by Ibtisam Ahmed
Hope is a powerful motivator. Even in the darkest of times, it can remind us that there is the possibility of something better over the horizon. Especially when we are in the middle of some dark and sobering struggles worldwide. I have spent my PhD studies working on utopia, which lets me explore different ways in which communities explore what many scholars call “social dreaming”, a means of learning from the past to change the present and make a better future.
This inherently positive theory inevitably brings up the following question from many of my colleagues: why bother? Why, in an era of pragmatism and hopelessness, am I so preoccupied with optimism, with dreams, with imagination, with an unbridled sense of idealism? The bleak response would be to suggest that is all we have left.
The more nuanced response, however, is that many of us have been fighting these battles for much longer than white, middle- and upper-class society has been aware of, and our utopias are a part of that struggle. The Amazon forest fires made global headlines in 2019, but the indigenous forest protectors have been working to save the lungs of the earth for decades. Black Lives Matter came into the global consciousness in the 2010s, but African-Americans have been highlighting police brutality since the Reconstruction era, not to mention structural racism for well before that.
We talk about decolonising the university curriculum in a way that is fashionable, even as we walk in the shadows of our ancestors who fought and won against actual colonialism for centuries. Sexism, poverty, queerphobia, ableism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, addiction, mental health – all of these are spectres that various communities of colour have been oppressed by and standing up against well before they became mainstream.
For us, utopia is not a dream which clouds our judgement, but a radical vision of change which lies at the heart of everything we stand for. Naturally, this extends to how we tell our stories. The utopian (and dystopian) cultural canon is often seen as overwhelmingly white, which does a huge disservice to the countless voices of colour who have shaped the nature of a genre that many describe as an intrinsically human urge to dream communally.
I want to take this opportunity to highlight the work of Rokeya Shakhawat Hossain. Known in my home country of Bangladesh as Begum Rokeya (Lady Rokeya), she was an early 20th century feminist activist who championed gender-inclusive education, religious reform, anti-colonialism and anti-classism. Having had the good fortune to be well-educated and financially stable herself, she was vocal about her privilege and encouraged social awareness of how different identities have different levels of access to resources.
In 1905, she wrote and published Sultana’s Dream, a feminist utopia where women have taken over society through the use of science, secularism and anti-colonialism, while military-minded men have been segregated. Reversing the gender roles seen in Islamic patriarchy – the social norms she was raised under – Hossain drew up a remarkable society based on resolving injustice rather than just superficial equality.
She made a point to write it in English so that British colonial administrators and the Bengali upper class who supported them would be able to read it. It was also, incidentally, one of the earliest examples of science fiction from South Asia, with her fictional utopia using renewable energy, solar power and sustainable agriculture to progress, contrasting with capitalist industrialisation.
Despite such revolutionary writing, many people tend to think of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland, published in 1915, as one of the earliest female-centric utopias. Ignoring the fact that this type of thinking only focuses on English writing, Hossain – whose other works are all feminist and anti-colonialist in nature – still predates her by a decade. (Unsurprisingly, many people also tend to ignore Gilman’s racism, an unintended reflection of their own erasure of a woman of colour.)
Even in South Asia, many people who promote Hossain forget her strong anti-capitalism and secularism, instead choosing to highlight her proud self-identification as a Muslim feminist without the context of her privilege. It is not only the Western canon that needs to give due respect to her work; many of us are just as guilty of sanitising her impact.
Sultana’s Dream is neither a fairy tale nor is it wishful thinking; rather, it is part of the tradition of utopias created by people of colour because it is a space for those of us who live in the margins to express our visions for a better tomorrow. It falls in the same category as the works of Octavia Butler, Marge Piercy, N. K. Jemisin, Liu Cixin, Indra Das and Prayaag Akbar, where fantastical worlds give us a radical dream to strive towards. Just like many communal celebrations and expressions of joy – like the ballroom scene for queer folk of colour, melas (carnivals) for rural South Asians, and pow wows for Native American communities – it centres voices that are often silenced and gives them a platform to be loud and proud.
Utopias are necessary and joy is radical. In a world which is structured to make life easier for the privileged while ignoring the concerns of the marginalised, sharing our hopes and idealism is a rebellious act. Our literature, our cultures and our communities have already been doing it for centuries. It would do us no harm to reclaim and build on their visions.