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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.
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.
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.
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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Marsha Lewis loves to watch shows with drama, bake bread, and attempts to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Since relocating to Mumbai, she currently struggles with the city's infamous weather patterns and has yet to read more...
Women's Web is an open platform that publishes a diversity of views, indivisual posts do not necessarily represent the platofrom's views and opinions at all times.
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My house-help asked excitedly, “I am going for wedding. Can you let me wear your red & black saree? To be honest I was stumped for a moment; I didn’t know what to say but I still said yes.
I lent a gorgeous saree to my house-help for a wedding in her family. Soon I stated getting questions if I would wear that saree again or if I was okay to be seen wearing the same saree my house-help was wearing?
We are all so conditioned to give our used clothes to our house-helps but are we okay to wear the clothes they were wearing?
A few days ago she came excitedly to me, “I am going for a family wedding. I want to wear your red & black saree, Ill wash and give it to you after the function. Please can you let me wear it?”
Beauty is a very clever, very evil capitalist tool. It traps those who have it into hanging on to it for dear life and those who don't into mutilating, torturing themselves to achieve the unachievable.
I recently wrote a piece about MP Shashi Tharoor’s tweet in which he had shared a pic with six women parliamentarians tagging them and saying “Who says the Lok Sabha isn’t an attractive place to work?”
There was a rash of comments on the post shared on Instagram, which ranged from “chill, it’s just a compliment” and “stop overthinking compliments”, to (worried) men lamenting about “these feminazi”.
Here’s my answer to all those comments.
A college run by the followers of the Swaminarayan Mandir in Bhuj recently forced 68 girl students in the hostel remove their panties to check if they were on periods, because of 'impurity' reasons.
A college run by the followers of the Swaminarayan Mandir in Bhuj recently forced 68 girl students in the hostel remove their panties to check if they were on periods, and hence ‘impure’.
Recently, in Shri Sahjanand Girls’ Institute (SSGI) in Bhuj, 68 girls were forced to remove their undergarments to prove that they weren’t menstruating. This happened after the rector of the college suspected that some of them had moved into the kitchen and/or temple area of their hostel, which is prohibited during periods according to the rules of the Swaminarayan Mandir that owns this institution.
The vice-chancellor of Krantiguru Shyamji Krishna Verma Kutch University has set up an enquiry committee into the incident though no police complaints have been made so far by any students. Some have anonymously told news reporters that “menstruation discrimination” and shaming is quite prevalent in their institution in other forms too, and that “this kind of humiliation is routine.”
From The Handmaid's Tale to Riverdale to Stranger Things, let's see how many TV Series from 2017 passed the Bechdel Test! Read here.
From The Handmaid’s Tale to Riverdale to Stranger Things, let’s see how many TV Series from 2017 passed the Bechdel Test! Read here.
We are all quite aware of the heavy lack of appropriate representation of women on-screen. Women have been struggling with almost always playing the romantic interest of the male hero. But as the times have progressed, there is some improvement in this area, although a very slow one – with women coming to the forefront with improved character strength. However, we still cannot say with confidence that all works of fiction will pass the Bechdel Test, even today.
The Bechdel Test has been used as a tool to measure the representation that women get in any cultural product: be it books, films or tv series. In order to pass, the work must: i) contain at least two named female characters, ii) who have at least one conversation, c) which is not about a man. Although it has been in use for a long time, one cannot help but see that the bar has been set pretty low. Along with that, it is also necessary to understand that if any work of fiction passes the test, it does not make it feminist and vice-versa. It is only one criterion to see how the work presents women.