Haunting Handmaid’s Tale Actually Happened
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.
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.
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.
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.