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'Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood' Are we the real-life Offreds? Review by Nandini Mazumder

Updated: Mar 17

“We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.”

― Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale







I have always valued reading and as my interest in gender, sexuality and feminism increased

with time, I have focused on women authors and books around issues unseen. When I came

across The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood a few years ago, I wasn’t prepared for the

blatant honesty of the novel. Margaret Atwood is known for her dystopian feminist literature

and The Handmaid’s tale is a seminal work in that genre. It was first published in 1985 and

was recently made into a Netflix series which I am yet to watch. The book is considered a great work of literature and very well written it is, but it is also extremely dark and disturbing. The darkness of the novel is much deeper as the dystopian world described in the story finds resonance in lived realities of many around the world. As a reflective and sensitive reader, the book inevitably led me to compare the dystopian and fictious world of the handmaids to the people living in the real world around me. I found striking similarities and therefore, wonder if we should call the novel a work of dystopia or simply a metaphorical account of how patriarchy continues to perpetuate hierarchies and dominate over large sections of people.


Warning: spoilers ahead!

Property, not people


Offred, the main character in the book loses her identity when the oppressive Gilead regime

comes to power. It all started quietly when women were fired from their jobs and barred from

holding bank accounts. Offred became dependent on her husband Luke. After the regime had taken over, Offred became a handmaid and her name was changed.

The handmaids had no other identity except for being a womb on two legs; their only role

was to serve men and reproduce. Offred and other women in the Gilead universe owned

nothing – they were the owned ones. Handmaids were the property of the commanders who

would discard them once their turn was over or their purpose (of procreation) was fulfilled. It

reminds me of several things, including the immense pressure mostly on women to marry or

face the repercussions of societal stigma and shaming. Or the Hindu wedding ritual called

‘Kanyadan’ which literally translates as giving away of the virgin, to the man who marries

her – indicating that she is a ‘thing’ to be ‘given’ away, a property that gets transferred to

another owner.

The mindset is reflected in South Asian languages as well; daughters are often referred to

as paraya dhan or another’s property/treasure. Her worth is measured in her ability to obey

commands, her ability to run the house, and procreate, especially, a male progeny. In fact, in many Asian countries (like, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran etc.), a husband can legally rape his wife, implying that a wife is only as good as her vagina and her consent, emotions or health, are irrelevant. Her identity doesn’t matter because globally women, by and large, adopt their husband’s surname after marriage. In fact, in some communities in the sub-continent, a woman’s first name is also changed after marriage, to imply her transference

to her husband and his ownership over her.


Criminalizing and stigmatizing female desires


Is it too far-fetched to say that the lives of real women and many other marginalized groups bears an uncanny resemblance with the life of the fictional character, Offred? Her choice, love and desires do not count. In the story, Offred’s love for Luke, her husband before the

regime, or her desire for Nick, her secret lover when she was a handmaid, is not for her to

decide.

Back in 2017 when I finished reading Handmaid’s Tale for the first time it made me reflect

on the scores of honour killings South Asia. Specifically, I was reminded of Hadiya who

faced harassment, threats and was kept under a house arrest simply for daring to choose her

own life partner. However, she was one of the lucky few who survived or in other words not

killed on the pretext of a crime called, “honour killing” – it is an act of homicide committed

by the family of the girl against her autonomy and agency to protect the familial-societal

“honour”. The irony is that it is 2020 as many Asian countries boast of competing with global

super-powers, women’s mobility and desires are tightly controlled, curbed and punished (for

e.g. Qandeel Baloch who was killed by her brother as her sexuality was seen as an affront to

the family honor.) Most are unable to love or lust fearlessly and unabashedly – without

parental and khap/societal pressure, bullying and harassment of the anti-Romeo squads,

accusations of being victims or collaborators of love jihad, and without the fear of

persecution from the authorities. Do these real threats to women’s autonomy and agency not

make all women Offreds?


Bodies: A battle zone for waging moral wars


Offred, and other women in the Gilead regime had no access to health services except for

checking for defects and to assess if they needed to be ‘discarded’ or not. Women had to go

full-term and give birth even if those were stillbirths, because abortion was not available to

them.

