Feminism’s Futures
The Limits and Ambitions
of Rokeya’s Dream
Rajeswari Sunder Rajan

What do feminists want? What
visions of an ideal society have
we conceptualised or dreamt of?
What are the possibilities and
limits of iterations of a feminist
futurity? Even as we ask,
however, we are brought up short
by a more fundamental question:
is such a teleological conception
of any theory or social movement
—however we define feminism—
valid? Can we expect feminism to
function with a single blueprint of
an ideal political order or society
“to come”?

Rajeswari Sunder Rajan (rajeswari.sunderrajan@ teaches at New York University.
Economic & Political Weekly


OCTOBER 10, 2015

1 Begum Rokeya


egum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain,
the author of “Sultana’s Dream,”
is one of our feminist mothers,
and a writer for our times as much as she
was for her own. Her short life was filled
with remarkable achievements as writer,
journalist, educationist and pioneering
reformer of Bengali Muslim society in
the early 20th century.
Begum Rokeya was born in 1880 and
died in 1932. Born into a wealthy upperclass zamindari family in Rangpur District in present-day Bangladesh, to an
orthodox mother and a strict traditional
father who did not encourage women’s
education, Rokeya and her sister nevertheless managed to learn Bangla and
English with the help and encouragement of their brothers. She was married
off at 16 to a widower many years older
than her, Syed Sakhawat Hossain.
Sakhawat Hossain was a highly educated man, and a civil servant. The critic
Roushan Jahan describes him as a “man
of liberal attitude” (1988: 39). He urged
his wife to go out into society, provided
her with books, encouraged her writing
and supported the cause of women’s
education. Their married life was a short
one however—Sakhawat died in 1909
after a long and painful illness. He left
Rokeya a sizeable fortune with which
to start a girls’ school, which she did,
first in Bhagalpur and then in Calcutta,
encountering along the way a great deal
of opposition and criticism from her
community, and even from the parents
of her students.
Starting with only eight students the
Sakhawat Memorial Girls School in
Calcutta grew to be a thriving institution.
It continues to serve the cause of the
education of girls to this day, more than

vol l no 41

a hundred years later, a “fitting memorial”
as Jahan writes, to “her wonderful husband as well as Rokeya herself” (1988: 41).
In 1916 she founded a Muslim Women’s
Association, going among poor Muslim
women and offering them financial
assistance, literacy classes and shelter.
She had begun writing for various
publications as early as 1903, and continued to write essays, stories, tracts
and fiction to the end of her life. In her
writing as in her other public work,
Rokeya addressed the problem of women’s, especially Muslim women’s, narrow
domestic lives in seclusion, campaigning
for their greater participation in public
life chiefly through education. She
addressed women readers directly in
her writings, using reason and persuasion to convince them of the harm of
confinement, endowing them with the
agency of their own emancipation. In
1973, the Bangla Academy collected her
scattered writings and published them
as Rokeya Racnavali, a sign of her iconic
status as intellectual, reformer, educationist and philanthropist in present-day
I have to confess that I know only a
portion of Rokeya’s prolific writings in
Bangla through the few available translations. In this essay however I will be
focusing on “Sultana’s Dream,” a text
written originally and uniquely, in English, and now firmly established in the
feminist literary canon. It is a short fable, only a little over 10 pages long,
which Rokeya wrote in 1905. Roushan
Jahan relies on Rokeya’s own account of
how she came to write the story during
an idle interlude when she was alone at
home. “Her writing was partly to demonstrate her proficiency in English to her
non-Bengali husband,” Jahan surmises;
he was her “immediate and appreciative
audience” (1988: 1). Although this was
to be her sole attempt to write in English,
she had already begun to publish strongly
worded articles in various Bengali
journals protesting women’s lack of
opportunities, and would also go on to
write several pieces of fantastical fiction:
so there is a thematic continuity in her
work. The story was first published

and the end of feminism. and hence complicit with existing social arrangements. 40 however. are connected. I wish to engage the question of feminism’s ends anew. sought to demystify “difference. As the title indicates. In Britain the end of feminism has been explained in terms of a “post”-feminism—its goals have ostensibly already been reached and it has nowhere further to go (McRobbie 2004). however. emancipation (from forms of oppression). that we are still trying to absorb. which make it unrecognisable to some” (Walby 2011: 1). powerlessness. For we know only too well why gendered antagonism on the model of class antagonism is difficult if not impossible to sustain: women are implicated with men in heterosexual relations and in kinship structures (“my father was a man. “Feminism is taking powerful new forms.1 In light of the widespread realisation that has come in their wake. to analyse its roots. When and how will the “longest revolution. that women have been and continue to be subjected to violence by men on the grounds of their