Haunting Handmaid’s Tale Actually Happened

The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu April 26.

The Handmaid’s Tale seems too hauntingly creepy to have ever occurred in real life, yet all of the main events (and more) actually happened at some point in history. Some are alive and well even now.

Plot highlights:

Religious zealots use the fear of terrorism to install a theocratic dictatorship and remove citizen rights — most severely, women’s rights.

A caste system is established giving men status and rights over women, and bestowing some women higher status and rights than others.

Generally, women are treated as property and subordinated to their husbands and fathers. Among other prohibitions, they cannot be involved in politics, hold a job, read, write, possess money, or own anything. Some women are forced to be breeders and take on the names of the men who claim them (Ofglen is the property of Glen).

Low self-esteem is beaten into women, literally and figuratively. Bestowed low status and power, they are also taught that everything is their fault. Even rape, a crime that is feared by women above all others except murder. Women learn to shame, blame and punish each other, and let men off the hook. They are taught to punish each other for “sins” against the regime that oppresses them.

Meanwhile, leaders of the regime may hypocritically fail to follow the doctrines they preach. They tell everyone to be chaste and refrain from drugs and drink yet attend sex clubs, for instance.

Historical precedence for The Handmaid’s Tale

  • Don’t think: Folks in this tale join in book burnings, and women aren’t allowed to read or write.

The Taliban of Afghanistan did not allow women in their regime to read, and still fight against schooling for girls.

American slaves were not allowed to read or write.

Books have been banned and burned throughout the world.

And 18th century American women were discouraged from writing, as Charlotte Perkins Gilman describes in The Yellow Wallpaper.

Many conservatives enforce their own personal ban by avoiding everything but right-wing media.

  • A caste system is established giving men status and rights over women, and bestowing some women higher status and rights than others.

American slavery, the Hindu caste system and the English class system have all held components of ordering men above women, and some groups of men and women above other groups.

  • Theocratic dictatorship that removes citizen rights.

The Iranian revolution and the Taliban of Afghanistan both claimed to be theocracies and removed citizen rights.

  • Patriarchies remove women’s rights most severely

This is such a broad topic but here are a few examples.

The Old Testament

Gilead is purportedly a reestablishment of Old Testament law, and in the Old Testament women were subordinated to their husbands and fathers, seen as property to be bought and sold, and punished more severely than men for sexual “sin.”

Taliban, Iran, ISIL

The Taliban of Afghanistan are the most comprehensive offenders here, forcing women out of the public sphere and into their homes. The regime stripped women of virtually all their rights, including jobs, owning property, involvement in politics, education, reading, being seen in public without a male escort and enforced covering from head to foot, including a face-covering robe.

Ancient Greece

Women in ancient Greece lived a lot like women under Taliban rule. They were confined to their homes and relegated to inferior quarters within them. Not surprisingly, women were not allowed to be involved in politics, either. Women were not allowed equal education to men.

The severe punishments women faced for defying the law suggests that they had once lived in a more gender-equal society and were overtaken by patriarchal invaders.

  • No identity

Offred has no name but her “owner’s.” Just as an American slave like Kunta Kinte was forced to become “Toby.”

Even today most US women take their husband’s name when they marry.

Modesty laws can also lead to lost identity as women become indistinguishable from others, as with the head to toe burka — which echoes Offred’s outfit.

  • Brainwashing: Handmaids are brainwashed in a “Red Center.”

The handmaid’s “Red Center” parallels the Red Guard re-education facility.

Modesty laws — common among religious fundamentalists of all sorts — can also help brainwash. If severe, there is less opportunity for self-expression. Otherwise, modesty leaves all women learning to obey on a daily basis as they monitor their skirt length, keep cleavage from being revealed, keep their legs crossed, and generally wear clothing according to others dictates… This teaches women to obey and is especially powerful since clothing fits close to our bodies and is an intimate part of our daily routine.

  • Women Blamed for everything

In Gilead everything is women’s fault. In our world Eve, Pandora and their “daughters” have been blamed for bringing sin and evil into the world.

Even rape, a crime that is feared by women above all except murder, is blamed on the female victims in Gilead and the Middle East and America… In some parts of the Middle East rape is always the woman’s fault and she is stoned to death for her sin.

It must be due to something she wore, or for being outside the home after dark (and experiencing autonomy).

In North America women have committed suicide after being slut-shamed for being assaulted.

Women who are battered are sometimes faulted for not being a good enough wife. Not so long ago that sort of blame was common.

  • Public executions — especially aimed at women

Women are particularly likely to be publicly stoned to death for sexual “sin” in some parts of the Middle East even today.

Here in America nonconforming women have historically faced public shaming and banishment, as with the Puritans, most famously in Salem. Or slut-shaming today.

  • Women harming other women

In many of the above examples we see women who have internalized patriarchy hurting other women. Some have accused other women of witchcraft, women teach their daughters that Eve or Pandora brought evil into the world.

In some cultures women cut or even remove their daughter’s genitals, which kills and cripples some of them.

In The Handmaid’s Tale the Aunts and the “Commander’s” wife mirror real life women like Christian fundamentalist preacher Tammy Faye Messner and women’s rights enemy, Phyllis Schlafly, who built successful careers preaching against gender equality, in “do as I say and not as I do” mode.

In the church I grew up in women packed lunches and got on buses to fight women’s rights at various conferences. And my piano teacher – a member of my church – fought against battered women’s shelters.