In the real world, the United States of America which is touted as the leader of the free world

while it rapidly snatches away freedom from those who seek abortions in America and world-

wide. President Trump signed the expanded Global Gag Rule (GGR) and has led to an

adverse situation for reproductive and sexual health and rights programs globally. In India

abortion seekers are often denied abortion services for multiple reasons. Mostly because of

the service provider bias who refer to a clause our law, the Medical Termination of

Pregnancy Act (MTP Act), which states that a married woman may avail abortion services in

case of a contraceptive failure. This affects the vulnerable the most, such as, the young and

unmarried, queer or trans people, poor people and sex workers who are left at the mercy of

the service providers judgement and discretion. In Tamil Nadu, following a decade long ban

on Emergency Contraceptive Pills (ECP), they still remain unavailable and out of reach for

most. In Nepal the Right to Safe Motherhood Act that was passed in 2018 has once again

jeopardized the right to safe abortion that was passed in 2002 and further consolidated the

stigma against abortion.

Beyond Asia, progress was made when Northern Ireland decriminalized abortions in 2018.

Or the ongoing movement in Argentina that is striving to legalize abortions and has the

President’s backing. Or in 2017 when the complete ban on abortions was lifted in Chile and

yet the countries struggles to ensure access to abortions, especially, since conscientious

objection from the service provider was approved in 2018.


When clothes become a sin


In the Gilead universe there exist others, such as, the Unwomen (whose lives don’t matter),

the Marthas (the servants), the Wives of the rich and powerful, and the Econwives of the

poor; I should perhaps rephrase this and say that none of these lives matter and all women are treated no better than a vagina or a womb. Each of these categories of women in the Gilead regime is given uniforms to ensure their modesty and classify them according to their utility in society.

The handmaids like Offred wore red gowns (to emphasise their reproductive function) and

even the headgear ensured that they do not look at anyone, not even at other women and vice versa. Friendships and attachment between women were discouraged, while jealousy and rivalry were encouraged, especially between the wives and the handmaids; desire and

romantic love were entirely forbidden.

This mirrors how across the world dress codes are imposed, particularly on women. From being asked to cover their faces, wear the hijab compulsorily such as, in Iran or not wear it such as in Western countries like France where there was a restriction on wearing Burkha or Burkini, and many such other arbitrary rules that deny women of their agency. Globally, the highest blame for sexual assault against women has been singularly placed on their choice of clothing, even though this has been proven

fallacious time and again. #OnlyRapistsRape!


When independence is offence


In the Gilead universe, women who defied social norms and took over the control of their

own lives became the Jezebels. The sex workers, the ‘sluts’, the single women, the witches,

the lesbians and bisexuals, the ones who challenged hetero-normative orders, the ones who

claimed their own person-hood – all were branded Jezebels.

Just like in our society, sex workers live in the red light districts and brothels, hidden away,

ghettoized and isolated, as these out-caste women are considered too impure for the rest of

the society; there is always the threat that they will corrupt other women. The single

women in Asia have it little or no better, as women are not considered fit to live on her own.

Therefore, women who decide not to marry, or choose to divorce and live on their own terms, often have similar experiences of either being unable to rent a place, face harassment or are simply asked to leave. They are considered too dangerous and abhorred just like the Jezebels.


If the real world seems to be a dystopia, then we better wake up and act

The world we have inherited seems dangerously similar to “The Handmaid’s Tale”. The

global rise of regressive right-wing fundamentalism is further pushing women’s and marginalized people’s rights back. Even the gains that were made so far, seem to be under attack. The fundamentalist politics is essentially anti-people, anti-environment, anti-choice,

anti-pleasure and further ghettoizing or rendering people stateless. Such a political ideology

reinforces the idea that some people who are in the margins of the margins, such as, women,

non-binary folks, trans people, and anyone who challenges heteronormativity and patriarchy

are lesser people and undeserving of basic human rights and dignity. The situation is even

worse in the conflict zones where violence of all kinds and gender and sexual violence in

particular, goes on with impunity, whether it is Baluchistan, Kashmir, Rakhine State, Jaffna

or any other place where marginalized communities live under constant violence. Therefore,

it is a call to wake up from our slumber and rescue our world from becoming the nightmare

that the Handmaid’s Tale is.