the Little Red Reviewer

“Sultana’s Dream” by Rokheya Shekhawat Hossain

Posted on: January 13, 2020

I discovered this wonderful short story in The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer.  I did some research on the author, and learned about her incredible legacy. Read the story because it’s fun,  learn about Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein (also known as Begum Rokheya) because she’s freaking amazing.



One of the many wonderful things about fiction that’s older than 100 years old, is that you can often read  it for free, online.  If a fifty pound anthology isn’t for you,  you can read “Sultana’s Dream” at Strange Horizons, where they reprinted the story as part of a series on Utopias.


Because all science fiction (and a lot of art) is a reaction and reflection of the time in which it was written,  here are a few contextual things you might want to know before you read “Sultana’s Dream”.

  • Begum Rokheya was born in 1880,  in what is now known as Bangladesh, and at the time was British India
  • She is considered the pioneer feminist of Bengal
  • She was raised in an intellectual, multi-lingual home that was wealthy but also very traditional.  This combination meant that she learned Arabic and Urdu, and then English and Bengali.
  • You may want to understand what purdah is. (or not. up to you)


Reading this story sent me down a google rabbit hole of the phrase “gender-flip”.  That term has to be fairly new, right?  hahahaha, NO.    I love that gender-flipping has been having a moment for the last, oh, 20 years,  but the concept has been around for quite a while.   My brain is also going down the rabbit hole of “what was social media way back when?”  more on that at the end of this post.


“Sultana’s Dream” plays with gender flipping (and women’s rights!),  with the idea that in this Indian Utopia,  the women run the country and the men are kept in seclusion.


The plot goes like this:   Sultana is drowsing away the afternoon,  when a woman walks into her room and invites her out for a walk.   Sultana at first thinks the woman is her friend Sister Sara,  but later realizes the woman is a stranger.   Upon leaving Sultana’s home, they end up where not-Sister Sara lives,  and Sultana states that  she feels weird walking around in public unveiled, as she is a purdahnishin.


The rest of the story  is not-Sister Sara explaining to Sultana how her women-run world, called Ladyland, came to be.  A young Queen insisted that all women in the country have access to education,  thus women’s universities were started.   The women’s universities used their discoveries and inventions for the good of the whole community, while the men stayed focused on military might.  The men insisted that the inventions that came out of the women’s university’s were nice, but nothing compared to the value or importance of military strength and other men’s work.


When the country finds themselves on the losing side of a war,  the Queen and her female advisors come up with a plan, which I won’t spoil.   They win the war, and in the process transform the country into one where women can be in public unveiled, and the men are kept in seclusion.  When the men ask to be let out of seclusion, the Queen’s response is “if their services should ever be needed, they would be sent for, and that in the meanwhile they would remain where they were”.

Sultana can not even fathom that a place like Ladyland can exist, to the point where she describes herself as a frog in a well.  A world where women don’t have to live in seclusion, where they have control over where they go, when they go there, and who they go with? Unfathomable!


“Sultana’s Dream” was originally published in English, in 1905, in The Indian Ladies Magazine.  It is considered satire.   She published the story in English to show off her language skills to her husband.


What most fascinates me after my (very light) research, is what Begum Rohkeya did after her husband died.   and I want to know why she waited until after his death to do what she did, did she not have access to the funds until after he died?   SOMEONE recommend to me the biography of her that will give me this info!!   So what did she do after his death, you ask? She started a school for women.  She did what the Queen in “Sultana’s Dream” did,  she insisted that women have access to education,  that they understand their world and how to change it.


Let me say that again,  because of how it important it is:  She was so insistent that women be allowed to be educated, that she started a school for women.   The first class had five girls.  The school still exists.  I am humbled by articles I have found, written by the grand daughters of women who attended or taught at this school.


Anyway,  read the story,  read up about Begum Rokheya.  Help me find some good biographies of her.   The story is good, but not ground breaking or earth shattering.   Begum  Rokheya’s legacy however,  is ground breaking and earth shattering.  She spoke and read four languages by the time she was twelve, she started her own school for women, she called out men who used religious reasons to keep women from getting an education.  Jeez, I’ve done nothing with my life!


The rest of this post is a total tangent,  so read at your own risk:


Coming back for a moment, to social media.  Social media is rather new,  but letters to the editor,  shitposting people,  salons,  speaking engagements and speaking tours, editorials, those are nothing new.  It might have taken longer for your “tweet” to make it into wide world, and you probably knew every single person who was going to read it.

“Why Not Go The Limit” by Harry Grant 1908

I don’t know how I found this illustration,  it is called “Why Not Go The Limit”, it’s by Harry Grant, and it was published in 1908, as a response to the growing and unstoppable women’s rights movements. (and the image went viral in like 2013-2014?) I’m sure there are more complicated reasons behind the illustration, but I didn’t have time to do a ton of research. But the timing!  “Sultana’s Dream” was published in 1905,  Grant’s illustration came out in 1908,  was he responding to her story?   The illustration shows all the terrible and gross things women would do, if they were allowed to smoke and drink and do other unladylike things in public.    Or maybe he was just an illustrator doing a commission, as he needed to pay his rent.


there is a WHOLE ‘nother conversation in here about women’s suffrage and voting.   you don’t like how things are going?  vote.  don’t have the right to vote?  get it.  Your local representative is being an idiot?   call their office and tell them you don’t agree with them.  Threaten to satirize them, and then do it.  And that leads into a whole ‘nother conversation about  population shifts (eeek! migration and citizenship!), younger generations voting differently than  the older generations,  etc.    Like the concept of gender-flipping,  changing the world through voting isn’t anything new either.


I hate modern politics, by the way.


Anyways, if you’ve read “Sultana’s Dream”, what did you think of it?


5 Responses to "“Sultana’s Dream” by Rokheya Shekhawat Hossain"

I have seen this book so many times in the bookstore. I might need to just finally pick it up!


Oooo…this sounds really good. And “shitposting people” made me guffaw. Hahaha!


Just … everything you’ve said here! I need to think on this, and read “Sultana’s Dream”, and google Begum Rohkeya …
Great post!!


What a cool-sounding story! I shall now be reading about Begum Rokheya.

The picture is funny; is hanging around in bars, smoking and drinking, the worst thing they could come up with for women to do? If it’s that bad, isn’t it pretty gross for men to do it too? Stop drinking, dudes, and take care of your families!


Apparently at the time, this WAS the WORST POSSIBLE thing a women could do! at the time, women could be arrested for smoking or drinking in public. pretty ridiculous!


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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