I also grew up hearing some women body shame and slut shame other women, even if they were victims of sexual assault.

I could go on…

  • Women become property

Offred is the property of the Commander and it was not uncommon in ancient warrior societies to buy and sell women or to take them as sexual prizes. Even today both the Taliban and ISIL have enslaved women. Slavery has existed in many parts of the world including the antebellum South.

  • Women = breeders

Once the slave trade was abolished in America black women were forced into breeding.

But Offred’s predicament comes quite directly from the Old Testament where Sarah is unable to conceive and asks her husband, Abraham to have sex with her handmaid so that she might have child by her. Sarah’s son Jacob also bore sons by his two wives, Rachel and Leah, and their handmaids, whose sons belonged to the respective wives.

  • Only high-status males have autonomy

In Gilead high status men may take fertile women away from low status men. And their wives have no say in all of this. Today, high status fundamentalist Mormon men may take entire families away from low status men and reassign them.

  • Hypocrisy

In Gilead leaders of the regime hypocritically fail to follow the doctrines they preach.

In the Bible Belt today Gentleman’s Clubs are frequented and gay porn is purchased at higher rates than in other parts of the country. And before 9/11 some of the soon-to-be terrorists visited strip clubs. The Taliban and ISIL also force women into sexual slavery.

But of course, it’s not really about religion. Religion is used as an excuse to take power.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on April 12, 2017, in feminism, reproductive rights and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. It’s scary how much the government has control over our bodies including life-altering decisions like pregnancy. I have watched the first season of Handmaiden’s Tale show on Hulu and my initial thoughts were how I could see this as our dystopian future if laws keep restricting women’s reproductive and health rights. Reading this article I learned about different ways women have already gone through what the handmaids went through.  Throughout history, women were seen as inferior and stripped of any rights, including being educated and being politically active. Even to this day when women are sexually assaulted they’re the ones being questioned about what they were wearing or what they could’ve done to provoke. To move forward and not have history repeat itself we need to have strict laws protecting women rights, especially over their body and health. Women need to have more support in assault cases and strict laws need to be established to punish the perpetrators. 

  2. She wrote this book well over thirty years ago, believe it or not. Are you familiar with the QUIVER MOVEMENT? It’s been around for some time now. What is scary is that the wives go along with the man as having the divine right to rule the roost and the wives are to have as many children as possible. There was a book written on the subject a few years back. That was scary enough to have me burrow under the covers! How can we best plug the hole in the dam, before it’s too late?

    • It’s amazing that she wrote this book so long ago in yet it fits so well today. And scary!

      I think it’s crucial that we actively fight infringements on our rights. The Republican Party is scaring me in how much they are willing to go along with Trump, Given his affinity for dictators and dictatorial behavior, Plus his willingness to stifle women’s rights.

      At least a huge movement has risen up as we see in the women’s marches and the town halls. That’s where my hope lies.

  3. Outstanding post! Thanks for the link to New York Times book review, which is extremely enlightening and inspiring…I am off to Amazon to buy this ebook. Must be really interesting!

  4. It’s scary what direction things could be. I think Trump and the Gop’s political moves need to resisted. I don’t think his complete refugee ban is right. They need to have an amount that can be handled and not too much that can be properly vetted though. They can’t go the opposite side either, but some happy medium. There’s so much that’s bothering about trump’s regime. But let’s make sure our country doesn’t got the Sweden route too. You talk about handmaids tale, well if The population continues and Sweden has a greater muslim population than Swedish people.

    What do you think will happen? What do you think the views of women are? I’m sure while many or most are decent people as far as trying to be decent people and not terrorists. But that doesn’t mean the men won’t have sexist, archaic views, as it seems more muslims are fundamentalists and especially from syria, etc. That would mean the women and culture of Sweden would go in reverse and rights taken away and restrictions, and especially in regards to sexuality with freedom from that as well as nudity, etc. Sweden never had no fly zones or no-go zones, but they do now.. People have to stop being so scared of recognizing what could be a problem, because it;s “not pc’, when being honest, can help prevent things or help women.

    • I think it’s very important for the US to keep our values of democracy and equality for all. I think the vetting should include research that indicates the immigrants are not antithetical to our values.

  5. None of the Wahhabic countries have free women. They must get approval for anything they wish to do from the “ruling” male of the household. They must also be escorted by a male. Especially Saudia-Arabia practices slavery. Even their household help, often women who come to help their families financially, are in danger. If a woman reports rape, she will be punished or ignored. If she was not married to the perpetrator she may well end up in prison because of openly “admitting” to breaking a law of chastity. That is how they view rape.

    I did not know that former slave women were forced into breeding after the abolishment of slavery in the US.

    Thank you for this article.

  6. Book Burning: I don’t see any distinction between book burning, and rioting at UCB to stop someone giving a talk. Those sound exactly the same to me.

    Public executions: Dozens of SJWs and feminists on YouTube saying it was correct that Richard Spencer got sucker punched, and that we should encourage more of the same.

    • You repeated a number of things that I have already answered before so I can’t see any point in answering them again.

      I agree that students shouldn’t try to stifle speech they don’t agree with. Whether there is any difference between that and book banning depends on how extensive it is on each side.

      You have racists who have a history of lynching and putting people in gas chambers. And then a nonracist is upset and sucker punches the racist and other nonracists are glad to see it. People who aren’t racist aren’t necessarily perfect. But the two hardly compare.

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