The horrors of The Handmaid’s Tale aren’t just fiction – many have happened already
In the opening chapter of Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale – a new MGM-Hulu adaptation on Channel 4 – a group of women are held in a former school and taught how to be Handmaids: womb slaves who must live with a family, be impregnated by its head, the husband, and bear children that they will give to his wife and never raise themselves. When they take on this role, even their names will no longer be their own: instead they must adopt the first name of whichever man they are assigned to, along with the prefix "Of". Our protagonist goes by Offred; we also encounter more than one Ofglen, and an Ofwarren.
But even as they prepare for this appalling fate (the alternative is expulsion to the sinister-sounding, radioactive waste-infested "Colonies" and almost certain death) the women cling to their former identities, secretly swapping their real names at night. "We learnt to lipread, our heads flat on the beds, turned sideways," our narrator tells us. "In this way we exchanged names, from bed to bed. Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June."
The psychological manipulation and identity-loss implicit in the use of the “Ofs” is a key part of Atwood’s nightmare – and yet, shorn of the novel's horrific context, the idea that a woman might be required to relinquish her own birth name and taking on a man's isn't really that strange at all. In our own culture, it's been the norm for centuries that a woman will adopt father's last name when born, and her husband's when she marries. Only comparatively recently have some people started to question the inherent oddness of this traditional, patriarchal custom and seek out alternatives.
Indeed, the crucial point about Atwood is that what she writes isn't so much science fiction as, to borrow her own preferred term, speculative fiction: she's preoccupied with creating mirror images of own own world that are distorted, but still hauntingly familiar.
Gilead, the transformed North America in which the novel takes place, is a religious state, led by the Christian right (or at least by those who utilise its values and dogma). All its women, no matter what their status – and no woman in Gilead holds power – must adhere to a restrictive dress code. High-ranking Wives wear blue, while the Handmaids are clad in shapeless dresses which swathe their bodies in "the colour of blood" and partially conceal their faces. The regime is preoccupied with falling birthrates, meaning that childbirth is celebrated while abortion, naturally, is banned (and doctors who performed the operation in the past brutally executed).
Any form of rebellion, or sexual or moral transgression, is punishable with death. In Offred’s area, the bodies of local traitors are displayed on a monstrous wall, ostensibly to encourage pious reflection, but in reality to remind others of the dangers of stepping out of line. Women sometimes participate in the public hangings of female criminals, which are euphemistically termed “Salvagings”, with all the spectators collectively placing their hands on the long hanging rope to symbolically demonstrate that the death is approved by all. (“I’ve leaned forward to touch the rope in front of me, in time with the others, both hands on it, the rope hairy, sticky with tar in the hot sun,” Offred tells us, recalling her own detachment from the act. “I have seen the kicking feet...I don’t want to see it anymore. I look at the grass instead. I describe the rope.”)
But when imagining these kind of monstrous laws and communal punishments, for inspiration Atwood only had to look to recent history, and to the world around her.
Almost everything described in the book has a parallel in a totalitarian or religious state, military regime, religious order or cult, or, chillingly, Western society today. The modest dresses of the Handmaids, for example, recall the habits of Catholic nuns, as well as traditional Islamic dress, which may be adopted as a matter of choice by women living in free societies, but can be forced upon them by the authorities in others.
As in The Handmaid’s Tale, state intervention in women’s clothing usually also indicates a wider pattern of oppression. Iran’s Islamic Republic, which has been in power since the country’s 1979 revolution, compels women to wear the veil – according to Amnesty International, this law “empowers police and paramilitary forces to target women for harassment, violence, and imprisonment” – but is also guilty of many other human rights abuses towards women and men.
Likewise, public executions, a mainstay of Atwood’s Gilead, might seem archaic and barbaric to us – the last public hanging in Britain, of an Irishman and bomber named Michael Barrett, was in 1868 – but are still legal in Iran, and have also taken place in recent years in Saudi Arabia, North Korea and Somalia. A 2004 poll, meanwhile, revealed that two thirds of Americans were in favour of televising executions (a practice that is shown, incidentally, in Atwood's futuristic 2003 novel Oryx and Crake).