gender. as an aspect of its futurity. and certainly not counter-violence. subordination. the rectification of the wrongs it uncovers. it narrates a fantasy dreamt by a young woman. The ends of feminism. not to say abjection. More recently however. so unchecked and rampant is misogynistic violence against women. each marked by a distinctive set of imperatives. both moral and political. The survival of one woman and the death of the other have been deeply cathartic. is that they not be hurt. exploitation. dispossession. All this in the advanced industrial West. All that women ask. Critique finds its limits in an implicit reformism. Full-fledged opposition to the status quo is rarely articulated and feminist futures are not predicated on an overthrow of existing economic. even of a basic humanity.2 not even ownership of property.” to isolate the sources of women’s subordination. domination (as reversal of subordination). One American feminist famously diagnosed feminism’s defeat in a political climate in which a dominant moral right asserts the triumph of family and family values over women’s careers and legal rights (Faludi 1991). while the men are confined to the zenana. It has. violence (this is not a comprehensive list). variously. a popular American journalist announced the sensational “end of men and rise of women. power (versus powerlessness). A feminist tract in the generic form of a science fiction utopia raises for us a number of reflections about what I have called “feminism’s futures. it seems. In other parts of the world. Feminism’s demands have for the most part been coded instead in terms of reform. Such a critique assumes the implicit demand that the terms should be altered if not reversed: thus equality (in response to discrimination). Here is what I mean. which would be merely glib. not power. third wave. social or political arrangements. to identify “patriarchy” as a universal regime of male domination. to be achieved by legislative fiat or mind-changing education or both. The world followed the fates of the victims for weeks. end? What would it have achieved at its conclusion? Feminism is paradoxically situated today.PERSPECTIVES in the Indian Ladies’ Magazine. the demand of feminists—and no longer feminists alone—that such violence cease has come to seem a matter of the simplest humanitarianism. And yet several of these terms have hardly been pressed into service in the context of feminism: not domination. as feminists. and later republished in 1908 in book form by a Calcutta publisher.” attributing both phenomena to the current crisis of capitalism and to changes in reproductive technologies (Rosin 2010). ownership of property (as against dispossession). Sultana. In this country Sultana encounters perfect order. and counter-violence as the response to violence. It is the modesty. of this demand that should lead us to ask “what do we.” as a character in Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Cranford observes [1851]).” 2 What Do Feminists Want? Through the examination of Rokeya’s dream that I undertake here. In her dream Sultana visits an unusual land that she calls “Ladyland” governed and run solely by women. second wave. justice (freedom from exploitation). The sex wars have always been reductive as an explanation of OCTOBER 10. with pity and terror. It should be clear that my critique here is not issued as a call for a revolutionary feminism. it might be argued. Feminist analysis of the condition of women has for the most part been articulated in terms of the following negative existential aspects: discrimination. it seems as if feminism has never been heard of. 2015 vol l no 41 EPW Economic & Political Weekly . and to deconstruct the sexgender system. In the Indian subcontinent two incidents of unspeakably brutal violence committed against women in the recent past (although neither is unique) have awakened the conscience of our societies in an unprecedented way. From a different perspective however feminism is pronounced a “success” (although many gender inequalities remain). would feminism then be barking up the wrong tree? We could say that feminism is primarily a form of critique rather than a programme. in terms of the “futures” that feminism has envisaged.” In seeking the feminist equivalent of Marxist classless society as telos and revolutionary praxis as method. and they have been attended by lessons. natural beauty and harmony everywhere. we are brought up short by a more fundamental question: is such a teleological conception of any theory or social movement—however we define feminism— valid? Can we expect feminism to function with a single blueprint of an ideal political order or society “to come”? Feminism has been identified in terms of historical phases—first wave. Therefore feminism’s future and feminist futures. it has also been interpreted differently by different constituencies. oppression. are contingent on changing historical conditions and on the divergent agendas of a non-unitary constituency conceptualised under the rubric of “women. all achieved through technological advances and the scientific knowledge that the women have acquired. want for women?” What do feminists want? What visions of an ideal society have we conceptualised or dreamt of? What are the possibilities and limits of iterations of a feminist futurity? Even as we ask.” as Juliet Mitchell (1984) called it. a Madras-based English periodical.

