Keeping Sultana's "Ladyland" Dream Alive
I started this series with the goal to “ruin” India (or the perception of Indian feminism anyway) for most of you, and hopefully I’ve done enough damage these past twelve weeks. Seriously though, it gives me no pleasure to “ruin” anything for anyone, especially if it means admitting to the fact that my heroes and idols are not perfect after all. I want to defy my surly reputation end the series on a slightly hopeful note (I said slightly, don’t get fancy ideas now!) and talk a bit about a feminist utopia written in 1905 called Sultana’s Dream by Rokheya Sakhawat Hossain. This short story is set in a place called “Ladyland,” where men are behind the purdah and women run the country much better than men ever did.
In this role-reversal fantasy, men are kept confined to the inner courtyards and kitchens, crime is eliminated (since dudes were the one who were creating all the trouble, obviously) and women are doing fantastically well, thank you for asking. Working in laboratories and flying planes, the women in Sultana’s Dream are charming, reaching far higher than women in 1905 were deemed capable of—and then the dream ends. The story is jarring in many ways, especially when you realize the women feel so little about confining men, thinking of them as lesser beings. Hossain has the last laugh when learn this unease does what it is supposed to: make us question power inequalities in gender relations, and how little things have changed in the last century or so. Late last year, a certain short story based on Sultana’s Dream has been making the rounds called 50 Years in the Virtuous City. If you haven’t read it yet, please go and immerse yourself in this world (re-translated, in a way) to “Naridesh” from “Ladyland,” where men have finally started existing in public spaces—they’re even striving for political representation!—and we see Naridesh thriving in its own way. Apart from the fact both Sultana’s Dream and 50 Years in the Virtuous City are pitch-perfect satires of the imbalances in our world, the dialogue between the two texts is what I hold most dear, given the likely opposite geopolitical and racial locations they come from, where difference isn’t compromised or made to dance to any presumed ideas of “culture.” If we were to extend this dialog to global feminism as we live it today, we have much to learn from both Sultana’s Dream and 50 Years, namely, a penchant to dream audaciously while intimately listening to each other.
“Indian feminism” is packaged as “feminist issues people in India face” like sex-selective abortions, dowry murders, honor killings, sati; it’s peppered with “inspirational” stories from rural India where some groups and/or individual women are resisting patriarchy in whatever way they can. Defining a people’s idea of feminism or collective action by the “problems” it faces is not just factually incorrect but dehumanizing. It crams an entire population into a specific frame; this one would be “These indigenous patriarchies are horrid but look these people sometimes have solutions to them!” Even more dangerously, such frames don’t allow the problems within the population to surface, since they’re always seen as oppressed or indulging in partial resistance.
Sometimes, these frames are perpetuated from those amongs us. For instance, Ania Loomba discusses the possibility of postcolonial subversion when Othello is performed by Kathakali dancers, but forgets that caste and race aren’t just performed, but are embodied, despite vehement efforts to do otherwise. This reading is heralded in many postcolonial, feminist, and race studies departments across the world, because of the underlying assumption that anything that is necessarily against imperialism must be de facto revolutionary and problem-free. Books like the Palace of Illusions are devoured as “Indian mythology subverted” simply because the book plays with some tenets of Hinduism and Hindu mythology—a feminist-y heroine graces us with a world with word choices addressed to a decidedly Western audience, simultaneously creating a frame that non-Western cultures can be legitimized only if they’re explained in English to Western readers, without even hinting at the different power structures the tale is steeped in (ones other than gender, of course!).
Such frames tell me that there is very little dialog between and across India and the “West,” between Asian communities, between the Global South and North—pick any location and label, the power dynamics will shift a little, but the balance remains skewed. The only possible way out is to understand the shifts of speech and silence, how at times our words are someone else’s sound-stoppers and that even resistance comes at a cost. If we listen hard enough, the silences in these war cries will come find us. Like Sultana, our dreams may not always come true, but dreaming them with each other may just get us by, no?
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