Many people all over the world have read Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”. And with the arrival of the second series of the TV adaptation, morbid fascination with this dystopic world of Marthas, Handmaids, Commanders and their wives has spread.
whilst it may be comfortable to take the view that this fictional dystopia is a happy reminder of how far forward we have moved on the march to freedom and full, realised equality for women, it does us little good to ignore what it really should be. A sneak peak. A preview. A warning.
A common criticism of women speaking up about the various issues that they face in our time is that there are bigger things to be worrying about as a woman/feminist. If you speak out about rape: aren’t there worse things to be talking about like the murder of women by their partners, or genital mutilation? If you speak up about the right to sexual pleasure, to orgasm, to explore your own sexuality: Aren’t there bigger things to be dealing with? Like sexual harassment in the work place? If you fight for equal pay, to close the gender pay gap: shouldn’t you be focused on important issues like getting more girls and women into STEM subjects and careers? The list goes on.
The truth is, that an easy way to conquer is to divide. A near constant attempt is made to divide women on issues and divide women between issues, “it’s too broad a church” they say, best to stick to one issue at time perhaps. There exists an amusing irony here, in that those who assert the claim that the fight for equality should be a one issue at a time type of fight are often those that claim to be feminist or support the movement, and yet in that assertion is an inherent implication that the tiny minds’ of women can only and should only handle one thing at a time.
In Gilead, women are divided: Mothers are divided from their children, their work, from love and friendship, from other women, from sexual autonomy, economic independence, from their own bodies, their own intellect. Division is a slippery slope, and the idea that dividing women can be an effective part of the fight for the equality of all women is a troubling and insidious line to take.
Women are of course not a homogenous group. Black and minority women face oppression and discrimination on the basis of both gender and race, assault from all sides. Transgender women struggle even to be recognised and acknowledged as women. There should be no white straight woman who has a problem acknowledging their privilege as well as exposing the discrimination they face. What we do all share though is growing up in this world, walking amongst its inhabitants understanding clearly that we are watched and judged and talked over, ignored, made to feel unsafe, not believed, denied and hurt, in countless different ways and to different degrees.
In times of conflict, chaos and turmoil, women’s bodies and freedoms are often the first to be traded away in return for power, political domination and economic control. We live in a time where the right to a safe and legal abortion could vanish in as many as 25 US states within 6 months. Where women are raped, beaten and abused by strangers, by lovers, by the ones they believed they could trust. The perpetrators of our violence are often believed over our cries for help and our screams for justice. We may not live between the pages of a Margaret Atwood novel. We may not be handmaids in Gilead. The Handmaid’s tale may be fictional. But some version of the partial or even complete dismantling of the legal rights and personal freedoms we have struggled for thus far is by no means beyond the realms of possibility. This should scare us. And it should spur us on.