a Ladyland or Herland. As a result there were women scientists in her realm who were able to conduct marvellous researches. Under her enlightened rule. After she has visited all the places of learning in Ladyland—the universities. is introduced by a “native. plenty of leisure. To bring about even one of the changes mentioned above. would cause enough social upheaval to be considered radical. ownership of property and violence are precisely the masculinist values that underpin gender oppression and hierarchy. or to put it in less hubristic terms. what has never been thought cannot ever be realised. So. 3 ‘Sultana’s Dream’ I imagine that most readers are familiar with “Sultana’s Dream.” “Utopia” is an “ideal place” (eu-topia) or a “no-place” (ou-topia) (Bagchi 2005: xviii). I identify two of the most radical forms that such imagining has taken. Sultana meets the Queen who repeats Sara’s encomiums on scientific education: “We dive deep into the ocean of knowledge and try to find out the precious gems that Nature has kept in store for us” (Hossain 1988: 17). To recapitulate: Even if feminism has not articulated its ends in any systematic way in the form of a Feminist Manifesto—and for good reason. These have been articulated in the generic terms of a utopia. Sultana. a “dream. acting as both its constraint and its inspiration. while also exposing its contradictions. Sultana is intrigued to find that there are no men to be seen on the streets of the fantasy Ladyland. the land thrives.PERSPECTIVES what feminism stands for. as I said earlier. if not utopian in ambition. where a charmed visitor. and why? What aspects of reality is it guilty of repressing? A certain “reality” is always the condition of utopia. rather than visionary. and confronted by the impossible predicament of deploying these as the means to overthrow patriarchy.” but here is the obligatory synopsis nevertheless. But insofar as it is a place or world that has been imagined. The first form of imagining identifies men as the source of the problem and seeks to exclude them. an affirmative politics. a politics of the possible. the laboratories and the observatories—Sultana wakes up from her dream and the story ends there. it brings it within the scope of human imagination. All the same. Sara explains. or alternatively where women acquire and use scientific knowledge to transform the world—we have a futurity whose emancipatory possibilities are uniquely feminist. no crime and no disease. And the other is the destabilisation of gender. for the changes in her own country had happened only 30 years before with the succession of their queen. clean streets and lush gardens in the land. are let loose and the innocent women are shut up in the zenana!” Sara blames women for their own incarceration: “You have neglected the duty you owe to yourselves. The utopic imagination represents hope. When the enemy attacked the country. And feminists. What can be thought can be realised. I shall return to the implications of these ideas for feminism. it is ameliorative rather than oppositional in its politics. the second diagnoses gender as the structural cause of the problem and seeks to “trouble” the conceptual schema of male and female. or an “immature politics” with its attendant minoritarian and anarchic dimensions. which is to say that its analysis is linked to causes not outcomes. of positive alternatives. to the wonders of “Ladyland” as she calls the dream vol l no 41 world. It is not a story driven by anything like a plot. and they invent machines to draw water from the atmosphere and store the heat of the sun. and “constructive” visions could provide access to the realm of desire. where they have remained ever since. the proliferation of genders. but for now I want to draw attention to their utopian dimensions— utopian because they do not as yet exist in “pure” form anywhere. a society exclusively of women. 2015 Rokeya Shekawat Hossain’s “Sultana’s Dream” is. Where this utopia bears the specific lineaments of science fiction—either the scientific fantasy of a world where science and technology deliver womankind (and mankind) from their condition of enslavement. the men went out to fight and got killed. have had to rethink the goals as well as the means of the feminism they espouse. domination.” Sister Sara. In response to Sultana’s protest that surely it is women’s place to be secluded since they are “naturally weak. that is. freedom. The young queen introduced compulsory education for all the women and banned marriage for them before the age of 21. One is the vision of a separation of the sexes resulting in a world without men. in theory and fiction. and pleasurable labour. while the women were able to beat back the enemy with the help of their heat machines. or as the title says more simply. The author offers only a lively guided tour through a new world. The men have all been shut up indoors.” Sara offers the irrefutable logic that since men are dangerous like wild animals or lunatics. although like all utopias they have a “prefigurative” dimension. so that there is electricity and aerial transport. Sister Sara moves easily between the old world and the new to draw comparisons. conceptualised in terms both of an absence of gender difference as well as of its opposite.3 What interests me about utopia however is what a symptomatic reading might reveal: what reality is the utopian vision reactive to? What are the conditions of its possibility? What limits does it operate within. however modest in scope. 41 . an exploration of the extent and kind of explicit feminist imagining. and you have lost your natural rights by shutting your eyes to your own interests” (Hossain 1988: 9). and it questions established value-systems rather than proposes alternative ones. its function is critical. as we saw—it is nevertheless not lacking in speculative explorations of questions of gender. Economic & Political Weekly EPW OCTOBER 10. it is they who must be locked up—whereas in our world “Men who do or at least are capable of doing no end of mischief. it simultaneously offers an ideal and acknowledges that it is beyond reach. all too aware that power. But what might seem like the limits of feminism and a constraint on its politics is not necessarily so. to sum up: feminism is non-teleological in its philosophy and praxis. a utopian fiction. “We make nature yield as much as she can”. The queen took over the reins of government and had the men retreat into seclusion.

