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Sultana’s Dream

ISBN 81-86211-83-7

By Begum Rokheya Sakhawat Hossain

Illustrations by Durga Bai
Review by: Kirsten M. Oeveraas


Sultana’s Dream is a charming yet sharp-tongued utopia about Indian women. It was written in 1905, which adds a further dimension to the story about an India turned into matriarchy.

This 2005 edition is charmingly illustrated by Durga Bai. But although I like the illustrations, frankly I am not sure that they work in favor of the text. When I first received the book, I took it to be a children’s book, and the illustrations may not encourage the skeptic reader to read on. But apart from that, the illustrations support the text’s childish charm with their at once naive and intricate patterns.

The novella is about the experiences of the narrator, as she (perhaps?) dozes off, while “thinking lazily of the condition of Indian womanhood.” She meets another woman, Sister Sara, who tells her of how her world is organized. Sister Sara’s world is in fact opposite from the one our narrator lives in. The purdah still exists, but it is the men who are locked up and deprived of their rights. The women have invented a way of intercepting the rays of the sun and producing water from the cloud, and hence all work can be limited to a few hours a day. No one is hungry or has to be criminal. In short, the women co-exist in peace and utter merriment.

In Ladyland, as Sister Sara’s world is called, the traditional gender roles are thus retained, while turned around. One gender is strong, intelligent and rational, and the other is weak, dumb and irrational. But in Ladyland the former are the women and the latter men, and this is presented by Sister Sara as a perfectly natural condition. The point being, of course, that these characteristics are culturally produced, not biologically.

After a tour of Ladyland, including a visit to the queen, our narrator is returned in an air-car (another of the women’s clever inventions), and wakes up from her dream.

Sultana’s Dream is a strong vision of a society in which much of the world as we know it is turned upside down. It suggests that a complete change, not to say revolution, is indeed possible, if only the oppressed (in this case women) stand by each other and decide that they are the strong, intelligent and rational ones. The gender roles only exist as long as we acknowledge them, and if we start questioning them, we might build not only a different, but a better world.

However, men are not taken much into consideration in Sultana’s Dream. They are the reason for everything bad and evil, and once they are removed, all is well. The effect of this argument can only be to dig the gulf between the sexes even deeper, and I personally doubt that to be a wise strategy. In fact, the question remaining is whether Sultana’s Dream taken literally is actually a nightmare. Wouldn’t most feminists of today prefer a world in which men and women live equal and side-by-side, instead of a hostile matriarchy? I think so.

But the nightmare only materializes itself if Sultana’s Dream is taken to be a serious manifesto, instead of a tongue-in-cheek experiment. I read the novella as the latter, a refreshing experiment with gender roles and all those aspects of society that its inhabitants invariably take for granted. I read it as a challenge to look at my own society of today and try to rid myself of those ties we are so used to, that they have become invisible.

And thus, Sultana’s Dream is a 100 year old classic feminist utopia, but still thought-provoking and topical. Which is, of course, in itself rather thought-provoking.

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