Peer Reviewed

Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

Justice in Sultana’s Dream: A Secular, Feminist, Anti-colonial and Sustainable Utopia Embodying the Ideas of Indian Modernism

Rokeya Shakhawat Hossain’s short story Sultana’s Dream is a brief text, but its complexities and nuances make it a critical part of the utopian canon.[1] The narrative follows the titular Sultana as she explores an advanced feminist society called Ladyland, with the ambiguous ending leaving questions to whether it was an alternate reality or a dream (as the title suggests). Both possibilities lead to the same hopeful call for active change in her own world. Ladyland has seen the prevalent gender norms and roles become reversed, with women in all positions of social and political power, while men are sequestered in the domestic sphere.

Tracing this history to how women-led scientific ingenuity prevented colonial conquest, the text paints a society that is critical and subversive of various forms of marginalization. Hossain consciously chooses to focus on justice rather than on superficial equality. This is a key point that informs the entirety of this paper. Justice here is not simply an absence of inequality but an active pursuit in redressing systemic oppressions. While legal frameworks of justice tend to focus on questions of constitutionality and punishment, this moral understanding of justice is more concerned with empowering the marginalized.[2]

The key point here is that just acts are about redressing structural power dynamics, which often result in marginalized groups being given an unevenly large share of power in the new order rather than a more egalitarian distribution.[3] While this seems unfair in the short term, the goal is long-term structural change. This dovetails nicely into the approach that modernism had in the anticolonial Indian literary tradition—a tradition that was grappling with and critiquing the destructive legacies of western colonialism while trying to claim a new sense of Indianness (or the equivalent regional identity).[4] It is an important caveat to note that Sultana’s Dream has had a long-lasting legacy in India and Bangladesh, as well as in the specific Bengal region, but the term being used is “Indian modernism” per the standards of literary and political academia.

This specific ethos of Indian modernity as a pluralistic concept underpins much of what Hossain challenges precisely because the oppressions and inequalities she seeks to overturn come from a variety of sources. In her native Bengal, these forces came from British colonialism, Islamic patriarchy, toxic masculinity and military traditions, and industrial pollution. Crucially, while the specific historical context of the story may be a thing of the past, the text remains relevant to the modern political climate—especially at a time when the Indian state is consciously and worryingly moving away from the pluralism seen in its immediate postcolonial days towards a Hindutva nationalist project.

Anti-Colonialism and the Upheavals of the Bengal Partition

It was within a context of a multifaceted and evolving anti-British resistance coupled with growing (and later explosive) communal tension that Sultana’s Dream was published. Hossain herself was actively involved in the anticolonial movement. While previous generations of her family had held bureaucratic and administrative jobs in the British Raj, Hossain and her siblings became involved with grassroots movements to demand cultural and political autonomy. She defied the expectations of her middle-class Muslim upbringing by pursuing her education in the local Bengali rather than in Arabic or Persian and used her access to English education primarily as a means to critique the colonial enterprise.[5] She championed equal access to a secular education curriculum, especially challenging parochialism and social conservatism as barriers for girls and women.[6]

Her activism was just one key part of a wider move to first challenge and, later, end colonial rule. British colonialism had been entrenched in India for centuries at this point, and in Bengal itself since the Battle of Plassey (1757), but the administration had largely been handled through the British East India Company and its proxies until 1858. It was in that year that the authority in charge of governance shifted from a mercantile company to direct Crown rule, thus initiating the British Raj. Where prior anticolonialism had mostly been enacted as various military actions, rebellions, and challenges to a capitalist corporation, the shift to the Raj meant that the new target was a structured government body. While there were different groups fighting against colonial rule—including groups that were marginalized by mainstream Indian society as well, such as tribal and indigenous communities—the late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw a more unified, if largely pluralistic, front against British rule.

