Where Women Rule And Mirrors Are Weapons

sa_rokeya.jpg After my recent post on early Bengali science fiction, Desiknitter suggested in a comment that Sultana’s Dream (1905) by Rokeya Hosain ought to be on the list. She was right: Sultana’s Dream is an intriguing example of a feminist utopia — an imagined world where women are socially and politically dominant over men, and that dominance is seen as natural. Other examples of it include Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1917). Rokeya Hosain led a fascinating, activist life, which bears some looking into. Oh, and the story alludes to a fascinating problem in optics — parabolic mirrors used as weapons — which I’ll talk about a little at the end.

Rokeya Hosain wrote Sultana’s Dream only a short while after learning English. She and her sister showed a remarkable early proclivity for books and ideas even though, as girls, they weren’t actually allowed to learn how to read (eventually, Rokeya’s sister was forced to give up the habit by embarrassed family members). Hosain was married in a ‘love match’ at the age of sixteen to a progressive Bengali Muslim, who fortunately supported women’s education and taught her English. Rokeya wrote Sultana’s Dream, the story goes, when he was away on business. Her goal was to impress him with her skill in English, and by all accounts she more than succeeded. The biographical note in the Feminist Press edition of Sultana’s Dream describes his reaction to the story: he read the whole thing standing up, and uttered, “A splendid revenge!” The story was soon published in a Madras journal.

He meant, of course, “revenge” on men for the repressive system of gender-segregated Zenana (aka ‘Purdah’). For Rokeya Hosain’s Sultana’s Dream is set in a realm where women rule and men are kept away in segregated quarters: the Mardana. This is Hosain’s coinage; it comes from the Urdu word ‘Mard’, meaning ‘man’. The full text of Sultana’s Dream is available here, if you have a few minutes. It’s about 15 pages long.

A brief summary: Sultana wakes from a nap and finds her friend Sara inviting her to take a walk. But as they walk Sara turns into a strange woman, and it appears they are in ‘Ladyland’, a world where women rule and men are locked away. It turns out this world is superior in many respects to the real India (there is no crime, for instance), and Sultana and her Guide have a discussion where they compare India’s gender segregation to Ladyland’s:

“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.”

Here, Hosain is playing with conventional religious and cultural justifications for the seclusion of women (the paradox of locking up someone for their protection from yourself; shouldn’t you be the one who’s locked up?). She’s also alluding to a conundrum that all feminist utopias that have any men in the picture at all have to address: the “brute strength” problem.

In Sultana’s Dream, the Guide tells us, there was once a Zenana system, which remained in place until the kingdom was invaded. After the kingdom’s (male) soldiers had been defeated, the women scientists offered a proposal, with one stipulation:

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.

So the men went into the Zenana to protect the women’s modesty! After the battle was won, the men voluntarily agreed to stay in seclusion in the Zenana, while women ruled the Kingdom, which came to be known as Ladyland.

Using parabolic mirrors in a military battle is a great way to get around the brute strength problem. It’s clever, it’s not too hippy-dippy (the women didn’t simply “charm” the enemies to go away), and it’s actually sort of scientifically plausible.

Brief scientific digression: As I recently learned from the television show MythBusters, rumors about mirrors being used as weapons go back to Archimedes’ time, where people say such weapons may have been used in the Siege of Syracuse (215 BCE). Mirrors shaped into a parabola can focus the sun’s rays on a single point, setting even thick pieces of wood aflame. Conditions have to be right, and the mirrors have to be focused just so, but it does work.

The MythBusters tried to make their own fire-starting mirror a year ago, and concluded that the story about the mirrors being used as weapons must be false. But a physics class at MIT designed a version of it that worked, even using bronze mirrors (the ancient Greeks didn’t have flat-pane glass, obviously, so glass can’t be used as a material). Even so, the myth of Archimedes’ burning mirrors is probably false, since the first few generations of historians who wrote about the siege of Syracuse never mentioned it. The first mentions of the phenomenon only started appearing almost 800 years later.

/End Scientific Digression (Thanks for bearing with me.)