It displays a similar reticence—surely a sign of discomfort—about women’s recourse to military might and bloodshed in defence of their land (even if the weapons be advanced scientific inventions). and men in powerless roles and invisible in domestic spaces (kitchens. The text is noticeably reticent about the politics of the reverse enslavement of men. but because we keep them” 42 (Gandhi 1997: 39). They are not in India because of their strength. the cultivation of nature. Rokeya could not have been blind to the ideological implications of an idealised female ruler maintaining segregation and retaining the sexual division of labour while merely inverting it. published only a few years later. Knowledge is not only power in Ladyland. “Sultana’s Dream” is bound to remind us of Alice in Wonderland too (although I have not been able to find out if Rokeya had actually read Lewis Carroll’s classic story). Where Gandhi famously rejects everything about western modernity including Enlightenment rationalism and the advances of science. we have given it to them. gardens). enlightened and welfare-oriented spirit in women. 2015 vol l no 41 EPW Economic & Political Weekly . but also enlightenment. But just as striking are the opposed positions the authors take on the question of science and technology. but “Sultana’s Dream” does not celebrate them in a triumphalist spirit. Humankind’s “conquest of nature” is embraced as unadulterated good. use their political and military power wisely and with restraint. Even weapons of war are used with restraint for good ends in Ladyland (they were not even invented primarily for killing).” by pointing out: “The English have not taken India. force would be required. is her unquestioned faith in the beneficial value of technological advances and scientific discoveries. between a leading guide and an interlocutor.” (Bagchi 2005: xii. alternative world and exploiting its potential for the play of ideas. in the persona of Sister Sara. enquiring.” Rokeya seems to accept without question that there are essential “female” values such as pacifism. and they function mainly as deterrent. Barnita Bagchi stresses that “the driving force behind the success of the utopian feminist country of Ladyland is women’s education”. The parallels between the two works lie in the similar dream/fantasy plot of a young girl driven by curiosity to explore strange worlds. and the internal logic with which these worlds cohere. he makes it clear that “this is not the Swaraj that I want” (Jahan 1998: 28). Rokeya however is pushed to acknowledge that a female regime would be possible only if men were overthrown and kept under control. The necessity of force as an aspect of the state—even if Ladyland does away with police and magistrates—is obviously contrary to the philosophy of Hind Swaraj. notably Charlotte Perkins Gilman in Herland (1915). Rokeya seeks the clear light of reason and the benefits of technology in establishing a good society. and avoidance of conflict which will inform a female-dominated society. I want now to contextualise this aspect OCTOBER 10. so Rokeya is also making the point that women must acquire the same knowledge as men. xiii) It is also worth noting that the education of girls at the time (as even now) tended to stress the useful domestic skills and “soft” subjects rather than the hard sciences. Resemblance to Hind Swaraj But “Sultana’s Dream” bears as well an unexpected resemblance to yet another literary oddity from the Indian subcontinent almost contemporary with it: Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj (1909). You want the tiger’s nature.” As for himself. Other writers too have developed the premise of separate worlds in their novels. he immediately commented “A terrible revenge!” (cited in Jahan 1998: 2). technology and virtue work together in perfect harmony. but not the tiger. and “science. the mardana). Rokeya wrote that when her husband finished reading her story.” she concludes. without the Englishman. both in the capacity of technology to achieve a good society and in women’s “different”—ethical.PERSPECTIVES “Sultana’s Dream” is rightly admired for its charming conceit of a reversal of gendered roles which places women in government and visible in public space (streets. “embodies the triumph of the virtuous. The faith displayed here in all innocence. The difficult conditions of possibility of a Ladyland cannot be wished away. in exactly the same way as Rokeya.” “Ladyland. The consequences are entirely beneficial. “Sultana’s Dream” cannot be read as primarily an attack on the male sex. and are perfectly capable of acquiring mastery of the sciences. and there is poetic justice in the fate that men suffer as it is their own self-destructive aggression that brings them to defeat.” who gives the credit for Britain’s conquest of India to its superior “civilisation. the openness and wonder with which in each case she receives an initiation into novel experiences and a continuous education in ideas. But although much has been made of the revenge motif. is strikingly similar. given the opportunity. harmonious social coexistence. and that for this to happen. Rokeya’s expressed