A Splendid Revenge: A badass Bengali feminist from 116 years ago, and a land without women

Gautham Shenoy October 28, 2016 6 min


A hundred years ago, American feminist Charlotte Gilman wrote Herland, a utopian novel about a country where women reigned supreme. That was in 1915. But a full 10 years before that, there was ‘Ladyland’, where women literally rule, in Sultana’s Dream by Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, a social reformer, educationist, and feminist who was placed at number six in a listener’s poll conducted by the BBC’s Bengali service in 2004 to name the greatest Bengalis of all time. She was the only woman in the top 20.

Rokeya’s feminist dream

The year was 1905, and wanting to surprise her husband who was away from Calcutta on work with her increasing command over a language she was learning, Begum Rokeya wrote her first and only story in English, Sultana’s Dream. It was the earliest piece of utopian feminist science fiction in the Indian sub-continent. If Herland is an almost-forgotten work of fiction that espouses feminist ideals, Sultana’s Dream is only a little more invoked in the mainstream, surfacing every now and then — such as when “intellectual badass, essayist, feminist, fictioneer, troublemaker, copywriter, bad influence, and chief instigator” (her chosen adjectives, not mine) Kameron Hurley mentions Sultana’s Dream as one of the major influences on her book, Mirror Empire.

Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain
Statue of Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain at the Begum Rokeya University in Rangpur in present-day Bangladesh, where December 9 (the date she was born, and died on) is commemorated as Begum Rokeya Day

Mirror Empire could well have been the alternative title for Sultana’s Dream, in which the eponymous Sultana wakes up in a land ruled by an enlightened queen who believes in education and science, where men are ‘in their proper places, as they ought to be.’ And that place is indoors, taking care of domestic chores and babies – except embroidery, ‘as a man has not patience enough to pass thread through a needle hole even.’ I can already imagine some men, not all, and some women even, wondering how this is utopian (it is left to those wondering, to figure it out for themselves).

Told in the form of a witty, playful conversation between Sultana and her guide in Ladyland, who she mistakes for her friend Sister Sara, Sultana’s Dream inverts ‘established’ gender roles in a land where the religion is one of peace and love. Led by a queen who believes in education and science, this state of affairs came to be when the men couldn’t win a war. Most of them were killed and the rest sought shelter with the women of the land.

Women, to whom ‘efficiency comes naturally’, win the war not with brute force but with science; specifically solar power, which they have learnt to harness and that currently powers Ladyland.

Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain
Cover of a Penguin Classics edition of Hossain’s stories, including Sultana’s Dream

This advanced society also has ‘aerial conveyances’ (depicted in the lead image above by Gond artist Durga Bai in her illustration of the story from Tara Books). Having won the war, the women naturally take charge, with the men content with their lot, confined indoors, which is one of the biggest factors that makes Ladyland safe and practically free from crime. At one point, Sister Sara asks a question that we’re still asking today, 116 years later: “How unfair is it to shut in the harmless women and let loose the men?”

Feminism isn’t about the supremacy of women and the subjugation of men, but about equality between the two, and Begum Rokeya subscribed to that philosophy. But many a time, to build anew, we must attempt to first bring down existing structures. Though Sultana’s Dream posited an extreme example, Begum Rokeya knew what she was doing, pointing out the inherent absurdities of this subversion within the story to argue a case for equality.

The story goes that Begum Rokeya made her husband read Sultana’s Dream on his return to Calcutta, who, after reading it, remarked, “A splendid revenge!’ Against whom, no one knows. We can only presume that he meant ‘revenge against men’.

A land without women

Which brings us to the second tale. One in which we leave behind the utopian dream of Ladyland and look at the dystopian nightmare of a nation without women, where nature has had its revenge against men by taking away all women. Actually why blame nature when it was men, their patriarchal desire for male progeny, and female infanticide that brings this nightmare upon them.

The theatrical poster of Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women (left) and DVD cover

“BOLDEST FILM TO EVER HIT THE SCREEN.” “More shocking than Bandit Queen.” These were the lines on the poster of the brilliant 2003 film, Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women. There have been bolder films since, but none so disturbing. But yes, it’s definitely more shocking than Bandit Queen; way more shocking. This is not a film for the faint-hearted.

The film begins one night with an anxious father-to-be waiting with his family and friends for his child to be delivered by his wife. The newborn’s cries rend the air, and the celebrations begin, only to stop when the midwife tell them it’s a girl baby. It gets worse. Come dawn, the disappointed father holds his newborn baby girl aloft, above a vat full of milk and with a ‘manly’ declaration of ‘Agle saal ladka’ (‘Next year, a boy’) proceeds to drown her in the vat. From there, it’s all downhill.

Written and directed by Manish Jha, the film uses an unspecified village in northern India as a microcosm of a nation that has taken female infanticide and female foeticide to the extreme, and the sociological and societal impact of these actions. After the opening sequence, the film cuts to a not-so-distant future where the village is finally left populated only by men. Zero women. It has been so many years since they even laid eyes on a woman, that even a cross-dressed dancer gyrating is enough to excite them. The more desperate among them resort to bestiality, hardly surprising considered the beasts they have become in the absence of women. Young boys are disguised as girls to be married off. Human trafficking is indulged in. But wait, it gets worse.

A wealthy father and his five sons, who are among the primary protagonists of the film, show us the depths to which men can fall. The sons are desperate to get married, and then a miracle happens. A girl is found. A real girl, kept well-hidden by her father from the rest of the world, who then promptly sells her to the father of the five sons — and if that wasn’t bad enough, she is to now marry all five brothers. But in a perverse twist to the Mahabharatha parallel, the father demands conjugal rights too.

From here on, it gets worse. Because as far as relatable and plausible dystopias go, it doesn’t get more nightmarish than this.
Kalki, the girl, gets caught in a storm of loveless jealousy, revenge, gang-rape, inter-community conflict, violence, physical abuse and a lot worse. I repeat, this film is disturbing in its graphic portrayal of events. But a recommended watch nonetheless, for truth is often a very bitter pill that must be swallowed.

And the truth is, unless we dismantle patriarchy and work concertedly towards the equality hinted at in Sultana’s Dream, a nightmare awaits.