Sultana's Dream

Michelle Murphy

“Sultana’s Dream,” written in 1905, is celebrated as one of the earliest examples of feminist science fiction. Its author, Begum Rokeya Shekhawat Hossain, was a renowned advocate for Muslim women’s education and equality in colonial India, born in 1880 in what is now Bangladesh.1 Begum Rokeya was among the most prominent Bengali Muslim feminists of the early twentieth century. At sixteen, she married the much older Deputy Magistrate of Bhagalpur. As an elite Bengali Muslim woman, she did not go to school and lived strict purdah (a religious and social practice of secluding women and girls from non-kin men). With the support of her brother who was undertaking a British style education, Begum Rokeya cultivated her own education at home. Her husband died young and with the money left to her she opened the first school for Muslim girls in Calcutta, which still exists today. A prominent social reformer, she also founded the Calcutta chapter of the Anjuman-i-Khawatin-i-Islam, the primary women’s organization for Muslim women in India. Writing in Bengali as well as English, she penned numerous essays toward instigating the “awakening” of Muslim women. She harshly condemned women’s restricted lives in purdah, as well as claims of their spiritual and biological inferiority. In the portrait gallery of Dhaka’s Pink Palace museum, Begum Rokeya is the single female face dignifying the walls.

Begum Rokeya published “Sultana’s Dream” as a short English-language story in The Indian Ladies Magazine, a publication for “modern” Indian women. The story is narrated by an elite woman protagonist from her luxurious secluded chambers. The protagonist falls asleep as she is “thinking lazily of the condition of Indian womanhood.”2 She then wakes into a dream.

Alert within her imaginary, she finds herself walking unveiled in daylight in another world where the gendered structures of Indian Muslim society are reversed: men are now confined to mardana (the name of the outer part of a household for men and guests, in complement to zenana, the inner part of a household reserved for women). In this world turned upside down, women are unveiled in public, acting as the rulers and scientists of this alternative way of being. “Lady” scientists have turned away from building military machines and instead invent ways to harness rain from the sky and share energy from the sun. One school of women scientists “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.” Another university “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.”3

Relishing her new public freedom, the protagonist learns the history behind this fantastical otherworld. Not long ago, these scientific feats were dismissed by the male-dominated military society as “sentimental nightmares.” The revolution in gender roles, and the celebration of the women’s science, had been achieved by a violent military victory. The male-run military had failed to repel an invasion by another country resulting in the tremendous loss of life. In a final bid to resist the invasion, the exhausted men agreed to retire to seclusion at their homes and turn the war over to the women. Female scientists then unleashed their sun-heat on the enemy, burning them down, and winning dominion over their country. Through this act of mass violence, a new society, and scientific culture, was born.

The most distinguished science of this dream world was botany. The roads were formed of a “soft carpet” of moss and flowers, and the city itself was a marvelous garden.4 Sewing, too, was a celebrated art, and beauty highly valued. In the garden, “[e]very creeper, every tomato plant was itself an ornament,” such that the products of science were as much aesthetic as functional, and science itself was not divorced from feelings.5 “Sentimental” science, saturated with feeling and kinship, was esteemed. This rearrangement of sentiment extended to society itself. Here, all women were educated, and married late, while men minded the children. Kinship was expanded such that “a distant cousin is as sacred as a brother.”6 Thriving in a city built out of the botanical and ecological feats of science, science itself expressed new kinds of affective relations. In the end, the narrator abruptly falls out of the dream to find herself back in her lounge chair, which was also back in her own zenana.

Penned in a “real world” zenana, “Sultana’s Dream” summons an early twentieth century feminist technoscience through a counterfactual world, a world turned inside out. Awake to its projections, the story invites oppressed women to dream with technoscience, social-relations, and nature at a moment of agitation for access to formal education and South Asian feminism. Yet, the story does not reverse all axes of inequality. “Ladyland” is ruled by a Queen and the narrative leaves aristocracy and class hierarchy in place as a benevolent form of rule. While the inversion of men’s and women’s worlds reverses, rather than unravels, binary gendered norms and compulsory heterosexuality, the text influentially summons into apprehension the radical potential of another way of doing technoscience, and the very possibility of contesting the naturalization of the present. Begum Rokeya would herself become one of the most revered women in the history of Bangladesh, and “Sultana’s Dream” would become a celebrated inspiration for a different world right into the present.