admiration for Gulliver’s Travels suggests that Swift’s satirical fantasy may have given her the idea of constructing an imaginary. for development and environmental purposes. Gandhi on the other hand mocks the fiery nationalistic reader who would keep “English rule. When Gandhi in the persona of the Editor corrects the “reader. It is of course men’s disappearance into the zenana that will strike readers as the masterstroke of the narrative. he places both blame and agency on the conquered. scientific. purposive—use of scientific knowledge—have understandably been subjected to questioning. The dialogic form of both texts. Sultana’s wonderment at the absence of mosquitoes and at the well-run kitchens in Ladyland is typical of the naïvely awed responses of many in the underdeveloped world to the condition of Western societies with their shining marvels of gadgetry and functioning order. More questionable still. Women. The contradictions underlying feminism’s futures are made transparent in “Sultana’s Dream. and they put their scientific knowledge to the best possible use. chides the women of Bengal for losing their freedom to men. especially to readers today (although her defenders point out that she wrote before the two world wars and the atom bomb).

The demand for political equality for women. I have connected the sexual radicalism to techno-scientific developments. Sister Sara enlightens her— it is because she is so shy that she resembles the “new” men in her country. in turn. starting with the right to vote and moving quickly on to other kinds of parity—equal pay at the workplace. is a move away from liberal equality and the struggle for rights/justice. the second to an emphasis on the values. Quite apart from the distance we can track between formal equality and actually obtaining conditions of inequality in many contexts—and the difficulty of enforcing equal rights for women or other disadvantaged constituencies—even as an achieved goal it has to acknowledge a “ceiling. namely. To her surprise Sultana is viewed in Ladyland as “mannish” in her appearance. The first. Genderlessness through the abolition of gender is a feminist future. now perceived not just as insufficient but as actually complicit with masculinist values.4 The differing emphases of women’s demands are sometimes envisaged as constituting evolutionary stages or phases of the feminist movement. The feminist campaign against violence is also couched in the language of rights. French feminist theorists like Monique Wittig and Luce Irigaray have sought to “unground” sexual identities. one unaccustomed to being out on the streets without her veil—in contrast to the fearlessness and confidence with which women in Ladyland move around.PERSPECTIVES of Rokeya’s story—its techno-scientific utopianism—within a broader feminist theoretical frame. education and political participation for women. although we learn that childcare is left to the men in their domestic roles. The second phase that I have identified by the label radical–ethical. While much of the impetus for this theoretical thinking has come from the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) movement in recent years. but it must be noted that the connection does not explicitly figure in either French feminist thought or Judith Butler’s work. I am sure there is no need to rehearse each of these in any detail since this is a widely used classification of feminist thought and praxis. The refusal of biology as destiny—programmatically argued in Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex (1951)— vol l no 41 has of course long constituted one of feminism’s stands. Butler explains. where even culturally and socially sanctioned violence is deemed to constitute an offence against women’s human rights and comes into conflict with them.” More recently. the importance of the qualities of womanhood and femininity—peace. In the view of feminists. Juliet Mitchell (1984) sees the historical Economic & Political Weekly EPW OCTOBER 10. equal opportunity for education and entry into careers.5 In “Sultana’s Dream. If the opposition man–woman has been built on the ostensible biological difference between the sexes and has in turn supported the sexual division of labour. caring. Drawing on their work. Thus. cooperation. wages for housework and the kind. political-liberal feminism. It draws upon the post-structuralist deconstruction of binary structures with which the name of Jacques Derrida is associated and upon Michel Foucault’s studies in the History of Sexuality. nurture. childcare and maternity benefits. Donna Haraway expressed the “utopian dream of the hope for a monstrous world without gender” (1985: 181). “gender” is something that “should be overthrown. 