Handmaid’s Tale: Dystopian Future Or Existing Reality?
Reproductive Rights and Justice,  Systemic Gendered Discrimination

Handmaid’s Tale: Dystopian Future Or Existing Reality?

Based on the 1985 novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, the Handmaid’s Tale is an American TV series created by Bruce Miller. The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a dystopian future taking place in Gilead, a totalitarian state where patriarchal norms and misogyny are enforced to the highest degree possible. In Gilead’s society, handmaids are women who are deprived of every basic fundamental right. Through political subjugation, the system possesses full control over their bodies. Being enslaved and raped, the handmaids are used as means to serve the higher class and bear babies.  

 

The TV series is often referred to as a futuristic dystopia – a fiction offering a vision of the future. Sadly, spending a few minutes on a news website is enough to realize that the events depicted in the Handmaid’s Tale are very much embedded into the existing reality. Below this article will draw parallels between what the Handmaid’s Tale portrays as a dystopian future and the real-life experiences of women across different countries. 

 

“Blessed Be the Fruit”: Female Body as a Property

In the Handmaid’s Tale, the handmaids are completely stripped from their reproductive rights and bodily autonomy. The handmaids are fertile women who are assigned to commanders, high-ranking men, whose wives are infertile. The only function that the handmaids have is to be impregnated by their commanders and bear children. In case a handmaid cannot conceive and give birth to healthy babies, they are sent off to colonies (labor camps), facing inevitable death. 

 

In a sex “ceremony” (rape), the commander’s wife and handmaid lie on their backs on a bed, with the handmaid lying between the wife’s legs while the commander has intercourse with the handmaid. 

Handmaid’s Tale: Dystopian Future Or Existing Reality?
Sex ritual (ceremony) in the Handmaid’s Tale Source: TNI Press

The handmaids have no parental rights over the children that they give birth to. Once a baby is born, they are immediately given to the commander’s wife. Handmaids are allowed to stay with their babies for a short period, breastfeeding them, however after they are weaned, the handmaids must leave the household and are allocated to a new Commander to perform the same function all over again. Almost every aspect of daily life in Gilead directly or indirectly relates to fertility. For instance, when people greet each other, they say “Blessed Be the Fruit”, encouraging fertility, that is, a handmaid will be “blessed” with a “fruit” of a child (Geall, n.d.). 

 

Read: Is He not a Rapist? Confusions of the Raped Body

 

U.S. Supreme Court’s Overturn of Roe v. Wade: A Setback for Women’s Rights

Reproductive suppression takes a toll on the health and lives of women who have no choice but to subject their bodies to patriarchal and misogynist systems fueled with white supremacy. The United States, which is often referred to as the “land of the free” is no exception. In the case of Roe v. Wade (1973), the US Supreme Court struck down criminal abortion laws in Texas, holding that the right to abortion is a fundamental right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution (pp. 163-166).  However, on 24 June 2022, the Supreme Court issued its judgment on the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (2022), overturning the Roe v. Wade decision, declaring that “the [US] Constitution does not confer a right to abortion … and the authority to regulate abortion must be returned to [States]” (p.69). 

 

Article 12 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) protects the right to health, encompassing the right to bodily autonomy and sexual and reproductive freedom. However, the US is among the seven States which has not ratified the Convention. Following the overturn of Roe v. Wade, the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (2022), which is a monitoring body for CEDAW, called on the U.S. to adhere to the Convention and reiterated that: 

Access to safe and legal abortion and to quality post-abortion care, especially in cases of complications resulting from unsafe abortions, helps to reduce maternal mortality rates, prevent adolescent and unwanted pregnancies and ensure women’s right to freely decide over their bodies. 

 

As of now, abortion is banned or mostly banned in 27% of the US States and roughly one in four women between the ages of 15-44 live in states where abortion is prohibited (Kitchener, et al., 2022). In some states, like Missouri, abortion is only allowed in cases of a medical emergency and there are no exceptions for rape (Weinberg, 2022). 

 

Read: A Leap Backwards in Time

 

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) as an Alternative to the Death Sentence in the Handmaid’s Tale

Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) is one of the handmaids who is a lesbian. It comes as no surprise that in Gilead homosexuality is a grave crime, punished with a death sentence. In episode 3 of the first season, Ofglen’s sexual orientation gets revealed to the system, however, instead of punishing her with a death sentence, Ofglen wakes up in a hospital room with her clitoris cut off. The only reason why Ofglen is spared death is that she is still fertile and can bear children.

