There seems to be this weirdly pervasive idea in popular thought that modernity is the sole property of the (white) West. There are similar backwards modes of thought about science fiction, feminism, utopia, dystopia and the examination of gender roles. Somehow, it’s acceptable in certain circles–sometimes unwittingly–to really believe that nobody but Europeans ever made any social or scientific progress, or even thought to.
But y’all know me. I live to discover books by people expressing their own normal and busting up regressive small-minded BS in the process. When I discovered a science fiction feminist utopia story written by a Bengali Muslim woman in 1905 I jumped right into it.
This is one of those cases where the story behind the story is perhaps more interesting than the book itself. Roquia Sakhawat Hussain, also known as Begum Rokeya, was quite a force even before you get into her writing. She lived in what is now Bangladesh but at the time was part of British India. She established the first school for Muslim girls in Kolkata and started the Muslim Women’s Association and the Bengal Women’s Education Conference(both of which still exist, at least nominally). She married a man who encouraged her to write not only in colonial English but in Bengali. I don’t have the space to list much more but the BBC listed her as the 6th greatest Bengali of all time and there’s a national holiday named after her in Bangladesh.
So is it any wonder that this novella pales beside all of that? It’s only 20 pages long and offers a quick utopic glimpse of a world run entirely by women. Hussain dreamed up autonomous farming, feminist Muslim theology, solar power and flying cars. (It’s worth pointing out for that last one that she wrote this 60 years before The Jetsons existed.) There’s not much to the story but if it had come from another place and another writer it would be considered a classic. This is remarkably innovative for its time and offers a perspective on the future from a viewpoint thoroughly unlike what we’ve been taught to expect for that era of fiction–feminine, religious, Asian, scientifically informed, and stunningly clever. It’s interesting to see where her vision meets and veers away from that of other proto sci-fi authors of the time.
3 stars and a place in history to Sultana’s Dream.
(We should really hear about this little book more, fellow readers. If you want to check it out, find it and more diverse books in the Equal Opportunity Bookshop. Also, please be aware that this blog has affiliate relationships and any clicks/purchases may result in a commission being earned.)