Written in a place and century when agricultural practices were being rearranged by colonial regimes and capitalism, “Sultana’s Dream” elevated botany, one of the few sciences gendered feminine and open to amateur women, as the pivot for an alternative form of expert rule. In this way, the story can be read as containing a decolonizing politics: offering an uncolonized otherwise in which science becomes non-violent, sustains life, and is endemic to women and South Asian culture. In conjuring a phantasma of ecological, plant-centric science, Sultana’s Dream presages the emergence of strong environmental and ecological feminisms in South Asia, from the Chipko movement to the internationally known ecofeminism of Vandana Shiva, or the ecological farming movement of Nayakrishi Andolon and the seed sharing work of UBINIG. Through its figures of gardens, clouds and pleasure, “Sultana’s Dream” suggests the possibility that subjects who dream with technoscience might do life, gender, kinship, and nation differently.

Image from The Daily Star

One important way of reading this story is to celebrate the authorship of an eminent Bengali Muslim woman writer, feminist, and social reformer in the early twentieth century. Adding to this recognition, the text might also be read as an invitation to think about the relationship between technoscience, futurity, gender, and dreaming. Sultana’s Dream can be situated along a genre of Western utopian writing that used the trope of the dream as the entrance into conjuring another world.7 More than this, in colonial Bengal, dreaming was charged with other histories and forces. Dreams hold a special role in Islamic history and in The Qu’ran.8 The Prophet Muhammed’s revelations included dreams that were divinely inspired. Dream interpretation was an established feature of medieval Muslim literature and practice, and a thick history of dream interpretation exists in Bengal.9 Dreams can have a prophetic potential, and offer divinely inspired insights and valued knowledge. Such dream-visions can happen both when asleep and awake, as waking visions. Importantly, they are understood to come to the dreamer as opposed to being produced or authored by her. In the book Dreams that Matter, about “dreaming in the undreamy time” of recent Egypt, anthropologist Amira Mittermaier traces the history of Islamic dream interpretation, warning against the all too frequent temptation of Western scholarship to want to interpret the “unconscious” meaning of dreams, and assign dreams to subjects. Mittermaier instead situates Islamic dream interpretation in a long history of Islamic philosophical and theological contemplation that ponders the difficulty of distinguishing between wakefulness and dream, or between our thinking and reality.10 The historian Projit Mukharji, writing about colonial Bengal, draws out the importance of dreamscapes as potent intangibles within South Asian traditional medical practices.11 Dreams, he has argued, were a well of divine inspiration for innovative new treatments. Dreams had epistemic authority that conferred divine force onto new remedies or practices. Thus, dreams are not mere flights of fancy or creations of the unconscious. They are a source of world-making that are interacted with and bring potential, insight and innovation into the world. Dreaming can be the perception of an intangible presence or potential in a world saturated with intangibilities and held together by imaginaries. The recognition of the powerful world making capacities of nonsecular dreaming in Islamic and Bengali dream practice, pushes back on Benjamin’s analysis of phantasmagoria to underline that technoscience is as just one of many modalities of wakeful dreaming. Technoscientific speculation, joins an already rich array of potent practices that apprehend the immaterial and felt as a historical force.

Read through this history of potent dreaming, “Sultana’s Dream” hails women and girls as aspirational and generative subjects of technoscience and as crucial to the constitution of an anticipatory postcolonial nation. Women become the agents and not just the objects of speculation. Begum Rokeya described her social reform work as part of an “awakening” of women. Sultana’s Dream “awakens” readers to an alternate possibility, even though the narrator herself concludes by waking back into the complexity of her luxurious oppression. Feminist technoscience is affirmatively performed in the dream, and more than this, Sultana’s Dream summons other futures through the speculative potential of technoscience. Today, the story is still active as an inspiration towards fashioning a future otherwise, a stimulus to art exhibits and inspiring contemporary feminist ecological practices. The text offers dreaming as a generative force that can affectively and politically reorient the potentials in the world. In its narrative construction, the story is very much awake to the force of that dreaming. It is a speculative imaginary that works to unfix its 1905 present and summon other futures, even if improbable, for both women and science.