Bengal was often at the center of such politics. As the location of the capital of British India, it was witness to various acts of anticolonial resistance.[7] The Indian Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, which triggered the end of Company rule and introduced the Raj a year later, started in Bengal at the Barrackpore military barracks.[8] Other similar rebellions included the Indigo Revolt of 1859, the decades-long rejection of British interference in religious reform around the practice of sati, and the later Tanka and Tebhaga riots.[9] Bengal also saw more diplomatic forays against colonial rule, such as the mass recruitment of students from the University of Calcutta in the early years of the Indian National Congress and the artistic and cultural protest movement that culminated in the popularization of protest music and protest theater, not to mention the ever-evolving art of the Bengal Renaissance.[10] Class, gender, and ethnic divisions often kept solidarity from transcending the individual challenges of these protests, but there was, nonetheless, a steady stream of anticolonial dissent in the region.

As such, Bengal had become the center of anti-British sentiment and structured resistance, making it as troublesome as it was important for the colonial administration. Using the logistical challenges of administering such a large area as a superficial justification—the then-Bengal Presidency being the largest province in British India—the region was partitioned in 1905 along religious lines, with a Hindu-majority West Bengal and a Muslim-majority East Bengal. Modern historical consensus views the 1905 Partition as a means of dividing the unified anti-British front into distinct Hindu and Muslim camps, per British “divide and conquer” tactics, and it played a significant role in the communal tensions that have since continued to plague the entire Indian subcontinent.[11]

Feminist Gender Swap

The central aspect of Ladyland’s radical politics relies on its reversal of gender norms. Even in her earliest interactions with her guide, Sister Sara, Sultana begins to comment on the unusual lack of men in any of the public spaces she visits:

I became very curious to know where the men were. I met more than a hundred women while walking there, but not a single man.

“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.”[12]

For a self-proclaimed “purdanishin woman”—a Muslim woman expected to be veiled when in public or in the presence of a manSultana’s question is not only rooted in curiosity but also in a sense of feminine propriety (4). Despite the obvious differences in customs, she instinctively reaches for the familiarity of her own patriarchal society, comparing the men’s sequestering with her own experiences of the zenana. The zenana as an institution has a complex history. It was an organized form of veiling, creating a separate domestic space solely for the women of the household, often divided from the main house by an actual physical veil or curtain. This had the unintentional effect of actually allowing the women in the zenana room for empowerment, especially through the ability to control the household finances due to the domestic nature of such purchases.[13] Diaries and journals by British travelers often remarked on the (improper) openness of the women within the zenana.[14] Colonial rhetoric made it a point to frame the zenana as part of Indian debauchery, thus shifting the narrative back to a need to suppress women. While the practice was not stamped out by colonial authorities, it ultimately reverted to its initial purpose of controlling women, although the internal hierarchies and independence could still be practiced by its inhabitants.

From Sultana’s perspective, the zenana was, therefore, a means of limiting women’s involvement in the public sphere that was a part and parcel of traditional values. Yet, the equality of Ladyland is not achieved by dismantling the zenana but by turning it into a masculine “mardana” (Hossain, Sultana’s Dream, 11). Additionally, despite the Islamic etymological roots of the zenana/mardana, Ladyland is explicitly secular, with faith based on “love and truth,” rejecting both the Christian influences of colonialism and the Islamic influences of Bengali patriarchy (12). Interestingly, Sister Sara notes that men and women are not the same and that women even have physical disadvantages; she compares a man’s strength to a lion’s and the size of his brain to an elephant’s but stresses that, if humans can tame superior beasts, it is not unnatural for women to lead men (5, 9). Thus, the feminism of Ladyland is not predicated on superficial egalitarianism, but on the reversal of fortunes that allows for a just reckoning of historical injustices.

Rejecting Colonialism: Science Triumphs Over Militancy

These historical injustices existed in Ladyland as well. Sister Sara recounts her nation’s past, stating that it too used to follow the Islamic tradition of zenana with men in all positions of power. However, it was their inability to defeat a conquering army that eventually led to the setting up of the mardana instead. Following multiple defeats at the hands of the invading forces, the Queen allowed the scientists at their local women-only university to use technological advances to defend themselves instead of brute force. Two thousand women utilized their innovations in solar power to defeat their enemies:

The heat and light were too much for them to bear. They ran away panic-stricken, not knowing in their bewilderment how to counteract such scorching heat. When they fled away leaving behind their guns and other ammunitions of war, they were burnt down by means of the same sun-heat. (10–11)

