‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ posits a fictional future America in which women are violently oppressed, a reality suffered by women around the world today, says Margaret Hickey,
Margaret Atwood says she was prompted to write a sequel to her 1984 bestseller, The Handmaid’s Tale, after ‘November 2016’, when the events her novel describes suddenly seemed, “a lot more close”.
Those events are the oppression of women by a right-wing, religiously fundamentalist patriarchy. The measures are a response to a sexually permissive society and a fertility crisis that threatens America with extinction.
The first step is the freezing of women’s bank accounts. They must then nominate a male friend or relative to whom the funds can be transferred.
Potentially fertile women are then rounded up and ‘persuaded’ to offer their bodies as surrogates for the elite of the new regime and their infertile wives. They lose their identities, are forced to wear face-concealing white hoods, and take the names of the ‘Commanders’ for whom they will bear children.
The event of November 2016 to which Atwood refers is the election of Donald Trump as US president. Without debating whether Atwood’s fears are exaggerated or not, she and a large part of her fanbase overlook the fact that the novel’s dystopian fantasy is all too real in many parts of the world.
In fact, the novel’s horrors have been exceeded. Even the horrors conjured up by ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ poem in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, have been exceeded in our time.
Atwood does not reference the unspeakable horrors visited on women and children in the name of ideological fanaticism from the Middle East to Indonesia, from Syria to Nigeria. Nor the oppression of women’s fundamental freedoms in many other countries.
The answer is fairly obvious. It is easier and safer to cast a cautionary tale with universal application in a context where you don’t put your life at risk.
To be fair, Margaret Atwood did say that it is up to her readers to decide how they situate her story in the real world. But she is not so easily exonerated.
In citing November 2016 as the moment when, potentially, the tide of progress turned in the affairs of women, she is narrowing her readers’ focus, concentrating their minds in the bubble of their own hashtag causes.
There are far more chilling ‘testaments’ we need to hear than Aunt Lydia’s, Daisy’s, and Agnes’s in The Handmaid’s Tale. Testaments from real people, rather than from characters in a novel.
Asia Bibi was sentenced to death by hanging for alleged blasphemy, arising from a row over a cup she drank from in Pakistan in 2010. Acquitted on appeal, it nevertheless took nine years before she was given her freedom. The Pakistani minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated for advocating on her behalf.
In Indonesia, last year, Meliana, a 44-year-old ethnic Chinese Buddhist, a mother of four, received an 18-month prison sentence for complaining that the call to prayer from a neighbouring mosque was too loud. Her complaint was deemed blasphemy according to that country’s hardening interpretation of the offence.
In Iran, last year, human rights lawyer Nasrin Sooudeh was sentenced to 148 lashes and 38 years’ imprisonment, on charges arising out of her advocacy on behalf of opposition activists and of women prosecuted for removing the mandatory headscarf.
Here in Ireland, in 2015, Dr Ali Selim, a prominent member of the Irish Muslim community, defended FGM, ‘female circumcision’, for ‘medical reasons’, in a Prime Time interview. He subsequently apologised for his remarks and said he condemned FGM.
According to the World Health Organisation and the Irish Council of General Practitioners, there are no medical grounds for ‘female circumcision’. Dr Selim’s comments were also strongly condemned by Irish Muslims.
He is in the news again this week, for securing an increase in the damages he won from Trinity College, following an unlawful dismissal case against the university that fired him after his comments.
Further afield, in the other real world dystopias of China and North Korea, we have no names for the many thousands of women and men who suffer brutal, barbaric violations of their human rights. All we know is that they belong to all religions and none.
So do their oppressors. Across the world and across the centuries, fanaticism has had many colours.
It crosses ideologies, religions, races, and etnicities. It would be a great mistake to characterise it as the preserve of ‘Old Etonians and successful global entrepreneurs,’ as one reviewer of Atwood’s book implied. Equally a mistake, of course, to equate it with its contemporary manifestations.
Asia, Meliana, and Nasrin are real people. Their suffering, and the suffering of their children, goes beyond anything in Atwood’s Republic of Gilead. An Aunt Lydia, a Daisy, or an Agnes may or may not materialise in future reality.
But the best way of ensuring they don’t is to put the victims of today’s totalitarian savagery at the heart of campaigns for justice.
If the women of the world don’t speak for the thousands of Asias, Melianas, and Nasrins, who will speak for Lydia, Daisy, and Agnes, when, and if, the time comes?