‘Where are the men?’ I asked her.

In their proper places, where they ought to be.’

‘Pray let me know what you mean by “their proper places”.’

‘O! I see my mistake. You cannot know our customs, as you were never here before. We shut our men indoors.’

‘Just as we are kept in the zenana?’

‘Exactly so.’

‘How funny,’ I burst into laugh.

Sister Sara laughed too. ‘But dear Sultana, how unfair it is to shut in the harmless women and let loose the men.’

Sultana’s Dream

In Sultana’s Dream, Rokheya Sakhawat Hossain’s novella, women reign over Ladyland, and men are in seclusion in merdanas tending to all domestic chores. However, men enter purdah voluntarily after sustaining injuries in a war. Women take over, win the war through non-violent means and continue to rule Ladyland. With the aid of technology women engage in agriculture, which does not require manual labour, have flying cars, harness solar heat and manage the weather. Women are so efficient, they only work two hours everyday and have time to knit and do embroidery. Child marriage is banned and the minimum age of marriage for women is twenty one. All women are entitled to an education.

I first read Sultana’s Dream many years ago, as a young researcher working with the Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum (MWRAF) and writing on Muslim Personal Law in Sri Lanka, borrowing a copy from the MWRAF library. Rokheya was a celebrated icon among Muslims women’s rights activists in the subcontinent and Sultana’s Dream was a must read for new recruits. Last year, I found a beautifully illustrated copy of Sultana’s Dream published by Tara Press in Chennai and just finished re-reading it. After putting the book down, I could not help but wonder what Rokheya Hossain would make of the struggle for Muslim Personal Law reforms in Sri Lanka and the strength of the male resistance to the demands being made, primarily by Muslim women, for a family law that is equitable and just. More specifically, I wondered about this bold and prescient woman writer’s response to male Muslims who are saying that Muslim women cannot be quazi judges in Sri Lanka, that any person who appoints a woman as a Quazi is committing a sin in the eyes of God and that women’s judgements carry no weight.[1]

Rokheya Hossain

Rokheya Sakhawat Hossain was born in 1880 in what is now Bangladesh to a wealthy Muslim zamindar family. Her father married four times and she had two sisters and two brothers. All the children were educated at home in Arabic (to read the Qur’an) and Urdu (the language spoken by aristocratic Muslims), but the girls were forced to observer strict purdah from the age of five. The boys were later sent to St. Xaviers and learnt English and Bengali, but not the three girls. Yet Ibrahim, Rokheya’s elder brother taught her Bengali and English in secret at home. Ibrahim was also instrumental in arranging her marriage (it is not clear at what age this happened. Some biographers say at 16, others say at 18) to Sakhawat Hossain, a local deputy magistrate, who her brother believed was ‘open minded’. Indeed, Hossain proved to be a supportive husband encouraging Rokheya to continue to learn Bengali and English and to write in both languages.

Sultana’s Dream was written to pass the time while Rokheya’s husband, was away on a tour of the district and to prove to him that she could write in English. It was first published in The Indian Ladies Magazine in 1905 and in book form in 1908, by which time, she had already attracted considerable attention as an essayist. She continued to write mostly in Bengali, the language of the majority and in a number of genres – short stories, poems, essays, and novels. Her many writings, inspired by her conviction that modern Islam had been corrupted as far as the treatment of women was concerned, deal mainly with the subordination and oppression of women, especially Bengali Muslim women. She developed a distinctive literary style, characterized by satire and a wry sense of humour. Following her husband’s death she also became a strong advocate of education for girls, starting a school for girls with money left by him. In 1916, she founded the Muslim Women’s Society. The day of her death, 9th December, is now celebrated in Bangladesh as Rokheya Day.

