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“Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse, for some.”
The handmaid's tale, written in 1985 by Margaret Attwood, is a futuristic, dystopian novel about the overthrow of democracy in America by a radical, political, fundamentalist religious group, and the subsequent loss of rights and abuses of women, treating them as mere nameless breeding stock for the pleasure of their male masters. The handmaid's tale has won several awards for literature, as well as being turned into a movie starring Natasha Richardson and Robert Duvall in 1990, and a TV series in 2017.
The United States of America has gone, the president murdered and the government overthrown by a radical, religious, political group called ‘The sons of Jacob’. The group renames the former United States of America as ‘The Republic of Gilead’. An extreme form of Christian fundamentalism quickly takes over all other religious groups and the new country is governed based on an extreme interpretation of parts of the Old Testament of the Bible. Women are segregated from society and immediately lose all rights, are treated as cattle, and forced to have children to increase the population that is declining through infertility. Women are forced into pregnancy using a ritual of rape called ‘The Ceremony’. The handmaid's tale tells the story of a young woman called Offred, who was caught trying to escape the authoritarian government rule, and has been forcibly separated from her husband and daughter in order to have children for the barren wives of government officials. She is given to The Commander and his wife Serena Joy, so that she can bear a child for them. The novel tells of Offred’s life with the couple, her life (or lack of a life) in the new society, as well as her previous life, which is told to us as a series of flashbacks.
If you are fan of novels such as 1984, Fahrenheit 591, Never Let Me Go, etc., then you are going to appreciate The handmaid's tale. Through Offred’s eyes, we get to see the breakdown of civilized American society and the treatment of Women and minorities, as well as other religions and cults, as an extreme form of Christian fundamentalism based on warped Old Testament values from the Bible is instituted throughout the land. As Offred tells her sad and often shocking saga, we discover that women have been told that they are merely ‘a two-legged womb’, to be used only for the purpose of creating children for sterile couples in the new society. Women have no rights, are not allowed to own anything, have no money or bank account, and take no active role in society. They are forced to wear different colored dresses to show which caste they belong to, green, blue, red, etc. The sons of Jacob justify their treatment of women in such a way by referring to stories from the book of Genesis in the Old Testament of the Bible - Firstly the story of Jacob using his wife's handmaid as a surrogate mother, and secondly, Abraham also having sex with his wife's handmaid. It's easy to see reflections of the book in modern day society, for example, the reduction of women's sexual and reproductive rights in North America, or through the use of female genital mutilation, where women have their sexual organs altered through surgery so that they feel no pleasure during procreation, reducing them to baby making machines who feel nothing during lovemaking. Atwood’s book should serve as a wake-up call for society; an alarm to show what could happen if we let fundamentalism take control. It's all too common that we see religiously inclined politicians feeding and fanning the flames of such extremism and we need to pay attention before it's too late. The handmaid's tale is dark and uncompromising, and I hope that it's not going to become a blueprint for the future, a future there might not be too far away.
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