Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s short story “Sultana’s Dream”, as published in 1905, is one of the earliest feminist fictions written in India and continues to hold relevance till date. The Narrator in her story dreams of a Lady land where men are put in purdah and secluded from the activities of the state. Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain imagined a reversal of patriarchy, a fantasy land where women had come out of zenana, educated themselves and successfully maintained peace and order in society with their intelectual prowess. Living in an era when both colonialism and patriarchy dominated the society, through her story she exhorts the fellow women of India to come out of their traditional roles of reproduction and nurturing which they had submissively accepted. She pictured a utopian Ladyland and gave an opportunity to every woman to dream, to break the shackles of patriarchal norms, to realize their capabilities and strengths and not to limit themselves to everyday domestic chores.
Hossain in her story strikes at the passiveness of the women in not fighting against patriarchy, and as can also be concluded the colonial rule, and writes, ‘A lion is stronger than a man, but it does not enable him to dominate the human race. You have neglected the duty you owe to yourselves and you have lost your natural rights by shutting your eyes to your own interests’.
Kamla Bhasin describes the meaning of the term patriarchy in simple words. The word patriarchy literally means the rule of the father or the patriarch and originally was used to describe a specific type of male-dominated family- the large household of the patriarch which included women, junior men, children, slaves and domestic servants all under the rule of this dominant male. Linked to this system is the ideology that men are superior to women, that women are and should be controlled by men and that women are part of men’s property. (Kali for Women, 1993) In this system men control women’s productive or labor power, reproductive power, sexuality, property and other productive resources. Almost the entire country suffers from this evil of patriarchy and women are restricted to their socially constructed roles within the confines of family and private spaces.
The dream which was lent to us by Hossain almost a century ago still remains far-fetched. The problems of dowry, bride burning, female feticide, neglect of girl child, trafficking, sexual harassment and violence directed towards women and other evils are harsh realities of our society. Education has failed to save women from the bounds of domesticity. They continue to be constructed as inferior to men and are not given a role in management and administration within and outside the family. Their voices either remain absent or unheard in decision making bodies at the local and state levels, their concerns are not articulated in policies and laws easily.
In the 13th and present Legislative Assembly of Haryana, there are only 13 women legislators out of the total number of 90. This dismal representation was however celebrated as being the highest against the earlier high of 11 women legislators in 2005 assembly polls. In 2011 Census, Haryana was placed last among all states for having the lowest female to male sex ratio. As the patriarchal society here struggles to save the girl child, the matrilineal tribes of Meghalaya are looked upon as the utopian idealistic societies by many.
Meghalaya is the homeland of the Khasis, Jaintias and Garos where matrilineal social structure is prevailing for thousands of years. In these traditional societies property is passed down through the female line, from mother to daughter, as the men were gone for war for long periods of time. In a matrilineal society, descent is traced through women and the principle of female ultimo geniture is followed in matters of inheritance. Among Khasis, property both in land and other forms is passed on from generation to generation through the “khatduh” or the youngest daughter in the family. Women here enjoy a better status than their sisters residing in the rest of the country. They are free from many social restraints and problems prevailing in the patriarchal Indian society and are respected and honored.
However, matrilineal is not the same as matriarchy and can’t be understood as patriarchy’s antonym. The society remains structured and works as per patriarchal norms. Although the female members inherit property but the decisions regarding its management is taken by the male-members of the family and the brothers or maternal uncles play an important role. Further, females remain absent from the law making bodies and local decision-making bodies.
While the females in Meghalaya enjoy certain social privileges, these matrilineal societies suffer from their own set of problems including poverty, unemployment, high dropout rates, early marriages, broken marriages, divorce and other related issues owing to modernization, urbanization and exposure to other communities. The female member is seen both as a custodian as well as an inheritor of the clan name, and male members function to support the identity of the clan. In Khasi conception, men are believed to be physiologically and intellectually superior to women.
Even today, there is negligible presence of women in the Legislative Assembly and Autonomous District Councils (Nongbri 2000). In the 9th Legislative Assembly of Meghalaya there are only 5 women legislators out of the total number of 60. Women here are confined to their familial roles as reproducers and nurturers and have the responsibility of providing for the family. This traditional construction of woman is synonymous with the Aristotelian view of regarding women as inferior to men in her capacities, her ability to reason and therefore her ability to make decisions.
Sultana’s Dream of a world where women develop their capacities to the fullest and take part in the management of their affairs can be realized when women come out of their houses and take part in the decision making bodies. The patriarchal mindset of these bodies can be altered only when more female faces are included and their voices are heard. Matrilineal or patrilineal, our societies need to respect woman as an individual, not to be subordinated or dominated or to be feared, rather men and women need to work together in harmony.
(The Author of this article is a student of LL.M., Faculty of Law, University of Delhi)