2015 trajectory of second-wave Western feminism in the following terms: The first stage of our movement was directed to putting right the wrongs of women. and perceived as the object of sexual violence—then the removal of sexual difference alone can liberate them. essential female attributes of care. informed it. and the sexual-technoscientific. It 43 . is usually traced back to the French Revolution which provided the language of equality to women. and. Rokeya’s feminism is both liberal– political in urging social reform. nurturance. Judith Butler’s argument about the “performativity” of gender is intended to render it flexible and open to transformation. as well as ethical–radical in advocating a separate and different female world. Here it is the men who are shy and reclusive. the ethical-radical. more recently in human rights language. the dissolution of gender identities and of the sexual difference itself has been an aspect of the utopian imagination for much longer. however inadvertently (Scott 1996). The major move towards embracing an alterity coded as feminine involves simultaneously envisaging social relations and political structures in a radically different mode. or rendered fatally ambiguous precisely because it is always a sign of subordination for women” (1999: xiii). instrumental reason now deemed essentially male in origin and as ideology. Presumably men play their traditional role in sexual reproduction. Nor has it been prominent in the contemporary LGBT movement. Sultana’s shyness is of course the result of her being a purdanashin woman in her own society. influential critiques of liberal feminism have originated from feminist and other intellectuals adopting and advocating culturally “other” perspectives. Rokeya herself is vague about the sexual order of Ladyland. Why two sexes? Why not a proliferation of sexual identities on a much broader spectrum? If sexual difference is the ground of women’s oppression—consigned to child-bearing and maternal functions. it constitutes its own limits. eliminated. the political-liberal. but there is no explicit mention of marriage or the usual forms of heterosexual union. 4 Conceptualising Alternatives It is usual to identify three distinctive feminist modes of conceptualising alternative social relations or political structures. arguably analogous to Marxism’s goal of achieving a classless society by eradicating class. More radical still is a relatively recent development in feminism—the questioning of the sex-gender system itself. pacifism and the like displace conflict. then this structure itself would have to be demystified in order to dismantle the system. the queen has a little daughter.” the very ease with which the reversal of gender roles is brought about is an indication of its “performative” condition. Although this kind of juridical equality has by and large been conceded to women worldwide by national constitutions and through universal United Nations mandates and conventions. competition.

but it grew from a Marxist consciousness of To subscribe. GK Marg. would be lifted through technology to make humane living. Mumbai 400 013. the revolution for the release of the oppressed majority of the ­ world. By “taking ­responsibility for the social relations of science and technology” and “refusing an anti-science metaphysics. She is filled with optimism about the potential of the 20th century scientific revolution to bring about the emancipation of women and workers: A feminist revolution could be the decisive factor in establishing a new ecological balance: attention drawn to the popula­ tion explosion. 320-321.” she affirmed. “creatures simultaneously animal and machine. Postal address: Economic and Political Weekly. The double curse. by changing man’s relationship to work and wages. would allow for a total redefinition of the economy. but Rokeya does not stretch her imagination so far as to ­envisage the biological order itself being disturbed by scientific advances in the field. by transforming activity from ‘work’ to ‘play’ (activity done for its own sake). Lower Parel. a shifting of emphasis from 44 r­ eproduction to contraception and demands for the full development of artificial reproduction would provide an alternative to the oppressions of the biological family. specifically the sexual uniqueness that makes women the sole reproducers of the species. “The cyborg is our ontology. she maintained that only the proper identification of the origins of antagonism could provide the means to end it. women would be enabled to transcend gender. individuals and institutions. big-brother control. Child-bearing and childrearing are physically constraining and painful for women. Her vision was futuristic. In the late 1980s Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” would revisit the by then largely forgotten and aban­ doned agenda of Firestone’s work. and that woman should bear in pain and travail.” Her scenario of the future extends the possibilities of a present in which “humanity has begun to transcend Nature” (p 10).epw.PERSPECTIVES is of course their superiority in scientific and technolo­gical knowhow that gives women the upper hand in Ladyland and inverts the power structure. she also argues her way out of it with the confidence that modern scientific progress will make it possible to conquer Nature. squarely.html Attractive rates available for students. The feminist position in these post­modern times would be to face radical scientific transformations of the biological. including the family unit in its economic capacity. This had to await discoveries and innovations that came later in the 20th century. 