The Handmaid’s Tale: some reflections

Reading The Handmaid’s Tale, I am conscious that I am reading it with what I would call doubled vision. Meaning, as I read it I am constantly aware of how I would likely have received it if I had read it back in the day when I was a hyper-conservative Muslim, as well as how it comes across to me now. So, I am all too aware that aspects of it that I now regard as insightful wouldn’t have seemed that way to me then.

"I think about pearls. Pearls are congealed oyster spit." (The Handmaid's Tale, p. 131)

“I think about pearls. Pearls are congealed oyster spit.” (The Handmaid’s Tale, p. 131)

The primary target is evangelical Christian political activism aimed at limiting women’s rights to control their own bodies and lives, in the name of supposedly “biblical” values (with some biting critique also of certain strains of ’80’s feminism). The “biblical values” being promoted by groups such as Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority back when this book was written were usually spun as good old-fashioned wholesome warm-n-fuzzy all-American values that for some strange reason had only recently been questioned by a few misguided feminists and liberals. However, Atwood is having none of that eye-wash—the “biblical values” described in The Handmaid’s Tale are absolutely nightmarish—yet, they can arguably be justified from biblical passages that speak of women desperately desiring to bear children, men having sex with female slaves in order to sire offspring (whether said female slaves consented was irrelevant), arranged marriages of daughters, commands addressed to wives to obey their husbands, and so forth.

This makes the point that “biblical values” are ultimately less about whatever the Bible says (or doesn’t say), and more about  what parts of the Bible one wants to highlight, as well as about who has the power to define what “biblical values” are in a given context. “Biblical values” might sound as though they come with some sort of guarantee of fairness or compassion, at least as far as “good Christian women” are concerned… but they do not. Even those women like Serena Joy, who had devoted their lives to promoting such values, did not have the power to define what “biblical values” would mean. It was powerful men hell-bent on control and feeling entitled to it who had that power.

Back in the day, I wouldn’t have wanted to read any further, because this obviously raises questions about any religious movement claiming that its allegedly divinely given values should govern followers’ lives (much less religious movements with political ambitions). I would have seen this as unfair, as foreclosing the possibility of religious women seeking liberation within their religious tradition. I would have also taken offense at the Orientalism of comparing the handmaids’ boredom to a painting of harem women, and dismissed the entire book as therefore irrelevant to Muslim women.

 

Reading it now, I still have trouble getting past the reference to harem women. It’s historically inaccurate (Orientalist paintings of harem women lolling about waiting for their lord and master to pick one of them were based on European male artists’ fantasies of what they assumed must be going on, which ignored the hard work that many such women did in reality), and it “works” as a signifier of oppression to a western audience because it is based on said Orientalist stereotypes and (male) projections. At best, it’s lazy. I wish she hadn’t included it.

But regardless of that, I am struck by the way that Atwood raises the important question of what sort of people it is who usually end up in authority in such religious utopian movements, whatever the religion that they supposedly represent. While the followers are often led to expect that those who will rise to the top and take the lead will be the most god-fearing (and therefore, it might be further assumed, the most compassionate and fair), more often than not those when end up leading are control-freaks who get off on exercising power over others (and yes, all in the name of god). I have seen that sort of thing happen too often to count. Because realistically, what sort of people are (1) drawn to playing leadership roles in the first place, and (2) politically astute enough to end up in such a position, and (3) ruthless enough to eliminate any possible competitors? Really? We were so gullible. Unfortunately. But we saw what we wanted to see, because we had a need to believe. We couldn’t bear to admit that the reality wasn’t as rosy as it was being made out to be, or that any shortcomings were not just temporary glitches.

 

“When power is scarce, a little of it is tempting” (p. 354)

I admit that I found Offred hard to identify with. While she was a sympathetic character in some ways, such as her longing for her daughter, I wouldn’t have wanted her pre-Gilead life at all. I wouldn’t have even seen the point of it. I actually identified more with the predicament of Serena Joy… which undoubtedly says volumes about me.

Back in the day, I would have regarded Atwood’s representations of Serena Joy and the aunts as caricatures, as a cheap way of ridiculing conservative religious women by presenting them as deluded. Sure, some conservative religious women come across as not having thought too hard about the practical implications of the ideas they promote, or as hypocritical, or as rather pitiable figures who relish a bit of control over others (such as other women, or children) because that makes them feel powerful. But lots of conservative religious women are strong and intelligent (and I would have listed off the names of those Muslim women that I looked up to back then).

But now, I’m much more ambivalent about conservative religious women. Yes, some of those I am thinking about at the moment were and are amazingly brave, intelligent and dedicated individuals, who probably honestly believe(d) in what they are/were doing. But the fact remains that with the best intentions in the world, they support(ed) groups and movements that did or excused terrible things, or promoted ideas that have caused much suffering to innocent people. And, given their undoubted intelligence and bravery, how unaware were they of what was really going on?

I guess one reason why I identified with Serena Joy was her situation—stuck with her husband having sex with handmaid after handmaid, and having to be present while that happened. And there was nothing she could say about it, because it was biblical, after all… and hadn’t she been calling for “biblical values” all along? Now she had those very values unfolding right before her very eyes, and in her own bedroom. As a polygamy survivor, I could identify with that very well.