From an intersectional perspective, Ofglen’s tragic story illustrates overlapping, concurrent forms of oppression. Her gender coupled with her sexual orientation was a key component that made her subject to such inhumane punishment. 

 

FGM is Not a Fiction

World Health Organization (2022) defines FGM as “the partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injuries to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” Mostly carried out on young girls before the age of 15, FGM has affected more than 200 million girls and women in 31 countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia (UNICEF, 2022). Cases of FGM have also occurred in the United States (Cuevas & Moghe, 2017). 

 

FGM constitutes one of the gravest human rights abuses against girls and women. The practice not only amounts to torture, and cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment, but it also violates the right to life when FGM-induced death occurs. 

 

Read: Female Genital Mutilation: Facts and Resources

 

Education & Women in The Handmaid’s Tale: The World Without Words

In the Handmaid’s Tale, women are not allowed either to read or write. The government of Gilead, like many other totalitarian regimes, uses illiteracy as a tool to exercise full control over women, lowering the chances of resistance and rebellion. The anti-literacy policy against women is quite obvious throughout the series. For instance, when handmaids go grocery shopping, we see that there are no words printed on the labels of products displayed on the shelves at the store.

 

In the season 2 finale, Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski), the wife of the high-ranking commander Fred Waterford, dares to read a verse from the bible aloud in front of Gilead’s leadership. This act has been interpreted as Serena’s “public plea to allow the women of Gilead to be able to read and study the Bible” (Wigler, 2018). In response, Serena was punished by cutting off her little finger. The punishment was co-authored by her husband, commander Waterford. 

 

Read: Silencing of Women Around the Globe

 

Right to Education for Women: The Reality 

Legally binding international human rights treaties, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination (CEDAW) oblige States to address and eliminate discrimination against women in different areas, including education (Articles 3 & 13 ICESCR; Article 10 CEDAW). 

 

Notwithstanding the legal protections, as shown in the Handmaid’s Tale, equitable and equal access to education is far from being attained for women. In its General Recommendation No. 36, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (2017), stressed that:

certain factors disproportionately prevent girls and women from claiming and enjoying their basic human right to education. Such factors include barriers to access for girls and women from disadvantaged and marginalized groups, exacerbated by poverty and economic crises, gender stereotyping in curricula, textbooks, and teaching processes, violence against girls and women in and out of school, and structural and ideological restrictions to their engagement in male-dominated academic and vocational fields (para. 4). 

 

Just recently, the Taliban in Afghanistan posed an indefinite ban on university education for women (Noori, 2022). Prior to that, shortly after the Taliban returned to power in 2021, the insurgent group effectively deprived girls of secondary education (Graham-Harrison, 2021). 

 

Read: The future of Afghan women after the Taliban

Afghan women protesting against the imposition of ban on university education for women by the Taliban (Photo: Reuters)
Afghan women protesting against the imposition of ban on university education for women by the Taliban (Photo: Reuters)

Back in 2012, then-15-year-old Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani female human rights activist who spoke out publicly against stripping away the right to education for girls, was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman (Blumberg, 2022). Luckily, Yousafzai survived the assassination attempt. In 2015, three girls in Pakistan were strangled to death by their father who did not want to “waste money” on their education (Hussain & Drury, 2015). In 2022, a father murdered his daughter, 17-year-old Parastoo Jahanshahri for her endeavor to attend university in Iran (Stop Honor Killings, 2022). 

 

These are just a fraction of countless stories unveiling the harrowing reality that women and girls around the globe face to access and obtain an education, proving that the storyline of the Handmaid’s Tale is not a mere script but rather rooted in the everyday lives of women. 

 

 

Conclusion

Whilst the events in the Handmaid’s Tale may seem remote and fictitious, they nevertheless reflect everyday struggles and sufferings endured by women around the globe. Gilead is a product of patriarchy, systemic inequality, social injustice, toxic masculinity, and white supremacy – all of which are immensely real in any political, economic, or social facet of the contemporary world order. It is high time we used “dystopia” and “reality” interchangeably. 