5  Techno-Scientific Utopias? The earliest of the feminist works which seized on the potential for women’s liberation through scientific advances in biotechnology and cybernetics was ­Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. The source of women’s oppression lies in biology. Juliet Mitchell (1971) paraphrases these ideas in terms of Firestone’s “radical feminism:” Radical feminism. who populate worlds ambiguously natural and crafted” (p 149). a possibility (p 184). and by extension the social world. Thus culture would at last overcome nature and the ‘ultimate revolution’ would be achieved. I have quoted at some length from The Dialectic of Sex and Mitchell’s gloss on the book in order to show the extent of faith that a certain strand of feminist thought has invested in biotechnological means of liberating women from their biologically-produced oppression. India. babyfarms. cybernation. not merely socially demanding OCTOBER 10. What aligns Haraway’s work with Subscribe to the Print edition What do you get with a Print subscription? • 50 issues delivered to your door every year • All special and review issues • Access to Archives of the past two years • Web Exclusives • And a host of other features on www.” Haraway anno­ unced. Tel: +91-22-40638282 | Email: circulation@epw. 2015  vol l no 41  EPW   Economic & Political Weekly . published in 1970. Drawing on Engels. providing deliverance from the “primitive and oppressed animal life that mankind ­ and guarantee that their humane application would finally free mankind from the trap of painful biology. Firestone called for a feminist “revolution” whose goal would be “not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human ­beings would no longer matter culturally” (p 11). But if Firestone concedes female biological oppression. that man should till the soil by the sweat of his brow.epw. “We are ­c yborgs. for the first time. using the present tense in an ­anticipatory way (1991: 150). A to Z Industrial Estate. would liberate test-tube babies. She takes recourse to feminist science fiction to read in these texts the “quite different political possibilities and limits from those proposed by the mundane fiction of Man and Woman” (p 180). a demono­ logy of technology” (p 181). from their confinement within the horrors of ‘brave new world’ and 1984. visit: www.

” The Atlantic. India in December 2012. New York: Farrar. Judith (1999): Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.academia. have undeniably produced a transformation in heterosexual relations and in the female condition itself for which the term “liberation” can be used (even if ironically). Jyoti Singh Pandey. There is the politics of utopia itself. on a bus in New Delhi. However. despite considerable differences between them. a genderless society might not even be imaginable. For an interesting discussion. In other words. Angela (2004). Rosin. test-tube babies.” Sultana’s Dream and Padmarag. Instead we have the term empowerment to refer to a kind of muscle-building. edited and introduced by Roushan Jahan. being broadly environmental Economic & Political Weekly EPW OCTOBER 10. and which have been distinctly gendered. Joan (1996): Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man. her postmodern position implies faith in the more diffuse expression of subversion and ambivalence.” The Atlantic. As more forms of reproduction through artificial insemination. like labour-saving machinery and the condition of women in the workplace. pp 149–81 Hossain. However between them the woman writer from early 20th century colonial India and the feminist theorists from late-capitalist United States cover complementary aspects of a feminist utopia. have to be articulated with capitalist developments in production and technology. London: Virago.” New Left Review. artificial wombs. and the second the gang rape and killing of a young woman. 45 . and have succeeded in considerably destabilising its complacency. the goal of social emancipation achieved through the radical destabilisation of gender systems requires much greater thought. New York: Crown. Arguably too. Jameson. Donna (1991): “The Cyborg Manifesto”. or not primarily. See especially Chapter 7. Technoscientific utopias that envisage social well-being as nothing less than the amelioration of the human condition itself. True. Hanna (2010): “The End of Men. a much-debated issue that I have not touched upon. I am conscious that my essay has left several pressing questions unanswered and unattempted. From perceiving the limits of equality politics such critiques have proceeded to question the hegemony of claims made in the name of its universality. 