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Why The Handmaid’s Tale Is Not Just Dystopian Fiction But Grim Reality For Many Women

Posted: January 28, 2021

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I have wondered why the series  The Handmaid’s Tale is so uniformly triggering for women across different backgrounds, life experiences, and ages. Collective trauma of generations of women.

I recently watched The Handmaid’s Tale, Season 1, on Amazon Prime (It’s definitely not for children, so don’t even ask!)

There is a dialogue between a man and a woman that goes like this:
Woman: But we had choices back then.
Man: But now you have respect and protection. You can fulfill your biological destiny.
Me: But have you considered what women want, you asshole?

Yes, I spent the entire duration of this series shouting things like this at the characters on screen.

I have not seen any other series that has pitted women against men so starkly.

Women I know

Last weekend, I was having a conversation with a dear aunt, and I found myself saying, ‘’You and mummy are foot soldiers of the patriarchy. You don’t even realize that. You are like fish swimming in water. The fish is you, the patriarchy is the water. Ask a fish where is the water and they can’t even feel it because it is all that they have known all their lives.’’

Mind you, both my mother and her sister are women with careers, and had chosen their own life partners.

Her daughter, who is an engineer in her 20s, nodded her head in agreement and told her mother, ‘’Amma, feminism doesn’t mean hating men. Chechi is not one of those men-hating feminists.’’

I thought about this, in the context of the Handmaid’s Tale.

Feminism, and how we deal with this

If women really understand what generations of women before them have endured, and wake up now to what they themselves are living with because of the patriarchy, of which men are the creators and benefactors, how could every woman not become a feminist? How could every woman not actually hate men? There would be women on the streets shouting bloody murder and starting a bloody revolution.

But we don’t, unless pushed to the limit, like the women’s protests in Poland for abortion rights, protests in Saudi Arabia for the right to drive, protests in India and Pakistan for tougher anti-rape laws, or anti-Trump protests in America.

But my sister is right. I still don’t hate men. Not all women hate men, in spite of the years of systemic oppression. Men should be thankful for that!

But feminism isn’t about hating men. Feminism isn’t about misandry.

Feminism is the realization and recognition of the inherent worthiness and humanness of a woman. That she is not any less than a man even though she is different physically. That it’s high time we have EQUITY.

When I start watching a series I like, I usually binge watch all seasons over a couple of nights. But it took me one week to finish season 1 of the Handmaid’s Tale. Watching it was like holding my breath underwater. I had to take a break, come up for a gulp of fresh air.

I usually wait until I finish watching an entire series before I review it. But this is different. I reviewed it half way through the first episode and now I am reviewing it after finishing the first season.

Two more seasons to go!

The collective trauma of generations of women

One thing that struck me when I wrote about it last week was that almost every woman friend commented that it was too triggering for them. Some had read the book (same name, by Margaret Atwood) and found it so triggering they could not even watch the series.

I wondered why it is that women across different backgrounds, life experiences, and ages were so uniformly triggered by this series.

Doesn’t that point to a collective trauma that all women experience in this patriarchal world?

If the Great Indian Kitchen showed the patriarchy in a hyper-realistic form, the Handmaid’s Tale shows it in distorted, extreme, dystopian form. But if you take the time to introspect or research on our collective history, you will see that this is not as dystopian as you think it is.

Margaret Atwood shows you exactly how abnormal things can get if we continue to normalize the patriarchy and the rise of right-wing politics, nationalism, and totalitarianism. Although the Bible is the basis of this series, it can be applied to nearly every religious text.

This series is set in America, in a society where a radical Christian and right-wing party has overthrown the democratically elected government. Ironically, the book itself was banned several times in several states in the US!

Now why wouldn’t that be triggering for a liberal, feminist, secular woman living in India today?

The role of religious beliefs

You are shown how easily men manipulate women into doing things that are clearly crazy, for anyone looking in from the outside, just by invoking religion.

Please remember that most religions have teachers, gods, prophets, or saints who are men. All religious books are written by men. Which religion has not thrived on control and oppression of women?