 

(Cover image contribution: Hugo Duarte)

 

References

Blumberg, N. (2022). Malala Yousafzai. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Malala-Yousafzai 

Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. (2022). Access to safe and legal abortion: Urgent call for United States to adhere to women’s rights convention, UN committee. https://www.ohchr.org/en/statements/2022/07/access-safe-and-legal-abortion-urgent-call-united-states-adhere-womens-rights 

 

Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. (2017). General recommendation No. 36 (2017) on the right of girls and women to education. https://documents-dds ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N17/398/03/PDF/N1739803.pdf?OpenElement

 

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, opened for signature 18 December 1979, UNTS, vol. 1249, p. 13. (entered into force 3 September 1981). 

 

Cuevas, M., Moghe, S. (2017). Prosecutor: ‘Brutal’ genital mutilation won’t be tolerated in US. CNN. http://edition.cnn.com/2017/04/26/health/fgm-indictment-michigan/ 

 

Dobbs, State Health Officer of the Mississippi Department of Health, et al. v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization et al., 597 U.S. __, Supreme Court of the United States (2022)

 

Geall, L. (n.d.). The Handmaid’s Tale: a useful guide to the show’s terminology, from ‘Aunts’ to ‘Unwomen’. Stylisthttps://www.stylist.co.uk/entertainment/tv/the-handmaids-taletermsmeaningsglossary/534868#:~:text=Blessed%20Be%20The%20Fruit%3A%20This,’fruit’%20of%20a%20child

 

Graham-Harrison, E. (2021). Taliban ban girls from secondary education in Afghanistan: The Government announces re-opening of high schools for boys but makes no mention of girls. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/sep/17/taliban-ban-girls-from-secondary-education-in-afghanistan 

 

Hussain, I., Drury, F. (2015). Pictured: Three little girls strangled to death by their father in Pakistan because he didn’t want to ‘waste money’ on their education. MailOnline. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3117167/Pictured-Three-little-girls-strangled-death-father-Pakistan-didn-t-want-waste-money-education.html 

 

International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, opened for signature 16 December 1966, UNTS, vol. 993, p. 3. (entered into force 3 January 1976). 

 

Kitchener, C., Schaul, K., Kirkpatrick, N., Santamariña, D., Tierney, L. (2022). Abortion is now banned or under threat in these states. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/06/24/abortion-state-laws-criminalization-roe/#datawrapper-chart-edaEf

 

Noori, H. (2022). Taliban ban Afghan women from a university education: Higher education ministry issues indefinite order three months after thousands sat entrance exams. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/dec/20/taliban-ban-afghan-women-university-education 

 

Roe et al. v. Wade, District Attorney of Dallas County, 410 U.S. pp.113-178, Supreme Court of the United States (1973)

 

Stop Honor Killings. (2022). Killing a girl because of her interest in education. http://stophonorkillings.org/en/2022/08/17/killing-a-girl-because-of-her-interest-in-education/ 

 

UNICEF. (2022). Female Genital Mutilation (FGM): At least 200 million girls and women alive today living in 31 countries have undergone FGM. https://data.unicef.org/topic/child-protection/female-genital-mutilation/  

 

Weinberg, T. (2022). Abortion is now illegal in Missouri in wake of U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Missouri Independent. https://missouriindependent.com/2022/06/24/abortion-is-now-illegal-in-missouri-in-wake-of-u-s-supreme-court ruling/#:~:text=There%20are%20no%20exceptions%20for%20rape%20or%20incest%20under%20the,in%20violation%20of%20the%20law

 

Wigler, J. (2018). ‘Handmaid’s Tale’: Yvonne Strahovski on Season 2 Finale’s “Moment of Complete Loss”. The Hollywood Reporter. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/tv/tv-news/handmaids-tale-yvonne-strahovski-season-2-finales-moment-complete-loss-1126283/ 

 

World Health Organization. (2022). Female genital mutilation. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/female-genital-mutilation

Author

  • Anri Abuladze

    Anri is a Master’s student in Human Rights Policy and Practice – Erasmus Mundus Master’s joint degree Programme administered by the University of Gothenburg, Deusto University, Roehampton University, and the Arctic University of Norway. Anri obtained his Bachelor’s degree in Law from Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia. Committed to antidiscrimination, human rights, democracy, and rule of law, Anri’s areas of interest include social justice, gender equality, minority rights, and migration.

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