Monday, June 12, 2006
Sultana's dream A feminist utopia
While browsing through Labyrinth books the other day, I came across Sultana’s Dream A Feminist Utopia and selections from the secluded ones by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880-1932), edited and translated by Roushan Jahan, afterword by Hanna Papanek.
The book looks at purdah-the seclusion and segregation of women from three women’s perspectives. The first an early twentieth century Muslim writer Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, the second by a modern Bangladeshi literary scholar and feminist activist and third by a modern North American feminist social scientist familiar with South Asia and the purdah, she provides a global contextual analysis.
Sultana’s dream was written by the author to impress her husband with her newly learnt ability in English, “to pass the time, I wrote the story” she mentions. The book is a utopian work with a lot of cleaver satire. The book ridicules Indian stereotypes and customs.
In Ladyland men are part of society but shorn of power. They live in seclusion and look after the house and children. Women the dominant group do not consider men fit for any skilled work
In selections from the secluded ones, a report format is used. One story was interesting, a woman was in labor pains, the women of the house sent for the doctor, saying the woman was suffering from a toothache. The doctor arrived with his dental equipment, and was surprised to learn that the woman was about to deliver. The women chastised him by stating how could we say she was in labor pain, you should have guessed!
Roushan Jahan provides context for Rokeya’s ideas in Bengal in the the 19th century. Until Rokeya raised questions about women’s status in Bengali Muslim society, Bengali Muslim writers were silent on the matter. This difference separated Hindus and Muslims quests for identity. In 19th century Bengal, Hindu traditionalists and modernists debated child marriage, polygamy, widow remarriage, purdah and womens education. The author wonders why Muslim men were so eager to catch up with Hindu men educationally, but not when it came to women’s development? She thinks it might have had to do with Purdah- the observance of it, enjoined by the Quran and sanctioned by the Hadith (religious traditions based on the sayings of the prophet). Purdah also became a status symbol, since it required considerable expense, requiring covered transportation and the Burqa.
Rokeya challenged all these ideas, through her writings and her starting of a girls school, in memory of her husband. When challenged about Purdah, being of divine ordination, she questioned, if God had intended women to be inferior to men, he would have ensured that mother’s gave birth to girls by 5 months. Also the supply of mothers milk should naturally have been half of that for a boy. She stated “men were using religion as an excuse to dominate us....therefore we should not submit quietly to such oppression in the name of religion.”
Rokeya’s views on education were also very progressive. Education for her was the development of God given faculties, by regular exercise of these faculties. The ultimate goal being self realization, the fullest development of women’s potential as human beings.
This woman rocked, here’s what she said, education would provide for women. It would enable them to be finally independent of men.. She saw economic independence as the prerequisite for women’s liberation. A woman is truly liberated when she is capable of thinking and making decisions independently. Veiled or unveiled. She also saw the liberation of women affecting the whole society, not just Muslims or Hindus.
Hanna Papanek relates Rokeya’s ideas today where Veiling is returning to some societies, with the same arguments that Rokeya challenged in the 19th century.
Rejection and revival are founded on the ideas of national identity. National identity is often symbolized through a nation’s women.
In the first half of this century national movements against colonial powers, lead to modernized, educated elite women coming out of purdah and becoming leaders against former colonies. Releasing women from seclusion was a way to show that the colonies were modernized enough to lead themselves.
In the second half of the century, a revival of veiling is being lead by Muslim societies often in Western Countries. They are part of a new nationalism, a reaffirmation of national identity, a rejection of western values, alien to a nations or a communities need.
Social and religious movements construct “synthetic traditions” to embody the goals and needs of the present, clothed in ancient garb to make them more powerful.
In thinking of Purdah, its rejection and revival, there are vast differences among women who observe it. Hindu women observing purdah must veil their faces before their husband’s elder male relatives, and all male elders in the village into which the brides come as strangers. They do not veil in their natal villages before or after marriage. Muslims practices set the family apart from the rest of society, by limiting the interactions of all women with all men who are not part of the family.
Family status and family honor are tied up with women’s practise of purdah and how it reflects on the men in their family. Respect in the community is vital to the family status. Strict purdah observance is a way for women to gain respect in the family and community. Obedience and conformity are highly valued in these societies. Honor becomes a burden , a harness with which to bridle women. The passion to control women breaks out in the honor killing that occur in Pakistan and Jordan. And leaders of social and political movements like Khomeini in Iran talk about fear of sexual anarchy, they use it as a justification, for the imposition of purdah and other constraints on women.
Some feminists challenge this idea when they question, “why are silence, immobility and obedience the key criteria of female beauty in Muslim society where I live and work?” asks Fatna Sabba in Women in Muslim unconscious. “Why according to the canons of beauty in Islamic literature, does a woman who does not express herself excite desire in a man?”
Lila Abu-Lughod’s interpretation of honor and veiling among Egyptian bedouins contextualizes the reasons that sextuality is controlled. Sexuality is the most potent threat to the patrilineal, patricentered system and to the authority of those who uphold it..and women are those most closely identified with sexuality through their reproductive activities. Also the legitimacy of children is of major importance in Muslim societies in preserving a sense of order in society and controlling the inheritance of property.
Sultana’s dream, and Rokeya’s writing and actions stood purdah on its head challenging ideas by which her readers were taught to live in society and family. This took two forms, one a call for women to reconsider their self interest and a demonstration of women's competence outside the spheres of home and purdah.
You can read Sultana' dream here
Amardeep’s post on Sultana’s dream here