x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Sci-fi tale Ladyland offers a lesson in gender utopia

Ladyland is humorous but in fact neither realistic nor aspirational. Reversing the gender situations simply reverses the oppression. Instead, men and women must coexist and be interdependent.

In 1905, an Indian Muslim woman named Rokheya Shekhawat Hossain, Bengali by ethnicity, published a sci-fi story - possibly the first of its kind - in the Indian Ladies Magazine in Madras, entitled Sultana's Dream. It is a vision of a female utopia called Ladyland, where women rule and men are locked away. Sultana dreams of Ladyland, guided by Sister Sara, a place where there are only women in public and no men. Sultana is baffled by this strange reversal. How is it that women can walk around freely outside without fear of danger?

Sara asks: "How unfair it is to shut in the harmless women and let loose the men. Suppose, some lunatics escape from the asylum and begin to do all sorts of mischief. You do not think it wise to keep sane people inside an asylum and let loose the insane?"

Sultana protests that in her own world men use their strength to keep women locked up, and Sara retorts: "A lion is stronger than a man, but it does not enable him to dominate the human race." She chides women: "You have neglected the duty you owe to yourselves and you have lost your natural rights by shutting your eyes to your own interests."

So how did the women of Ladyland persuade the men to relinquish their dominance? The men were defending the kingdom from invasion, but when their efforts failed, the women said they would defend the country, but the men would have to be confined for the sake of honour and liberty. The men did so with no protest, thinking there was no hope of the women's success.

The women approached the battlefield with mirrors and concentrated sun-rays on the enemy, who found the heat unbearable and fled. And since then, the men had remained indoors.

I particularly like that women's power does not come from beauty, luck or inheritance. It comes from being educated and using their brains. And Hossain encouraged this through her own real-life activities, dedicating herself to building a girls' school that is still highly regarded today, almost 90 years after her death. In fact, her legacy is felt across literary and civic spheres.

Her views are as fresh today as they were a century ago. I love how she subverts the arguments of traditionalists. But what I love more is that she speaks directly to the women whose lives she wants to change, respecting their agency.

She abandoned her English literary work to write most of her other works in Bengali. It is women themselves that she works to educate, empower and make aware of the weakness of the arguments used against them, along with witty and smart ways to deconstruct those arguments. It's not empty puff: she reaches out to those who need it most.

Despite chuckling at her artful subversion of stereotypes, her story leaves me wondering if today is any different from 100 years ago. It feels like those from the asylum continue to escape and engage in mischief. Just look at the poor 22-year-old Najiba, an Afghan woman summarily executed this month after vigilante justice, before a cheering crowd.

Ladyland is humorous but in fact neither realistic nor aspirational. Reversing the gender situations simply reverses the oppression. Instead, men and women must coexist and be interdependent.

Alongside great inspirational role models and writing, what we need are blueprints that we can translate into reality, because what we need is a society that liberates both male and female.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk