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Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale Is An Indian Woman’s Tale too

If The Handmaid's Tale appears a distant and implausible fantasy to you, read this. The Indian Woman's tale has many elements in common.

If The Handmaid’s Tale appears a distant and implausible fantasy to you, read this. The Indian Woman’s tale has many elements in common.

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, has been made into an American television series that is gripping the world by storm.

Its focus is on the treatment of women in an autocratic theocratic regime called Gilead that has taken over the United States of America. Religious fundamentalism and scripture dictate government, law, and lifestyles in society. Gilead exists in a period where pollution, chemical and nuclear radiation, environmental damage has led to a low birth rate thus leaving the population sterile except for a few.

Fertile women called ‘handmaids’, are corralled and beaten like cattle, brainwashed into submission, and subjected to ritualistic rape by men in power, along with their wives, purely for childbearing. Once having fulfilled their childbearing duties to the assigned household, they are then passed onto the next household for further bearing. June, the protagonist, is our eye into this world, the rebelling force who tries to reunite with her family and take down the regime.

The Handmaid’s Tale unflinchingly presents rape, sexual harassment, and persecution, female genital mutilation, forced sterilization, sex trafficking, prostitution; all crimes and atrocities targeted against women, which can leave a viewer feeling horrified and dehumanized. The phrase ‘No country for women’ seems most appropriate. One could argue that it is a fictionalized representation, meant to shock viewers to garner more followers, ratings, and awards.

Is it a far cry from our own reality here in India?

At first glance, maybe.

This is where I differ, because if you look carefully, there are numerous parallels and truths between The Handmaid’s Tale and Indian society.

We live under a democratic regime that is slithering towards religious fundamentalism, far away from the secular foundation our country was built upon. While India has a long history of patriarchy and misogyny towards women, its deep rootedness and effects are far more pronounced now than they have ever been. Women and children, young, old, or infant, none are spared from the crimes that stream across newspapers and television channels; each crime far more gruesome or horrific since the last reported one.

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Rape, sexual harassment, molestation, child abuse, female foeticide, child marriage, forced prostitution, sex trafficking – all of these crimes are prevalent in The Handmaid’s Tale too – The statistics are rife with numbers that continue to increase with no waning or reprieve in sight. Women aren’t just second-rate citizens, they are dispensable which is clearly evident from the apathy shown by the Indian society, government, and law enforcement.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, women are viewed as property, their ‘worth’ defined by fertility. Education is denied, they have no voting rights, can hold no position of power or have economic and financial independence. As a society, doesn’t India too value a woman’s worth based on her chastity and piety? Have social workers not toiled long and hard to convince every echelon of society that education and economic independence is necessary for girls and women? Do we not have enough statistics that tell us that women continue to leave the workforce because of unfavourable working conditions and lack of family support? It is uncommon to hear encouragement for young women to pursue their interests and careers, particularly those that take them outside of their homes, unless they have dogged determination and ambition. Being a contributing member of society is bittersweet for the women of Gilead and India.

In India, women once married are expected to give bear children. Women who cannot or choose not to bear children are ridiculed, criticized and subject to inquiry. This maniacal behavior can cause unnecessary duress and affect a woman’s psyche which can lead her to act irrationally. There are numerous reports about Indian women experiencing high levels of depression, committing suicide, and even engaging in crimes like kidnapping. Women alone deal with the psychological effects of failed conception efforts made through modern medicine, submit to religious favours and devotion, but when all efforts fails, it is she who deals with the societal stigma.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Serena Joy is the commander’s wife and June’s nemesis. Her innate desire is almost maddening; it is made palpable during the few scenes where she goes to great lengths, however abnormal, to have a baby whether her own or by her handmaid. June’s sarcastic quips and digs are a constant reminder to Serena Joy about her shortcomings, similar to what Indian women experience in societal interactions around questioned infertility.

Women as prized wombs

In The Handmaid’s Tale, handmaids hold an almost revered position in society purely for their child bearing capabilities in a sterile environment. The wives, on the other hand, have no positional or economic power and are thus ‘displaced’ in society; their lack of childbearing abilities forces them to submit to the role of accepting, adoptive mother to the children born out of the union of their husbands and assigned handmaids. That cannot be easy for any woman to digest. This causes a lot of frustration, anger, and resentment towards June. We witness numerous instances where June, the handmaid, is berated, blackmailed, threatened, and even beaten by Serena Joy,  whose frustration over her predicament is demonstrated through such noxious behaviour. The fact that it is the women who are threatening and subjugating each other reinforces that in a patriarchy, women are trained to become their own worst enemies.

Closer home, such toxic behavior manifests itself in Indian households between mother and daughter, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, or in the workforce between female boss and female co-worker or subordinate. Such power tactics are attempts to assert their position, to incite fear and discomfort, because they feel threatened. If women adopted and practiced the idiom of ‘live and let live’, our society would be a much better place to live in.

In Indian society, we have numerous cases of women being forced into polygamous marriages, forced to be child bearers and wet nurses. One could argue that our current lack of surrogacy laws also encourage the exploitation of marginalized and disadvantaged women from poorer socio-economic backgrounds. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the absence of the judiciary and egalitarian secular law prevents and denies women from seeking justice from their predicament. The law is manipulated in favour of keeping those in position of power unrightfully there. Women need to put pressure on their governments to introduce legislation that affect them positively and profitably.

Last but not least, the role that men play in society towards the upliftment and emancipation of women in critical. In The Handmaid’s Tale, men are fanatical about maintaining a hierarchical fundamentalist regime where a man is considered superior to women, and that his actions can only be questioned by God, thereby allowing them to commit atrocities with no remorse. Women remain silent witnesses and unconsciously become instruments for this propaganda.

In India too, women have to move past the notion that the presence of a male in one’s life, as well as male children, will allow for a better quality of life, even if it means enduring physical violence and abuse. Women need to hold men accountable by confronting cases of child abuse, sexual harassment, polygamy, and introduction  of equitable divorce laws. Men too must be equally committed to seeing change within our society towards the treatment of women and children. Without their involvement, efforts will remain futile.

The Handmaid’s Tale will reach its final episode next week, following which viewers will have to wait for an entire year for the new season to be aired. During that time, we women in India can learn a lot from this series – essentially how our society will take a turn for the worst should we choose to follow in the show’s shadow.

It’s important that we change the narrative of the Indian woman’s tale.

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