Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain's "Ladyland"

 Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain's "Ladyland"

Last fall, I read Michael Dirda's Washington Post review, "'Tis the Season for Horror and Weird Tales. Here Are Some Favorites." Now, I am not a reader of fantasy, science fiction, or horror, though my son is, and Christmas was coming. I not only read Dirda's review, but I bought some of the books he recommended for Christmas, including Joshua Glenn's collection of short stories, Voices from the Radium Age. I wrapped it up, put the book under the tree, and never thought about it again. Until a few days ago, when my son handed me the book and told me I needed to read the first story, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain's “Sultana's Dream,” published in 1905.

I didn't know what to expect, or why my son wanted me to read it, but now I do! I've spent a lot of time reading, teaching, and writing about a recurring theme in writing by women: the dream of finding or creating a private and secluded retreat from the world of men. 

These imagined “women’s worlds” may be very small, a single room, for example, perhaps most famously Virginia Woolf's "a room of one's own." 

But many women writers are much more ambitious, fantasizing about cities (like Christine de Pizan's Book of the City of Ladies), even entire countries (like Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland), created for and inhabited exclusively by women.

I even wrote a book, Reading Women's Worlds from Christine de Pizan to Doris Lessing: A Guide to Six Centuries of Women Writers Imagining Rooms of Their Own.

And so my son's recommendation to me of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain's short story, "Sultana's Dream," republished in Glenn's Voices from the Radium Age.

In the story, which appeared a decade before Gilman's Herland, Rokeya Sahkawat Hossain's narrator, Sultana, is resting on a chair in her bedroom while "thinking lazily of the condition of Indian womanhood." In her dream, she meets a woman whom she takes for her friend, Sister Sara. With "Sara," she walks out of her room and through a garden into the town around them--and it's at this point that she realizes the woman she is with is not her friend, but a stranger.

She is at first anxious--not only is she with someone she doesn't know, but as she tells the stranger, "as being a purdahnishin woman I am not accustomed to walking about unveiled." But she soon realizes that "there was not a single man visible."

Sultana finds herself in Ladyland, a place "free from sin and harm," a place where "Virtue herself reigns." And, notably, a place where men are "in their proper places": shut indoors, where they can be kept out of trouble.

What follows is a delightful overview of a world-turned-upside-down. Women know everything, do everything, create everything, and control everything. . . . And rather than getting and maintaining their position by force, women rule with their brains.

In reading a bit about Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, I learned she wrote a novella with a similar theme, Padmarag: "Her novella Padmarag is similarly utopian in its depiction of a women-run school and welfare center, and is both feminist and anti-colonial in its outlook." (Quoted from the Penguin edition’s description of the work.)

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain
(c. 1880-1932)
The novella's focus on the important of education for women and the creation of "a woman-run school and welfare center" puts me in mind of Mary Astell's A Serious Proposal to the Ladies . . . 

You can read "Sultana's Dream" online at Other Women's Voices (click here).

A Penguin edition that contains both "Sultana's Dream" and Pradmarog, edited by Barnita Bagchi and with an introduction by  Tanya Agathocleous, is also available (click here). 

An excellent introduction to Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain and her work is by Roushan Jahan, ed. and trans., "Sultana's Dream" and Selections from The Secluded Ones, accessible through the Internet Archive (click here).

For a website dedicated to Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, you may want to check out the Hossain Memorial website--there you will find a biographical essay, bibliography, photo gallery, letters and speeches, along with a wealth of assorted material. 

And if you like science fiction and fantasy, don't forget Joshua Glenn's collection of short storiesVoices from the Radium Age!