One other thing about Rokeya Hosain, before I close. The counterpart to Sultana’s Dream is The Secluded Ones, Hosain’s direct consideration of how the Purdah system worked in the real world of her Bengali Muslim society. It’s a pretty angry account, and certainly less imaginative than Sultana’s Dream. But it’s the product of a lifetime of struggle with her society. Her husband, who died early, left her a considerable sum meant specifically to enable her to start a school for girls, and she did. But she was forced to shut down the school she opened in the town of Bhagalpur because her husband’s family didn’t approve. Hosain had better luck in Calcutta, where she was able to find a space, two other teachers, and plenty of students. But overall, the Bengali Muslim community of her era really didn’t encourage education for girls, and she was, in a very real way, alone in her struggle. And though she wrote forthright feminist stories like Sultana’s Dream and polemical works like The Secluded Ones criticizing the treatment of women, Hosain herself wore a version of a Burqa throughout her life (see the photo above).

Incidentally, the school Rokeya Hosain founded apparently still operates in Calcutta. In Bangladesh, December 9 is “Rokeya Hosein day.”

31 thoughts on “Where Women Rule And Mirrors Are Weapons

  1. I read this story a long time ago when I was in high school in India. I didn’t think it was particularly original or interesting.

    Female-dominated societies are at least as old as the myths of Amazons, and such societies are certainly utopias in the Greek sense of the word, since none really exist. I give it an A on ambition, a B on originality, but a C in every other aspect.

  2. A similar story has always been my fantasy:

    Plot Synopsis: Three American astronauts are on the first manned mission to Venus, and when they arrive, they find the planet to be inhabited solely by women with high heels and short dresses. Unfortunately, they are immediately imprisoned, for the queen who rules Venus hates men… Suspecting the astronauts to be spies, she now plans to destroy the Earth. So now it’s up to the three men (and some friendly Venusians) to overthrow the wicked queen and save the Earth.

    Too much information? :)

  3. On this episode of Spot the Mutineer, all I had to do was read the post title…

  4. !!!! How do you find this stuff, Amardeep? You and your books on my reading list are going to be the death of me!

    Reminds me of Egalia’s Daughters, though it sounds much better, actually. . . .I don’t know, I read Egalia’s Daughters when I was very little.

  5. Female-dominated societies are at least as old as the myths of Amazons, and such societies are certainly utopias in the Greek sense of the word, since none really exist.

    Yes, none exist — but still people (usually women) write them. Why? Mainly to express their frustration with the existing sexism of society, and to try and imagine an alternative. There are many great criticisms of the justification for Zenana in this story, that are all the more powerful because they are more or less direct echoes of what men really did say to justify the practice (and still do, in places like Saudi Arabia). Utopian writing is a close cousing of satire…

    It’s also worth noting that Hosain probably had very limited exposure to this kind of writing before she wrote. From what I’ve been able to understand, she’d read Gulliver’s Travels, but it’s highly unlikely she would have seen a more contemporary book like Erewhon. And she beat the American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman by 10 years. So it is highly original in the sense that Hosain basically just dreamed this story up out of thin air.

    I actually think Sultana’s Dream might make an interesting movie, perhaps with some biographical information about Rokeya Hosain woven in.

  6. that’s a great story, and unfortunately one that still has modern-day relevance, where women are expected to protect ourselves from sexual assault. could also be used to mirror the irony of things like the japanese internment “for their protection.”

  7. “female-dominated societies are at least as old as the myths of Amazons, and such societies are certainly utopias in the Greek sense of the word, since none really exist.”

    they have and some do exist to a certain extent among such people as the Nairs of Kerala. there is also a matriarchal society of women in Greece (saw a program some years ago about them) where women are the ones in charge of the community. while not the norm, there are examples of remnant female-dominated societies operating within larger male dominated societies or countries in various places around the world.

  8. I guess a simple switch of gender roles would be interesting in a movie, but in a short story, I don’t know. I think the problem of originality must also nescessarily involve the complexity of the ideas expressed. I really do feel that, even to a high school kid in India, the story would appear to be somewhat unoriginal, and even perhaps somewhat weird in its vision of reverse discrimination.

    My problem is : too many dystopias in India. For instance, the Muslim League is not very sympathetic to gender equality. The communists are. And they are going to be partners in the DMK+ alliance in Tamil Nadu. Why oh why do they think they have anything in common? And where do they stand on something as fundamental as women’s rights? One of the few things they have in common is, perhaps, that their visions are both something of dystopias. Too many dystopic visions, I say.

