 1880) in a zamindar family in the village of Pairaband, Rangpur, in Bangladesh, then part of India under the British rule. In the Bengali Mussalman society, she was a torch bearer of women's freedom and a spokesperson of scientific vision for national progress and humanity's future. She gave a shake to the still life of Bengali Muslim women and contributed most to furthering their education. She was first an activist, a social reformer, and then a litterateur. Her work mainly focused on the emancipation of women from the shackles of religious dogmatism and social backwardness. But her reformist work for women of Bengal, especially the Muslim part, was inseparably connected with the overall progress of society. Her influence, however, is deep and widespread going beyond the Bengali Muslim society and women's issues. Her ideas and roles are worthy for discussion today and will also remain so tomorrow and thereafter till the complete freedom of women as part of the oppressed humanity.
Rokeya could clearly understand the backwardness of women in her community. She herself saw, experienced and suffered those problems despite her origin in a landed elite family. She could identify the problems suffered by women across classes and successfully linked this realization to the overall progress of society. Many other women of her class remained contented with the status quo whereas Rokeya rebelled. She not only protested against the male biased system through her writings, also worked for changing it. Her dream was to emancipate women of Muslim Bengal and build a new society ensuring justice and fairness with the pursuit of happiness and knowledge.
Rokeya's idea of women's freedom has a deep-rooted scientific foundation. Her writings do not merely express grievances as a woman, but an in-depth scientific viewpoint about women and overall society. Her views were completely based on the most developed scientific ideas of her time. It is remarkable that a woman with no formal school education living in a very backward society under the British colonial rule looked at all things around her with a sound scientific attitude. She was committed to the material reality to be sought out through scientific exploration and so was free from any idealist baggage. Thus she was able to look at religion through the telescope of science and brought out its material origin and its tilt towards male biasness throughout history.
In one essay she wrote, "When there was no civilization, no social ties, perhaps, our condition was not so bad. For some unknown reasons, one part of human kind began to develop and another part began to decline and women turned into wives as slaves to males."
In this view, Rokeya did not accept what she learned about power relation between man and woman from her family and society, but obviously relied on social science for this. So she wrote, "Males have made and used these religious books to keep us in the dark." Then again, "You see all these books are composed by male figures. If women had composed these, you would have heard different things. Now women are denied the right to be religious preachers. We are not so sure about whether these religious books are sent by gods to us. ... However, we must no more put up with the prevalent male domination with our heads always down before them. You see, where religion is strong, the domination of men over women is strong, too."
"Sultana's Dream" is Rokeya's most famous literary creation. This story or short novel was first published in 1905 in English when she was only 24. In 1922 Rokeya herself translated it into Bengali. This is widely known as a radical feminist writing. This identification, however, obscures a very remarkable characteristic of this novel being a science fiction. And as a science fiction, it is also very good in quality. Ashraf Ahmed, a Bangladeshi writer and scientist now living in the USA, writes that the novel's scientific elements are power of sunlight, weather control, air travel, electric appliances, prevention of epidemics, agricultural technology, etc. Making good use of the prevailing up-to-date scientific knowledge, women of Ladyland (in the fiction) have put the men in the country into houses and they have taken control of the power of running the state. All the scientific thoughts and fictional inventions in this story were firmly grounded and later gradually realized and being realized till date.
"Sultana's Dream" is a feminist utopia based on sound scientific ideas. The women of Ladyland have not only taken state power into their hands by putting men into houses, they are also at the forefront of scientific invention and discovery. Thomas Lewton, a freelance science journalist, writes that Sultana's Dream is "one of the earliest science fiction stories written by a woman." He writes, "Rokeya's witty and cutting indictment of Indian society, and the men who rule it, also depicts an alternative, feminist science-one which better serves society. In her ideas, Rokeya was decades ahead of her time, critiquing not only the close relationship between science and patriarchy but also that between science and the colonial powers that controlled India at the time of her writing."
Lewton thus ends his article: By offering an alternative reality in which women are scientists, in positions of power, Rokeya's writing is ingrained in her broader ambitions to emancipate women in Bengali society. "Sultana's Dream" is also Rokeya's denunciation of imperialism's long standing relationship with science. "We do not covet other people's land. We do not fight for a piece of diamond," Rokeya writes. "We dive deep into the ocean of knowledge and try to find the precious gems which nature has kept in store for us." (https://www.ladyscience.com/features/feminist-visions-science-fiction-utopia-rokeya-hossain)
Women in Ladyland were in a war against a neighboring aggressor nation. They won with the help of their scientists by making intelligent use of solar power without shedding a drop of blood from any side. After victory Sultana's women burned all the weapons of the enemy force without collecting any for their own use. In Ladyland, to a question by Sultana, Sister Sara said, "Our religion is based on Love and Truth." They pursue happiness instead of economic growth in their women-run country.
In the present world situation of global warming, war business, pursuance of economic growth measured by GDP, growing inequality, etc., we need to explore Sultana's Dream time and again. There are solutions to many of present day's problems in this short novel by Begum Rokeya. She died on December 9, 1932 in Kolkata, India. It will be wrong to consider Rokeya only a messenger of progress for the Muslim women of Bengal. Her influence goes beyond the border and spills over into South Asian region. Reading of her literary creations, especially Sultana's Dream, holds the prospect of peace, prosperity and emancipation of women along with the oppressed of society. Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain should come into our discussion many times more nowadays than any time before for building a better, peaceful and humane world.
Alamgir Khan is Editor, Biggan O Sangskriti (a Bengali little mag on science and culture
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