LOUISE O'NEILL: Human rights that we take for granted can easily be taken away from us

How is it possible that this novel was written in 1985, and yet so little has changed in 15 years, asks Louise O’Neill.

I was 15 when I first read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I still remember the moment my English teacher, Ms Keane, handed it to me in the school library.

“Here,” she said, “I think you’ll enjoy this.” 

I looked at the cover, a curving stone wall, two figures in red cloaks walking in single file. 

It didn’t strike me as terribly exciting but I was the sort of teenager who scoured the text on the back of the cereal box in the morning because I wasn’t allowed to read at the dining table. 

I started reading that evening. And when I finally raised my head from its pages, I felt as if nothing would ever be the same again. 

Why did you change your surname when you got married? I asked my mother, thinking of the Handmaid called Offred, Of-Fred, because she literally belongs to Fred now. 

Why is abortion illegal in Ireland? I asked, thinking of the fictional doctors killed because they offered termination services.

I started to question the cultural insistence that a woman’s primary duty was to become a wife and a mother. 

I wondered about the highly academic all-girls school I went to, the presumption that we would attend third-level education, and yet, somehow, 15 years later, our male peers would be out-earning us for doing the same job. 

The state of Gilead in the novel, a fundamentalist theocratic dictatorship, also forced me to question the power of the Catholic Church in Ireland and it was shortly after reading The Handmaid’s Tale that I stopped attending Mass. 

How is it possible that this novel was written in 1985, I said, the same year that I was born, and yet so little has changed in 15 years?

Another edition of Atwood’s novel was released this year to act as a companion piece to the new television adaptation on Hulu. 

It was sent to me because my novel, Only Ever Yours (which has been described as The Handmaid’s Tale meets Mean Girls, thus fulfilling all of my teenage fantasies) had been listed in the recommended reading list at the back alongside George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Cormac McCarthy, and Kazuo Ishiguro. 

Upon rereading it, I wasn’t left questioning the world around me in the way that I had at 15.

Instead, I felt deeply distressed. This distress was compounded upon watching the first episode of the TV series. 

I had to pause it after ten minutes because the creeping sense of claustrophobia left me afraid I was going to have an anxiety attack.

The story of a North America faced with environmental pollution that renders most of the female population infertile and responds by brutally re-enforcing its borders to ensure no one gets in or out (they built that wall, if you will) and then strips women of their basic human rights seems far more plausible to me in 2017 than it did in 2000. 

The women go to the ATM and find their bank accounts have been closed, their jobs taken away from them.

“We didn’t look up from our phones,” one character says, “until it was too late.” 

How can this not seem plausible? A leader who seems determined to silence the media and favours a reign of authoritarianism, whose first move as president was to ban foreign aid to international healthcare providers of abortion services. 

The consistent attacks on and attempts to defund Planned Parenthood (a system that provides healthcare to at least 2.5m people, most of whom live at approximately 150% below the federal poverty level), a vice-president who believes that abortion should be banned when a foetal anomaly is detected and that women should be financially responsible for burying or cremating miscarried remains, and the new American Health Care Act which would allow states to opt out of protecting insurance rights for pre-existing conditions. 

When many of these conditions disproportionally affect women — such as PTSD after rape and domestic abuse, postnatal depression, caesarean sections, and even prior pregnancies — it is difficult to see The Handmaid’s Tale as mere entertainment anymore.

It’s not just in America. Watching the second episode, I was struck by the shades of the Magdalene laundries that were drawn within the narrative. But we don’t have to look to the past to see the comparison. 

The mere existence of the eighth amendment means that Irish women are living in a proto-Gilead of our own, and the prospect of a Taoiseach who has, as Leo Varadkar has done, compared the indignity of women travelling abroad to avail of healthcare to people visiting Amsterdam to “do things” that “aren’t legal in Ireland” is not a reassuring one. 

And what about the fact that funding to Rape Crisis Centres has been cut, year on year, since 2008 despite the increasing numbers of women (and men) availing of these services?

The SAVI report investigating sexual violence in this country is 15 years old and hopelessly out of date — where is the funding for a new report? 

Why is it still permissible for a victim’s sexual history to be mentioned during a rape case but the prior convictions of the accused cannot legally be brought into the court room? 

Domestic violence affects one in three women in Ireland — why is it still seen as a ‘family matter’? 

Why is it that when I talk to people who work in the domestic violence sector they tell me how desperate they are for more assistance, often talking about using their own money, opening their own homes in order to help as many women as they possibly can?

How can we see this as anything else but a war on women, on their bodies? How is it possible that this novel was written in 1985, the same year that I was born, and yet so little has changed in 32 years?

So, I urge you. Watch the TV series. Read the book. Remember that human rights that we take for granted can easily be taken away from us, all too easily. We must stay awake. We must keep fighting.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.


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