Last Word: Hertopias

(Published in The Kolkata Telegraph, September 2005)

“Only catch them [men] and put them in the zenana.” In 1905, that was the advice Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein offered in her vision of a feminist utopia called ‘Ladyland’ in Sultana’s Dream.

Ladyland was a benign utopia, as these things go. It was unlike the female-populated utopia created by another pioneering writer, Charlotte Gilman Perkins. Herland was not a feminist vision of a perfect, manless world so much as a slightly rabid vision of a perfect, Aryan-populated world where the purity of the race was protected by an unbroken line of births through parthogenesis. In Gilman’s book, three male explorers eventually break into Herland, with troubling consequences.

Over half a century later, Suniti Namjoshi explored the concept of a feminist utopia in Mothers of Mayadip, which took a dark, dystopian line. In Mothers of Mayadip, female infanticide has been replaced by the ritual killing of male babies. The vision of the perfect, free, female society has been marred by suspicion, conservatism and paranoia. Nor is Namjoshi convinced that a world without the tyranny of men amounts to the same thing as a world without men.

It took a writer of the calibre of Ursula K Le Guin to explore the finer shades of gender politics, which she did with particular skill in The Left Hand of Darkness. I liked the world she created, where the inhabitants were gender-neutral most of the time, but can become either male or female when their sexual cycle peaks. They may choose to be male in one season, female in another. The world of Winter is seen through the eyes of an androgyne, Gethen, which makes it even more interesting: our world of two fixed, immutable genders begins to seem deeply limited.

The interesting thing about feminist utopias is that even the authors who create them don’t appear to want a world ruled by women. They want the opposite of the nightmare vision Margaret Atwood set out in A Handmaid’s Tale, where she created a world of Wives, Marthas, and Handmaids, in subservient thrall to the men.

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein was actually ahead of her time when she wrote Sultana’s Dream. The women of her utopia don’t view men as the enemy, but see them with affection as time-wasting creatures who must be shut up because they can’t control their own appetites and urges. Once the men are behind purdah, women can get on with running things the way they should be. Back in 1905, Rokeya dreamed of a world where women had learned to harness the power of science, had pressed solar energy and rainwater harvesting into service. Her vision contrasted women’s “sentimental” view of science with the masculine “military” view of science, to fascinating effect.

It’s exactly a hundred years after it was first published in The Indian Ladies Journal and Sultana’s Dream deserves to find a wider audience. For me, it’s fascinating to think that a woman born in Bangladesh and brought up so conservatively that she had to learn English and Bengali in secret would have dreamed of a utopia that rivaled anything her colleagues elsewhere had come up with. Today, it’s her gentle but empowering vision that we need, rather than Gilman’s subliminally racist utopia or the fear-filled worlds of women driven into retaliation.

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