  9. Sepia readers, it’s time to attach some kind of terroristic condemnation of the author’s society resulting in her subsequent brilliance since she’d have been born in what is now bangladesh.

  10. Navratan Kurma, The point is that it was Madras when it was published, not Chennai.

    Amardeep, Great post-amazing stuff about Hosein. It makes you think about the sources of literary imagination. The Brontes were similarly secluded all their lives but thought up these passionate and unconventional narratives in the middle of nowhere. I love the idea about men being confined to the zenana. It is so satirical and iconoclastic an idea, yet introduced in the name of decorum. Try talking to people right now this minute about a woman as President in this country and you will see how radical it is to put ‘rule’ and ‘women’ together.

  11. hello FKaLal – Our modern sensibilities may consider the dystopian vision somewhat unoriginal – the theme bung’d to death in the feminist avengelit and the male fantasy novellas – but in her time the story was remarkable for the leap her imagination made – she’s a grand person.

    on another note – you might have seen this story in the tips line – (I’m sorry buddy I couldnt locate it again to attribute it to you) – but another pygmalion-ish parallel is the story of baby halder .

    Baby Haldar worked as a maid in a home in Gurgaon, in the state of Haryana, before turning her attention to a more creative passion. Her first book, Aalo Aandhari (Light and Darkness), was published last year in Hindi.

    Is the story remarkable for its prose. Probably not. But does it add a unique perspective to indian literature – i think it does and is worth applauding.

  12. i remember reading an article on bbc news about the customs of the western saharans. Here’s an excerpt: “In most Muslim cultures, a divorced woman becomes a social pariah. But in Saharawi culture she is both more respected than an unmarried virgin, and more alluring.” here’s the link: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/3227997.stm

  13. 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.

    Haha, what the hell? Hydrogen balls that overcome gravity? Cute story, though it amazes me that literally everyone can forget the Golden Rule when they want to.

  14. It sounds like an excellent, excellent story; very thought-provoking article by Amardeep, and quite spot-on regarding the logical (not to mention moral) inconsistencies in the whole zenana/purdah concept.


    A similar story has always been my fantasy:

    It sounds like something James T. Kirk would have got involved in. Of course, at some point during the drama, the beautiful, sympathetic alien woman who has become Kirk’s ally innocently asks him, “James, what is love ?”. And then Kirk shows her…..

    heh heh ;)

    Although I believe there was also an old TNG episode regarding an alien female-dominated society, involving Riker in particular.

  15. RCK,

    Yes — Ruchira Paul made a similar comment on my own blog. It does look like a traditional Bengali sari. I got burqa from Rousham Jahan, who writes the biographical note in the Feminist Press edition of Sultana’s Dream:

    All her life she herself used the burqa when appearing in public. In her schools and among her friends and relatives, she covered her head by the anchal of her sari (see frontispiece [which uses the same photo I'm using]), following the fashion of other educated women of her time.

    Maybe Rousham Jahan is wrong in calling it a ‘burqa’?

    Or maybe it really is more conservative than other traditional Bengali saris. Look closely at the full covering on the arms — was that necessarily standard?

    Or: maybe most of the time she wore a full Burqa, but posed in a standard sari in this photo.

    You can see Ruchira’s thoughts on the Burqa vs. Sari question here.

  16. Jai writes: >>there was also an old TNG episode regarding an alien female-dominated society, involving Riker in particular

    Yes – I remember that one. The best part about that episode is that it was realistic: Matriarchy was shown to be exactly similiar to Patriarchy. The women in that society treated men like dirt, ordered them around, physically abused them (the men were shorter and weaker than women), cheated on them (the lead woman had an affair with Ryker after ordering her husband to bring some wine and leave the room).

    As I’ve mentioned before, in my view feminism makes sense in a worldview where a person has one life to live. In a system where the philosophy advocates rebirth with the notion that you could be reborn as a person of the opposite sex, all arguments of patriarchy/feminism etc fall apart.

    M. Nam

  17. The coolest part of this post HAS to be Archimedes “death-ray”. :)

    Thanks Amardeep for your “brief scientific digression.”

  18. Thanks for the link Amardeep, I’ll just take a look at that link.

    And from the photos of those days, full sleeve blouses were rather common.

