- Kelly Williams
Take a look around. Are we not living in 'The Handmaid’s Tale’s' Gilead?
If you have not yet read The Handmaid’s Tale, it is an absolute must. Written in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale is a ‘dystopic nightmare’, yet it is ironically applicable to today’s society. There are evident connections between the concerns, events and ideologies of the novel and those of our contemporary society or recent history.
If I existed in Margaret Atwood’s Gilead, I would surely be classified as a deviant, immoral woman. With my skin on show, and—God forbid—my ability to think and thus rebel, I would be deemed the worst of the worst. Women are continuously villainized for our clothing, our refusal to remain confined within outdated perceptions of gender, and also deciding that us, and only us, have control over our bodies.
Atwood famously wrote that she put nothing in the novel that was not in some way rooted in something that had already happened in the world; but sadly, over thirty five years later, such injustices are still happening.
The Handmaids are initially stripped of agency through the erasure of their names, destroying their ultimate means of identity. This allows for a complete rebranding, portraying the women as objects that are repossessed and labelled, and of course, their new name must be a reflection of their shattered independence. We do not know our narrator’s true name, but we understand she has become ‘Offred’. The prefix ‘of’ symbolises her belonging to a specific Commander, meaning the Handmaids’ identities signify their restricted existence; they are merely an extension of their owner.
Being ranked as a Handmaid denies the women control over their sexuality, rather it is handed over to the Commanders who repeatedly enforce ritualistic sex in an attempt to reproduce. The Handmaids do not consent to the act, but knowing their objection would result in punishment, they are tragically coerced into participating in their own rape.
Despite having made progress in terms of female liberation, the extent of our agency remains in the hands of others. This is evidenced through decisions concerning women’s bodies being made on our behalf, rather than by ourselves. In May 2019, Alabama became the latest US state to restrict abortion laws, ‘outlaw[ing] the procedure in almost all cases’ including rape and incest. The bill was conveniently passed by Alabama's Republican governor, Kay Ivey; a man who will never experience the trauma of an unwanted nor unfeasible pregnancy.
Under the bill, doctors face 10 years in prison for attempting to terminate a pregnancy and 99 years for carrying out the procedure. This is a horrific reflection of the events in Atwood’s text, as doctors are killed and labelled ‘war criminals’: ‘They have committed atrocities, and must be made into examples’. These ‘criminals’ are hung on the Wall to be viewed by others, a warning against the consequences of non-conformity, ‘they are meant to scare’. Publicly displaying and eradicating those who oppose the totalitarian regime is a visual representation of Gilead’s power and authority, much like the threat of a lengthy prison sentence for Alabama doctors is a caution to remain an obedient, compliant citizen.
Fortunately, Alabama’s abortion law was blocked from taking effect in November 2019, as the judge admitted it would diminish ‘the capacity of women to act in society, and to make reproductive decisions’. Despite this, countries such as Malta, Philippines, Madagascar, and the much closer to home Northern Ireland, refuse to legalise abortion, many of them having a complete ‘blanket ban’ on the procedure. Atwood stated that the ‘control of women and babies has been a feature of every repressive regime on the planet’, conveying restricted abortions and Gilead’s forced pregnancies as a form of conditioning, reducing women’s autonomy in an attempt to limit them to a subordinate position.
Though we have not been forced into a form of reproductive slavery, women are still valued based on their decision to reproduce; if we decide that we do not want children, we are questioned and told our minds will change with time.
Most discussions around children revolve around ‘when’ rather than ‘if’, embedding that reproduction is natural and our main purpose. This reinforces Atwood’s emphasis on the significance of fertility, branding the Handmaids ‘two-legged wombs’ and instilling that they are ‘for breeding purposes only’. Their feet and hands ‘are not essential’, after all, they are only valued for their fertility.
Like those of us who are labelled ‘naïve’ and ‘young’ for not striving for motherhood, those who fail to reproduce in Gilead are alienated and categorised amongst the ‘Unwomen’. If the Handmaids cannot fulfil their only function, then they are unworthy and shall be shunned. To be a woman, is to reproduce, hence the ‘un’ removing the women of their female identity.
Today’s women are isolated for not wanting children, admitting ‘it can seem shameful’; society appears to take the decision personally and disapproves of their refusal to abide by societal expectations. Although we may not be banished to the colonies for failing to conceive, we remain estranged by the often unspoken division of gender norms concerning reproduction.
We are scapegoats
This is further demonstrated through clothing, as the text recollects women exhibiting themselves like ‘roast meat on a spit’, referring to their sparse and ‘immodest’ clothing. The comparison to meat portrays them as products of consumption, again reducing their autonomy and contributing to the suggestion that women are objects of desire, rather than fully functioning beings. ‘To be seen - to be seen - is to be… penetrated’, hence the significance of clothing acting as a mode of concealment; modesty is invisibility.
Dressing in a revealing manner only entices crime, ‘no wonder those things used to happen’. Clothing is deemed as a reflection of consent, and the imposed uniform of long, plain dresses is an attempt to avoid fashion being perceived as an invitation for harassment. This provides ‘freedom from’ men’s unwanted attention, yet enforcing a uniform is an ironic deflation of the Handmaids’ own free-will.
Similarly, women today can relate to this confinement, acknowledging that we are frequently sexualised and objectified. Rather than tackling the core of the issue - those who sexualise us - we are battered by a culture that relies heavily on the ‘she asked for it’ notion. We are scapegoats for those who push their unwelcome desires upon us, resembling the prominent issue of victim blaming in Atwood’s text.
When Janine relays her traumatic rape, the other Handmaids are encouraged to taunt her, echoing ‘Her fault, her fault, her fault’ and claiming ‘she’ caused the assault to happen. Through reversing the role of responsibility and accountability, women become the perpetrator whilst men avoid punishment.
Sadly, this is still seen in current society. Women have previously been advised to ‘stick to well-lit streets. If possible, let someone know when you are coming home and the route you are taking and always be alert in your surroundings, so don't use earphones or handheld devices’. This advice comes from The Metropolitan Police, a system paid to protect us, yet they ask women to change rather than confronting the actual perpetrators. Focusing on the victim does not address the source of the issue: the deep-rooted issues within society that enable continuous harassment.
Jessica Eaton hit back at this, claiming ‘Headphones don't rape women, nor do skirts, or dark streets, or clubs, or alcohol, or parties, or sleepovers, or school uniforms’. These things do not summon nor warrant harassment, and demanding women to alter their lives, appearance and routines simply restrains the victim. Both Gilead and today’s society provide safety advice that is at women’s expense, rather than promoting security and free-will. Though it is disappointing, society parallels Gilead’s unacceptable, suppressive response to female victimisation.
Are we not, then, truly living in Atwood’s Gilead?