Monday, August 20, 2018

Women in Science Fiction – Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

Ruth de Jauregui

While many well-known women in science fiction are from the United States, pioneer utopian and feminist author Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was born in the British Indian Empire, in what is now known as Bangladesh. 

Her father was a successful landlord; like most upper class Muslims, she and her siblings were educated in Arabic and Persian. Her older sister, however, wanted to study Bengali, the language of the people. Their older brother taught the sisters both Bengali and English.

Rokeya married at 18. Her husband, Khan Bahadur Sakhawat Hussain, was the deputy magistrate of Bhagalpur. He encouraged Rokeya's studies and advised her to publish her work in Bengali, the language of the people.

Her book, actually more of a short story, Sultana's Dream (1908) was a utopian vision that reversed the sexes. Women were in charge and men were in purdah. It was first published in English in The Indian Ladies' Magazine in 1905.

Sultana's Dream was considered a fantastic satire at the time, despite the use of solar power and electricity in the story. A memorable quote from the story: "Men, who do or at least are capable of doing no end of mischief, are let loose and the innocent women, shut up in the zenana! How can you trust those untrained men out of doors?"

Rokeya wrote a second utopian novel after the death of her husband in 1908. Padmarag (Essence of the Lotus) was published in 1924. Once more, the book focused on a woman-led society.

Rokeya is best known as a writer and Muslim feminist – the leader of Islamic feminism. Her published works range from short stories to poems to essays to novels, published between 1902 and 1931.

After her husband's death, she started a high school for Muslim women in Bhugalpur, an Urdu-speaking area. She was forced to move the school after a dispute over property with her husband's family. The school was reestablished in Calcutta in 1911, where Bengali was the majority language. In addition to the school, which still exists, she founded the Islamic Women's Association.

Her life and work is still celebrated in Bangladesh. Behum Rokeya Day commemorates her birth and death anniversary on December 9. A national award in her name is given to women for achievement every year. The Begum Rokeya Memorial Center, Begum Rokeya University and the largest female residential hall at Dhaka University, Rokeya Hall, all carry her name.

Read Sultana's Dream here
Amazon Search for Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

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