The power to dream of other futures

Sultana’s Dream is now recognized as one of the earliest self consciously feminist texts written in English. It took another 10 years before Charlotte Perkins Gilman published Herland. It offers a radical and powerful critique of the segregation and discrimination suffered by Muslim women during Rokheya Hossain’s time while depicting a feminist utopia, which is ecologically balanced, and free of exploitation, disease, crime and violence. The text progressively lays bare the illogical and irrational myths and aphorisms that sustain the subordination of women. At one point in the conversation between Sister Sara and Sultana, the latter asks whether men’s brains are bigger and heavier than women’s? Sister Sara responds, ‘Yes but what of that? An elephant also has got a bigger and heavier brain than a man has. Yet man can enchain elephants and employ them, according to their own wishes’. At another point in the conversation Sultana states,

We have no hand or voice in the management of our social affairs. In India man is lord and master. He has taken to himself all powers and privileges and shut up the women in the zenana.

When Sister Sara asks ‘Why do you allow yourself to be shut up?’ Sultana responds by saying that men are stronger than women. Sister Sara quips back:  ‘A lion is stronger than a man, but it does not enable him to dominate the human race. You have neglected the duty you owe yourselves and you have lost your natural rights by shutting your eyes to your own interest.’

The book can also be read as an invitation to reflect on the power we all have to dream of alternative realities and the potential and power of such dreams. It reminds us that to challenge and overcome oppression one has to first become conscious of one’s oppression and dream of other futures. Even when women are secluded, physically confined and their rights are denied, women still retain the power to dream if nothing else. This is the first step in any process of social transformation, even though it may take years to realize such dreams.

The Struggle of Muslim Women in Sri Lanka

Muslim women in Sri Lanka have been struggling for over 30 years, to reform Muslim Personal Law in Sri Lanka, dreaming of a future in which their rights are ensured and protected. In making the case for reform, they have drawn on the lived realities of Muslim women across the country as well as the sacred texts of Islam. Yet, as Farida Shaheed[2] points out questioning, rejecting or reformulating Muslim Laws is a challenging undertaking for women of any Muslim community. Throughout history, Islam has been presented to women through the lens of men and the interpretation of the textual sources of Muslim Law has been a task monopolized by men. When women begin to challenge particular interpretations and the existing status quo, the possibility of being alienated from one’s community as an apostate or a feminist inspired by western values is a very real threat. Yet increasing numbers of Muslim women in Sri Lanka are today reading, reclaiming and reinterpreting the textual sources of the law for themselves. While it appears that it is impossible for the community to ignore their voices, there is  nevertheless, a backlash against them.

As members of the Muslim community have long asserted and argued that Muslim Personal Law reform is a matter for the community, non-Muslim women’s rights activists and organizations have been mostly bystanders in this struggle. Yet the spurious arguments being put forward by some members of the Muslim community against reforms and their intransigence begs the question, whether we can remain silent and on the sidelines of this struggle anymore. Moreover, what stance should we take in relation to the demand being made by some Muslim women’s activists for the right to opt out of Muslim’s Personal Laws, if reform remains elusive? The Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum argued in a recent article that this is not merely a question of religion and interpretation of the sacred texts of Islam. The resistance to Muslim Personal Law reforms is about patriarchal power and identity politics, both all too adept at dividing women (and men) along lines of religion, ethnicity, class, caste, etc. Has the time now come to mobilise the collective energies of progressive Muslims and non-Muslims and men and women alike, (not to put men in merdanas), but for gender justice for Muslim women in Sri Lanka? Perhaps, we could begin by reading Sultana’s Dream together and summoning the generative and world changing force of dreams.

To view more content around the ongoing call for Muslim personal law reform, including first-hand testimony from women affected by the current laws, click here

[1] See https://www.colombotelegraph.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/All-Ceylon-Jamiyyathul-Ulemas-submission-on-MMDA.pdf

[2] Shaheed, Farida. (1994). Controlled or Autonomous: Identity and the Experience of the Women Living Under Muslim Laws, Occasional Paper No. 5, WLUML.