The text is keen to emphasize that it is better to use scientific innovation to improve and defend existing territory instead of using military violence to conquer and expand boundaries. Throughout the story, Sultana marvels at such inventions as flying cars, electric machinery, precipitation-controlling balloons, sustainable automated agriculture, and solar energy. While the science fiction element of the text is less detailed than its feminist politics, it is impossible to miss out on the fact that such advances are only made possible due to the active rejection of colonial violence. Scientific discovery is accelerated by peace, a strong rebuttal to contemporary views of industrialization and innovation being heightened by colonial ambitions.[15] It is no coincidence that Hossain wrote the story in English instead of her native Bengali, intent on allowing her critical message to be understood by the British as well as the English-educated populace of Bengal:

We do not covet other people's land, we do not fight for a piece of diamond though it may be a thousand-fold brighter than the Koh-i-Noor, nor do we grudge a ruler his Peacock Throne. We dive deep into the ocean of knowledge and try to find out the precious gems, which nature has kept in store for us. We enjoy nature's gifts as much as we can. (Hossain, Sultana’s Dream, 14)

This ties back into the rejection of gender norms as well; historically, British colonial propaganda consciously linked their military successes to their supposed masculinity compared to the effeminate Indian forces and not just to their material access to better military technology.[16] This was especially highlighted through colonial policies to ban Indian clothing in the civil service and armed forces, in order to avoid the emasculation of assimilating with local cultures (Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge, 106–108). Thus, the peaceful femininity of Ladyland acts as a rebuke on multiple fronts, not only directly criticizing the suppression of women but also challenging the idea that masculine military might is the only way to achieve a more stable society.

Justice and Utopian Happiness

Sultana’s Dream is a particularly notable embodiment of the Bengali speculative fictions (kalpavigyan, literally “fictional science”) of the era that reimagined society in radical ways.[17] The utopian potential of the story is unquestionable, but I take it a step further in this piece by centering the question of justice in the move towards a utopian future. At the heart of this reading is the fact that Hossain’s Ladyland actively holds multiple forms of oppression to account in various ways. Patriarchal oppression is not erased by simply creating equality but by actively pushing for recompense for past injustice. The mardana may be a satirical creation but it epitomizes the idea of justice that is central to such modern decolonization debates as reparations.

At the same time, technological advancement is rooted in sustainability and rejecting colonial military innovations. In doing so, the idea of a technological utopia is wrested away from a colonial industrial model towards an emancipatory anticolonial model.[18] The joy of a previously marginalized group is the direct result of these positions. To return to a point raised at the beginning of this paper, the dream-like nature of Sultana’s visit is an intentionally ambiguous aspect of the text. However, it is not important whether her visit was real or fantasy. The true meaning and power of the dream is that it allows for imaginative hope in her own (and, by extension, Hossain’s) reality. This is a dream that must not only be treasured but also actively pursued, especially when the goal of the story—creating a society entrenched with secularism, feminism, anticolonialism, and sustainability—continues to apply to the modern world.



[1] The text was originally published in 1905. The references and page numbers used throughout this essay correspond with the 2005 edition printed alongside her novella Padmarag by Penguin Classics, which includes an analysis by Barnita Bagchi.

[2] Christopher Ake, “Justice as Equality,” in Philosophy & Public Affairs 5, no. 1 (1975): 69–89.

[3] Manuel Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015), 7–12.

[4] Umashankar Joshi, “Modernism and Indian Literature,” in Indian Literature 1, no. 2 (1958): 20–21.

[5] Anwar S. Dil and Afia Dil, Women’s Changing Position in Bangladesh: Tribute to Begum Rokeya (Dhaka: Adorn Publications, 2014), 10–12.

[6] Barnita Bagchi, “Towards Ladyland: Rokeya Shakhawat Hossain and the movement for women’s education in Bengal, c. 1900–c. 1932,” in Paedagogica Historica: International Journal of the History of Education 45, no. 6 (2009): 743–755; Md. Mahmudul Hasan, “Rokeya’s Wake-Up Call to Women,” The Daily Star (Dhaka) Dec. 9, 2016, 28–29.

[7] The capital was situated in Calcutta (modern-day Kolkata) from 1772 until 1911, after the publication of Sultana’s Dream.

