Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Sultana's Dream

'Our good Queen liked science very much. She circulated an order that all the women in her country should be educated. Accordingly a number of girls' schools were founded and supported by the government. Education was spread far and wide among women. And early marriage also was stopped. No woman was to be allowed to marry before she was twenty-one. I must tell you that, before this change we had been kept in strict purdah.'

'How the tables are turned,' I interposed with a laugh.

'But the seclusion is the same,' she said. 'In a few years we had separate universities, where no men were admitted.'

'In the capital, where our Queen lives, there are two universities. One of these invented a wonderful balloon, to which they attached a number of pipes. By means of this captive balloon which they managed to keep afloat above the cloud-land, they could draw as much water
from the atmosphere as they pleased. As the water was incessantly being drawn by the university people no cloud gathered and the ingenious Lady Principal stopped rain and storms thereby.'

'Really! Now I understand why there is no mud here!' said I. But I could not understand how it was possible to accumulate water in the pipes. She explained to me how it was done, but I was unable to understand her, as my scientific knowledge was very limited. However, she went on, 'When the other university came to know of this, they became exceedingly jealous and tried to do something more extraordinary still. They invented an instrument by which they could
collect as much sun-heat as they wanted. And they kept the heat stored up to be distributed among others as required.

'While the women were engaged in scientific research, the men of this country were busy increasing their military power. When they came to know that the female universities were able to draw water from the atmosphere and collect heat from the sun, they only laughed at the
members of the universities and called the whole thing "a sentimental nightmare"!'

'Your achievements are very wonderful indeed! But tell me, how you managed to put the men of your country into the zenana. Did you entrap them first?'


'It is not likely that they would surrender their free and open air life of their own accord and confine themselves within the four walls of the zenana! They must have been overpowered.'

'Yes, they have been!'

'By whom? By some lady-warriors, I suppose?'

'No, not by arms.'

'Yes, it cannot be so. Men's arms are stronger than women's. Then?'

'By brain.'

'Even their brains are bigger and heavier than women's. Are they not?'

'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.'

'Well said, but tell me please, how it all actually happened. I am dying to know it!'

'Women's brains are somewhat quicker than men's. Ten years ago, when the military officers called our scientific discoveries "a sentimental nightmare," some of the young ladies wanted to say something in reply to those remarks. But both the Lady Principals restrained them and said, they should reply not by word, but by deed, if ever they got the opportunity. And they had not long to wait for that opportunity.'
~ from "Sultana's Dream" by Rokeya Sakhawat, 1905

Rokeya Sakhawat (also known as Roquia Sakhawat Hussain) was an early 20th century Muslim feminist writer and social worker from what is present-day Bangladesh. She was a "crusader for girls' education", and founded Sakhawat Memorial Girls' High School - the first school primarily aimed at Muslim girls. Her 1905 science-fiction short story, "Sultana's Dream", is set in a utopian future where women rule and the men are locked away at home, very much like the Muslim practice of purdah that kept most women in the home in Sakhawat's time (and yes, today too).

I find the story particularly enjoyable because of the way in which the women took over: they studied science and developed useful inventions while the men scoffed. It was their brains, rather than brawn, that created their peaceful country. And while I don't believe that women are "smarter" than men, or that the world would be necessarily a much better place if women ruled by locking up the men, I do think that increasing the number of women scientists would indeed improve the world if only because excluding a significant portion of the population from scientific research is a huge waste of brainpower.

And even though women in Bangladesh face many obstacles - poverty is widespread and only 32% of women are literate - there are indeed a number Bangladeshi women scientists making a difference today:

("Sultana's Dream" via Nesrine Malik in The Guardian's Comment is free)

Image: Dr. Shamima Akhter, Research Investigator, Health Systems and Infectious Diseases Division, ICDDR, B

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Jessica said...

No doubt Muslim World have large number of great women, who have great work for this world.

Zuska said...

Thanks so much for this post. Just fascinating and delightful (which could also describe your entire blog). I linked to you here.

Helen Huntingdon said...

One thing I've seen over and over and over again is the scenario of men being stumped by moving an unwieldy object until a woman solves the puzzle for them. I find it baffling when I see it, because the men involved are perfectly capable of solving the puzzle, but they somehow refuse to do so by any means other than ever-larger applications of brute strength. They won't allow themselves to study ways to use the balance and momentum of the object in their favor instead of something to battle against.


Peggy K said...

Zuska: Glad you enjoyed it.

Helen: I wonder if that's because physical strength is a sign of manliness, and the assumption is that movement by any other means implies that you are physically weak.

Also, I wonder if that is true across all cultures. Many of the martial arts, for example, favor the use of balance and momentum over brute strength. I wonder, then, if cultures with ancient martial arts traditions might consider the non-physical approach to be masculine too.