  19. Thanks for writing the post and sharing the links.

    A society dominated by females, I think, could only be marginally superior to one dominated by males. A feminist society would be one where all genders could participate without fear of discrimination/oppresion based on their differences.

  20. MoorNam,

    As I’ve mentioned before, in my view feminism makes sense in a worldview where a person has one life to live. In a system where the philosophy advocates rebirth with the notion that you could be reborn as a person of the opposite sex, all arguments of patriarchy/feminism etc fall apart.

    I think that if a person bears in mind that they have probably been someone of the opposite sex in previous lives, then it should help them to see “the big picture” and at least attempt to have some kind of empathy and consideration for the other party (with the corresponding lack of hypocrisy and double-standards, hopefully). However, I expect that those of a more self-centred, arrogant and generally short-sighted disposition would not be interested in thinking this way, unfortunately.

    Also, being aware that the man/woman is fundamentally one’s fellow human being first and foremost and identifying with them on that level (whilst of course being aware that there are some overlying psychological and physical differences too, but this shouldn’t be the overriding viewpoint), rather than purely thinking of them as “the other”, would be a constructive attitude to have.

    I don’t believe in Matriarchy any more than I believe than Patriarchy, as both involve the domination of one gender by the other. Neither is the right way forward, in my opinion; ideally, it should be both genders supporting each other and working in partnership, equally. Each party’s mutual humanity should be the main concern and point of reference, with the corresponding empathy, respect, and human rights.

  21. Abhi,

    For a slightly different take on your fantasy, you might try the short story “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” by James Tiptree, Jr. (the pen name of Alice Sheldon) which features three male astronauts ending up on a future earth populated only by women.

  22. As I’ve mentioned before, in my view feminism makes sense in a worldview where a person has one life to live. In a system where the philosophy advocates rebirth with the notion that you could be reborn as a person of the opposite sex, all arguments of patriarchy/feminism etc fall apart.

    This is why there is no need for anyone to bother about bride burning, honor killing, wife battering, rape. Vedic women should accept it with a smile, because they can come back as man in their next life, and get their revenge by raping and oppressing women themselves. It feels good, no?

    This is why any attempt to be feminist is not only discrimination against Hindus, but is an Abrahamic conspiracy against Vedic tolerance.

    Beware Hindus of Uppity Women! They work for anti-nationals.

    Hail Mogambo!

  23. I finally had a chance to read it — that was pretty cool. Thanks Amardeep. I can’t believe it was published in 1905.

    I think Leena mentioned this in a previous comment but the whole concept of locking up the perpetrators as superimposed on a patriarchal society is actually pretty revolutionary for 1905. Even TODAY we see that educating about gender equality [so that preconceived societal notions re: gender roles can die away making a safer society for all] we tell girls to stay home and be safe.

    I think it’s always important to consider the CONTEXT in which these and other stories are written by female authors. This is a Muslim woman who just learned English writing in Calcutta in the time of the British Raj. COME ON. Give some credit, yo! Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky etc were all allowed to pursue their writing as a career. They were allowed to talk about it and live their lives proudly as writers. Jane Austen had to write her books in secret 10-15 minute windows when no one was looking. Gertrude Stein wrote a whole book on how women had never yet had a legitimate place in society to pursue writing. We can’t discount the context of gender roles of that period when we consider these works.

  24. Thanks for the comment, Rupa — glad you liked it. I agree with everything you say about context. One small thing: I think you’re thinking of Virginia Woolf, not Gertrude Stein. I do think the idea of a ‘room of one’s own’ is all the more pressing in India, what with the extended families and the somewhat different idea of private space than what one finds in the west. It’s probably not an accident that Rokeya Hosain wrote this when her husband was out of town; it’s probably also not irrelevant that her public, activist life had something to do with him dying early. (Though he did leave her a fair amount of money specifically for her to start a school for girls.)

    Incidentally, I’m enjoying your blog. You make med school in IC seem like a riot!

  25. Oh..yes yes yes..Virginia Woolf, not Gertrude Stein. Come to think of it, I can’t name a single book written by Gertrude Stein. Is she even an author?

  26. Yes, Gertrude Stein is a famously difficult poet from around the same time period as V. Woolf.

    But she wrote some ‘fun’, user-friendly books too. Try “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.” It’s the “autobiography” of her girlfriend/partner, only it’s authored by Gertrude Stein herself.