15 April.6 There is also the controversial content of this utopia. Gandhi. the imaginary of a brave new world (it is not for nothing that the majority of visions of a scientifically advanced society are dystopic). Angelo (nd): “Would It be Possible to Have a Aociety without Gender? If So. New York: The Feminist Press. Excerpt online at: https://www. self-improvement exercise for women. Mass: Harvard University Press. Haraway. online at: http://www. Firestone. Walby. Berlatsky. Saba (2004): The Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. edited by Anthony J Parel. in both production and consumption. …Attempts at the obliteration of difference throughout history have vol l no 41 proven to be some of the most violent impositions on the collective human body and psyche. And we would be right to ask how much of an unmixed good the advances themselves represent. women scientists. Mitchell. in “Sultana’s Dream” these ends are not directly in the service of women’s biological and physical emancipation. Cambridge. the birth control pill in particular.” London: Penguin. As self-identified and recognisable socialist feminists they worked with (although not within) Marxist categories. Frederic Jameson’s “The Politics of Utopia. let alone achievable or desirable.” Feminist Media Studies. It is Rokeya who envisages women’s capture of the state as well as the takeover of the scientific establishment by women scientists as the implicit preconditions of science and technology being put to progressive uses. 3. and Giroux. Jahan. 25. Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. 10th anniversary edition. Faludi. have invoked strong cultural relativist arguments (problematically. 4. or feminist demands that are driving these changes. edu/2216281/Would_it_be_possible_to_have_ a_society_without_gender_If_so_what_might _it_look_like Butler. Simians. cloning and the like proliferate.” Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. Twentieth century advances in contraception. Indeed Haraway does not propose a revolutionary praxis at all.” is among the most well-known recent reflections on the subject. But it is not women. What Might It Look Like?”: http://www. revised and reprinted in Haraway. Noah Berlatsky (2013): “Imagine There’s No Gender: The Long History of Feminist Utopian Literature. Roushan (1988): “‘Sultana’s Dream’: Purdah Reversed’ and ‘Rokeya: An Introduction to her Life. M K (1997): Hind Swaraj and Other Writings. pp 177ff. pp 255–64. Susan (1991): Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women. July/August. the relationship of the sexes is bound to change definitively. Literature and Psychoanalysis. January–February. Juliet (1971): “Women’s Estate. Sylvia (2011): The Future of Feminism. is their shared faith in overcoming the gendered condition through the opportunities afforded by the biotechnological revolution. Leela (2006): Affective Communities: Anticolonial Thought. Mahmood. Cf Angelo Brieussel: “to focus on the utopian ideal of a genderless society might well be counterproductive to the expansion of freedom for gendered beings. Notes 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 The first was the shooting of a schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban in the Swat District in Afghanistan in October 2012. McRobbie. the freezing of embryos.PERSPECTIVES Firestone’s. Barnita (2005): “Introduction to Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. Sultana’s Dream: A Feminist Utopia and Selections from the Secluded Ones. Princeton: Princeton University Press. “Post Feminism and Popular Culture. New York: The Feminist Press. 2015 and developmental.” References Scott. translated and with an Introduction by Barnita Bagchi. see Noah Berlatsky (2013). Straus. Shulamith (1970): The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist pp 35–54. edited and introduced by Roushan Jahan. New York: Routledge Press. Rokeya Sakhawat (1988): Sultana’s Dream: A Feminist Utopia and Selections from the Secluded Ones. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. what is not clear from Firestone’s position (or for that matter Haraway’s) is what role women in general or the feminist movement in particular would play in bringing about this development. Rokeya’s dream repays consideration today as much as it did over one hundred years ago—even though it may not be responsive to our immediate fire-fighting urgencies—if only because it pushes us to consider what it is we want.htm — (1984): Women: The Longest Revolution: Essays on Feminism. But neither of them gets into the details of how a feminist praxis that would overturn capitalist domination and take over its instruments will be staged.7 But this is precisely the point. at this stage in ‘Western’ Lifeworlds. New York: Routledge. Not that either Firestone or Haraway was blind to modern science and technology’s connections with capitalism. London: Polity. 1985. Ethnographies like Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety. challenge us to interrogate their premises and their reasoning. marxists. Frederic (2004): “The Politics of Utopia. Durham: Duke University Press. 2013/04/imagine-theres-no-gender-the-longhistory-of-feminist-utopian-literature/274993/ Brieussel. Socialist Review. There is no doubt that these.theatlantic. to my mind) to recognise and legitimise pious Egyptian Muslim (Salafa) women’s submissive religiosity in order to challenge liberal feminism.theatlantic. for instance. online at http://www. Fin-de-Siècle Radicalism and the Politics of Friendship. New Delhi: Penguin Books India. The last phrase is Leela Gandhi’s Affective Communities (2006).