What would it mean to be awake to the dream, to become alert to the varieties of imaginative force and feeling that make up technoscience? I want to take seriously the suggestion that technoscience is potent for its ability to create not only facts, but also affectively charged temporized imaginaries. Can one say that a characteristic of technoscience is that it induces dreamscapes, in this instance, nonsubjective imaginaries conjured by the practices of colonial science, by the numbers of development indexes, by the tickertape of stock markets, by the graphs of demography? What does it look like to let go of the author function in our histories of speculation and speculative fiction, and instead attend, like Benjamin, to the collective phantasma that accompany the built and inhabited world?12 In this way, Begum Rokeya did not just author “Sultana’s Dream” about technoscience, it was at least partly animated by the rise of speculation about girls and women that technoscience (then colonial, now postcolonial) helped to create. The story dreams with and through (not just about) technoscience.

Thus, we might see the speculative futurity in “Sultana’s Dream” as doing more than subverting the figure of woman within the colonial goalposts of modernity and tradition. “Sultana’s Dream,” perhaps, participates affirmatively in a technoscientific project that figured women and girls as contested postcolonial speculative subjects. It signals the emergence of affectively charged speculative temporization through which feminism, postcolonialism, development, capitalism, and nationalism would all come to operate in the dreamscape of the twentieth century.

  1. On Begum Rokeya Hossain’s feminism and “Sultana’s Dream,” See, Hasanat, Fayeza, “Sultana’s Utopian Awakening: An Ecocritical Reading of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s Sultana’s Dream,” Asiatic 7/2 (2013): 114-25; Yasmin Hossain, “The Begum’s Dream: Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain and the Broadening of Muslim Women’s Aspirations in Bengal,” South Asia Research 12/1 (1992): 1-19; Md. Mahmudul Hasan, “Commemorating Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain and Contextualising Her Work in South Asian Muslim Feminism,” Asiatic 7/2 (2013): 39-59; Mohammad Moniruzzaman Miah, “A Feminist Critical Evaluation of How Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s Language of Protest Deplored Patriarchy and Social Anachronism in the British Bengal,” Journal of Arts and Humanities 3/10 (2014): 41-51; Bharati Ray, Women of India: Colonial and Post-Colonial Periods (New Dehli: SAGE Publications India, 2005); Bharati Ray, Early Feminists of Colonial India: Sarala Devi Chaudurani and Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (New Dehli: Oxford Universitiy Press India, 2002). 

  2. Roquiah Sakhawal Hossain, “Sultana’s Dream,” in God Gives, Man Robs & Other Writings (Dhaka: Narigrantha Prabartana, 2002), 31. 

  3. Hossain, “Sultana’s Dream,” 38, 39. 

  4. Hossain, “Sultana’s Dream,” 37. 

  5. Hossain, “Sultana’s Dream,” 37. 

  6. Hossain, “Sultana’s Dream,” 46. 

  7. A classic example is Campanno’s City of the Sun. Utopian writing is often referred to as an act of dreaming, whether or not the story itself uses a dream trope explicitly. The English word dream has had this sense of prophecy and hope for the future since the 17th century. 

  8. Nile Green, “The Religious and Cultural Roles of Dreams and Visions in Islam,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 13, no. 3 (2003): 287–313; Amira Mittermaier, Dreams That Matter: Egyptian Landscapes of the Imagination (University of California Press, 2010). 

  9. Projit Mukharji, “Swapnaushadhi: The Embedded Logic of Dreams and Medical Innovation in Bengal,” Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry 38, no. 3 (September 1, 2014): 387–407; Lawrence Cohen, “Ethical Publicity: On Transplant Victims, Wounded Communities, and the Moral Demands of Dreaming,” Ethical Life in South Asia, 2010, 253–74. 

  10. Mittermaier points out that Al-Ghazali, the eleventy century muslim theologian and philosopher, cites a prophetic saying that “we are all dreaming and awaken only when we die,” resituating dreaming as the state of ordinary life. Mittermaier, Dreams That Matter.(13) 

  11. Mukharji, “Swapnaushadhi.” 

  12. Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?,” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, ed. Donald F. Bouchard, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon (Ithaca: Cornel University Press, 1977), 113–38. 

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