Even the monstrous particicution scene of Atwood’s novel, in which a man is executed by being physically torn apart by a crowd of frenzied Handmaids (they are told he is a violent rapist; in reality he’s a member of the rebellion) can’t compare to the horrors of some real public executions. In 2008 in an area of Somalia controlled by fundamentalist Al-Shabaab militants, a 13-year-old rape victim named Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow was accused of adultery, buried up to her neck in a football stadium and stoned to death by 50 men as a crowd watched (some people intervened but were shot).
“I delayed writing [The Handmaid’s Tale] for about three years after I got the idea because I felt it was too crazy,'' Atwood said in 1986, in an interview with the New York Times. ''Then two things happened. I started noticing that a lot of the things I thought I was more or less making up were now happening, and indeed more of them have happened since the publication of the book.”
“You could say it's a response to 'it can't happen here',” she added. “When they say 'it can't happen here,' what they usually mean is Iran can't happen here, [Communist] Czechoslovakia can't happen here. And they're right, because this isn't there. But what could happen here?”
The answer, the author believed, lay in the right-wing Christian fundamentalism that still underpins many parts of American society, despite the country’s official separation of Church and State.
"We're often taught in schools that the Puritans came to America for religious freedom. Nonsense. They came to establish their own regime, where they could persecute people to their heart's content just the way they themselves had been persecuted. If you think you have the word and the right way, that's the only thing you can do.''
While most Christians, it goes without saying, are not fundamentalists, Atwood believed that anyone seeking a right-wing revolution in America would most likely capitalise on fundamentalist beliefs and values, as well as upon anxieties surrounding abortion and fertility.
In the US, a number of atrocities, including the bombings of abortion clinics and the murder of doctors who perform abortions, have been carried out by anti-abortion extremists since the Nineties: the death toll currently stands at 11, with the most recent killing taking place in 2015 in Colorado.
Recently, however, under the Presidency of Donald Trump, the country has also seen a state-imposed crackdown on abortion rights. One of the new President’s first moves was to cut US overseas funding to NGO's that provide abortion services, while in April 2017 he signed legislation aimed at blocking state funding to abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood. The news was treated as a victory by evangelical anti-abortion groups.
“Totalitarianism always has views on who shall be allowed to have babies and what shall be done with the babies,” Atwood told the LA Times earlier this year. “For instance, the generals in Argentina were dumping people out of airplanes. But if it was a pregnant woman, they would wait until she had the baby and then they gave the baby to somebody in their command system. And then they dumped the woman out of the airplane. Hitler stole his children, blond ones, hoping that he could turn them into blond Germans. It’s been going on for really a long time.”
“The United States has traditionally taken the view that your private life was your private life as long as you didn’t frighten the horses, do unacceptable things in public. But they seem to have made an exception for that in the case of women’s bodies. So you have in fact a purportedly liberal democracy claiming agency over other people’s bodies.”
Even the most famously outlandish part of The Handmaid’s Tale – the “Ceremony”, in which a Wife will sit with the Handmaid between her legs, holding the other woman’s hands while her husband has sex with her – is acceptable in Gilead only because there’s a Biblical precedent for it. In the book of Genesis Rachel, a woman without children, implores her husband Jacob to impregnate her handmaid in her stead, with the words: “Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her”.
The question of whether or not this tale really happened is irrelevant: the simple fact that it exists tells us that the concept of a woman as little more than a child-bearing vessel is a pervasive, enduring one, that stretches back thousands of years. It was still exerting its pull in 1985, when Atwood wrote her novel – and is still with us today, influencing those who would seek to curtail women’s rights across the globe. The most disturbing thing about The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t that it might happen: it’s that, give or take a few details, all its horrors have already taken place. They are far, far closer than we think.