The television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale debuted in 2017 and the timing of it’s release feels like no coincidence. Audiences of the series, based on the 1985 novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood, most likely found a worrying amount of parallels between the dystopian future of Gilead, the story’s setting, and the present day.
Sure, women in the West are not submitted to state-enforced sexual slavery for the benefit of a declining population, but much of what Atwood details in the novel occurs in real life, even to this day. In fact, Atwood herself has described The Handmaid’s Tale as a work of speculative fiction more than science fiction or dystopia. According to her, everything she included in the book had a ‘precedent in real life.’
But first, a recap of what it’s all about:
The Handmaid’s Tale is set in an unspecified future, wherein a totalitarian state has overthrown the United States government, forming the new country of Gilead. In this new theological dystopia, rampant fears of a falling population and increasing infertility in its people prompt the establishment of a regime intended to save the nation.
As a result, the rights and independence of women are lost, and fertile women are forced to become ‘handmaids,’ who are assigned a ‘Commander’ to serve by partaking in ‘The Ceremony,’ where the handmaid is raped in an effort to conceive a child. Infertile women are declared to be ‘unwomen,’ and are sent away to carry out life-threatening work until they die. Other women serve as wives to the Commanders, perform domestic labour, or prepare and indoctrinate women for their assigned roles in society.
Atwood’s story is very much a worst-case-scenario one that serves more as a cautionary tale to the women of the contemporary western world. She wrote the novel in the 1980s, when some basic women’s rights obtained during second-wave feminism, such as access to contraception, abortion, and the job market, were only a couple of decades old.
Of course, the rise of conservatism and right-wing ideology in the west, most pointedly seen through the respective elections of Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK (which appears to be repeating again now), must have made things seem all the more dire. It was this kind of socio-political climate that no doubt motivated Atwood to pen a warning, or perhaps even a prediction, to her female contemporaries.
This is all without even looking beyond the western world. I mentioned how The Handmaid’s Tale serves as a cautionary tale to the west, but elsewhere, it’s a mere depiction of reality. In the middle east, the militarist group Islamic State are regularly kidnapping women and girls and using them as slaves. The 2018 Nobel Peace Prize joint-winner Nadia Murad, a victim of such practices, has described the way in which these women are routinely abused sexually, physically, and emotionally. Likewise, the Taliban movements of Afghanistan and later Pakistan enforced strict rules on women’s clothing, behaviour, and right to work or receive an education.
Atwood, and her western readers, more likely often relate the novel’s content to their own personal experiences and culture, but it can also be applied internationally. Misogyny and the threat to women’s rights exist everywhere, to different extremes and in different contexts, and all deserve consideration and The Handmaid’s Tale provides a stark warning to all women alike.