[8] Alternatively referred to as the Indian Mutiny (in British historiography) and the First War of Indian Independence (in Indian historiography), this rebellion was triggered by the negligence towards local religious beliefs, primarily Hindu and Muslim, held by the privately conscripted sepoys (soldiers) in the ranks of the East India Company army. Two recent and well-researched books on the conflict are Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Awadh in Revolt 1857–1858: A Study of Popular Resistance (London: Anthem Press, 2002); and Vishnu Bhatt and Godshe Versaiker, 1857: The Real Story of the Great Uprising (Uttar Pradesh: Harper Collins India, 2011).

[9] A class-based revolt by working-class indigo planters, the Indigo Revolt of 1859 was supported by a politicized middle class against upper-class landowners and the British establishment. A key analysis is Subhas Bhattacharya, “The Indigo Revolt of Bengal,” Social Scientist 5, no. 12 (1977): 13–23. Regarding the practice of sati, despite pleas by Indian reformers to remove the practice of widow self-immolation through education, British authorities initiated an outright ban in the nineteenth century. This resulted in sati becoming part of the anticolonial movement instead of being phased out. Various sources can be found on the history of sati, including a rich collection of archival material at the Manuscripts and Special Collections belonging to the University of Nottingham Libraries, especially the catalogue for the 2016 exhibition Threads of Empire curated by Onni Gust and Ibtisam Ahmed. An indigenous protest in 1942–1945, the Tanka riot aimed at reclaiming the cultural and political power of tribal communities in Bengal. It was mostly anti-British in nature but also included critiques of Bengali national supremacy. A key analysis is Taj ul-Islam Hashmi, Pakistan as a Peasant Utopia: The Communalization of Class Politics in East Bengal, 1920–1947 (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992). The Tebhaga riot was a socialist-led peasant agitation challenging the increase of taxation on poorer families by British authorities in 1946–1947. A key analysis is Kunal Chattopadhyay, Tebhaga Andolaner Itihas (The History of the Tebhaga Protest) (Kolkata: Progressive Publishers, 1986).

[10] Spearheaded by the likes of Rabindranath Tagore and Lalon, this patchwork movement aimed to recenter Bengali cultural, linguistic, and artistic practices as a form of challenging the increasing Anglicization of Indian society. It ranged from the setting up of formal educational institutions such as the Visva-Bharati University in Shantiniketan to the use of travelling spiritual musicians and theater troupes to mobilize mass resistance. The Indian National Congress was initially founded in Bombay (modern-day Mumbai) by British civil servants as a way to legitimize Indian representation in British parliamentary politics before evolving into a more directly anti-British independence party.

[11] Both the history and the historiography of the partition are detailed in Joya Chatterji, The Spoils of Partition: Bengal and India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[12] Rokeya Shakhawat Hossain, Sultana’s Dream and Padmarag (Gurgaon, Haryana: Penguin Books, 2005), 4–5.

[13] Sharmila Rege, Sociology of Gender: the challenge of feminist sociological knowledge (London: SAGE Publications, 2003), 312–13.

[14] This is especially notable in papers comparing Indian women to their British counterparts. British women usually fell into the archetypes of nuns doing missionary work or the wives, sisters, and daughters of colonial officials. In both cases, their role was to remain meek and serve a higher authority (the Church or the Crown). By contrast, the economic and personal independence of women—albeit limited to within the zenana itself—was a remarkable observation. Negative impressions of the zenana can be seen in the colonial paper archives at the British Library, the Indian National Archives, the Bangladeshi National Archives, as well as more focused collections such as the Manuscripts and Special Collections at the University of Nottingham Libraries (mentioned earlier).

[15] Bernard Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 5–9.

[16] Mrinalini Sinha, Colonial Masculinity: The ‘manly Englishman’ and the ‘effeminate Bengali’ in the late nineteenth century (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), 150–51.

[17] Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, “Speculative Utopianism in Kalpavigyan: Mythologerm and Women’s Science Fiction,” Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction 46, no. 2 (2017): 6–19.

[18] Ashis Nandy, Traditions, Tyranny, and Utopias: Essays in the Politics of Awareness (New Delhi: Oxford India Paperbacks, 1992), 97.