When the people greet each other with ”Blessed be the fruit” in this series, I couldn’t help but think of a similar religious phrase which has been appropriated as a greeting and war cry by the right wing here in India: ”Jai Shri Ram”.

Women who went through this violence in real life

I had to compile a list of things shown in the series that have parallels to real life, past and present:

Here are some real-life women, in today’s times, who have endured and escaped fates similar to the women in The Handmaid’s Tale. This is to show you that this shit is real and is still happening, is not ”dystopian fiction”, why we have every right to be angry, and why there is still hope.

Women held as sex slaves in the present day by ISIS in Iraq and the Boko Haram in Africa.

Nadia Murad (sex slave to the ISIS in Iraq, escaped to become a human rights activist and co-received the Nobel Peace Prize – her book is The Last Girl )

Waris Dirie (subjected to female genital mutilation in Africa but escaped to become an international model and author – her books are Desert Flower and Desert Dawn)

Malala Yousafzai (was shot by the Taliban in Pakistan for going to school but survived and is now an activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner – her book is I am Malala)

Not to mention the thousands of African women who were used as slaves for breeding children in the United States when slavery was still trendy, back in the 1800s. Have repatriations been done?

The thousands of women in Ireland who were forced by the Church to have abortions or give up their children for adoption just because they were unwed mothers. This lasted from the 1920s to the 1990s. The government issued an apology (!) only in 2021.

In India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and even among the diaspora in the UK, women are forced to marry and have children in arranged marriages. Women are bought or kidnapped for marriage because of the shortage of women (marriage trafficking in Haryana, Assam, Rajasthan, etc).

And on and on.

Examples of what women face every day

If you think that the above list is of women in well known cases and how is it relevant to all of us ordinary people, here is a list I’d recommend you read.

  • Men mandating that women should be fully covered so as not to ‘’tempt’’ men or to protect them from…who else…men!
  • Women not being allowed to drive
  • Women not being allowed to study
  • Women not being allowed to have jobs
  • Female genital mutilation to suppress sexual desire and pleasure
  • Glorification of domestic work to the exclusion of other intellectual and creative outlets for women
  • Women spending all the time in the kitchen making meals from scratch with no time for anything else
  • Women objectified to the extent of being a ‘’contraband’’ (very aptly called so in the series)
  • Women killed or maimed for not conforming (Salem witch hunt back in the 18th century, honor killings right now)
  • Women being valued only for their capacity to have children
  • Women used as instruments of child-bearing and rearing
  • Women being valued only for their beauty, for their youth, for their sexual appeal
  • Women being raped
  • Women’s consent not being taken in sex, especially in a marriage
  • Women’s voices not being respected in the house or outside of it
  • Women not given access to abortion
  • Women not given access to birth control
  • Women shamed for being lesbian
  • Slut shamed for dressing or sexual choices
  • Women separated from men they love because of differences in religion, caste, or race
  • Being assaulted for not conforming
  • Movements being monitored all the time
  • Women being imprisoned in their own homes
  • The political conditions that create refugees
  • Religious brainwashing

And this is just season 1!

Tell me again, how ‘dystopian’ is the Handmaid’s Tale?

No wonder women are triggered.

So why am I still watching it?

Because it shows a woman who refuses to believe this bullshit patriarchal conditioning. Who never gives up, never loses hope, inspires others, and hangs on to her own sense of self through all the cruelty and oppression and unbelievably inhuman conditions.

For the heroine, June Osborne, evocatively played by Elizabeth Moss.

Because I have read about and know women in real life who are just like that.

For dialogues like this:

Man: What else is there to live for, other than children?
Woman: Love.

And this:

Woman, to the man: Is this enough for you, this bullshit life?
”I WILL NOT BE THAT GIRL IN THE BOX”

Oh, abso-F*king-lutely not.

The Handmaid’s Tale is not fiction, folks.

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Karishma has been writing short stories since she was 8 and poetry since she was

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