Before my ex took a second wife, I had been taught that polygamy is in the Qur’an and therefore no Muslim can deny that it is in principle permitted. I accepted that, largely because of social pressure (rejecting polygamy as unjust in principle was not acceptable in the circles I moved in), but also because I naively believed the apologetic claims of those who said/wrote that polygamy when done “Islamically” protects the rights of all of the wives and children. Needless to say, I soon found out that there can be a huge gap between the rhetoric of “fairness” and lived reality… and that nobody cares. But even when polygamy was clearly not working, I still didn’t believe that I could object to it in principle. At best, I thought that I was within my rights to objecting to my ex’s failure to adequately support me and my kids. I was less sure that I was justified in continuing to resist his pressuring me to agree to him divorcing me civilly (while remaining married to me “Islamically”) so that he could legally marry the second wife (already married to him “Islamically”), but held out because I feared what the ramifications would be for my kids… good times.

So yes, I felt sorry for Serena Joy. Yes, she was cruel and selfish. On some level, I get that. Because when you have been betrayed by your own dearly held values, what do you do? I had the option of leaving. She didn’t. (I now wonder: If I had stayed, what would I have become? Thank god I was able to get out.)

 

“Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.” (p. 244)

Back to the aunts. As well as the dynamics among the female characters, especially between those with more power and those with less. And triggers galore.

In Gilead, girls and women live under extreme limitations. Their dress and movements and access to space are minutely regulated. Handmaids even lose their names, and are known only by the name of the man they belong to at the moment. Marriages are arranged. Adultery is punished by execution. Women cannot work or hold property. Women (except for the aunts) were not allowed to read or write. A woman’s ability to give birth to healthy offspring is her reason for being, essentially. Handmaids who cannot conceive—even if it is because their male owners are sterile or have a low sperm count—are sent to Jezebel’s (the brothel) or the colonies, where they are worked to death. Any breaking of the rules by women or attempts to leave the country can be punished by torture, death, or being sent to Jezebel’s or the colonies, so the only practical way out for most is suicide.

Or perhaps, trying to achieve a qualified type of success, by playing the rules of the game. Like the wives of the commanders, as well as the aunts, who held a limited amount of power over other women lower in rank.

This situation tended to foster certain dynamics among women in Gilead that I have seen before: Constant attempts to undercut other women, back-biting, constant suspicion, prying into the affairs of others, humiliation and cruelty. Because after all, women were put in the position of having to compete against other women for limited resources, which were usually controlled by males.

The system in Gilead worked through harsh coercion. And, through female functionaries who bought into it, and indoctrinated other women. Reading about the teachings that the aunts tried to instill brought back quite a few memories of back in the day, when I was a sisters’ study circle attending, madrasa teaching, Muslim children’s progam organizing hyper-conservative Muslim:

“A thing is valued, she says, only if it is rare and hard to get. We want you to be valued, girls. …. Think of yourselves as pearls.” (p. 130)

Yes, that sounds very familiar.

Somehow, we only noticed the apparently “positive” aspect of such slogans—comparing women to precious pearls—and managed to ignore the implication: that women are things. And god help us, we taught this stuff to our daughters, as well as to the daughters of others.

“At the Centre, temptation was anything much more than eating and sleeping. Knowing was a temptation. What you don’t know won’t tempt you, Aunt Lydia used to say.” (p. 225)

I’m afraid this rings a bell too. We believed that there were certain things we shouldn’t seek to know, because it would only confuse or misguide us. At one point, I actually believed that thinking “too” critically was a temptation that had to be resisted, or I would end up in hell.

 

“…[N]obody dies from lack of sex. It’s lack of love we die from.” (p. 117)

The aunts taught other women that a woman’s value depended completely on her modest behavior, sexual obedience to her husband or owner, and ability to bear children. A good woman was one who followed the rules; refusing to follow the rules rendered a woman bad: “Moira had power now, she’d been set loose, she’d set herself loose. She was now a loose woman.” Such a “bad” woman could not be recognized as being a woman at all; she would either be executed, or declared one of the unwomen, and therefore fit only for banishment to the colonies.

The weight of the rules about modesty in dress and behavior as well as chastity fell mainly on women in Gilead. And despite all the rules about what women could wear and where they could go and what men could deal with them and under what circumstances (and the very harsh punishments for transgressors), sexual harassment and coercion were still very much present.

This brought back memories. Memories of endless discussions intended to hash out precisely how girls and women “should” be dressing or behaving, or how to segregate men and women at a given event… with the aim of preventing sexual temptation. Which we were told was for our own benefit, because this is all about protecting and respecting us. But the reality could be very different. The scene with the doctor reminded me of another doctor… and I realized that Atwood is right. Because it’s an issue of power and control, not of lust or temptation, so no amount of curtaining and segregation and whatnot will prevent it. In fact, male domination pretty much ensures that it will happen and that girls and women will find themselves in situations where they have few if any options to effectively resist it. But we didn’t realize that, at the time, so such harassment had the power to shame us. To make us blame ourselves, wonder what we had done wrong. Yet another mechanism of control.

A theme that the book returns to again and again is the absence of love in Gilead. Not only are marriages devoid of love, but even the bonds between mother and child are routinely broken, as handmaids bear children that are taken by the wives of commanders, and children are taken away from “unfit” parents.

For years, I lived in a world where “love” was regarded as unnecessary and suspect. In The Cult, love was not a good reason for a couple to marry. Love should come later, if at all… but it was not really necessary. What mattered was duty, fulfilling the Islamic rights of one’s spouse (especially, a wife fulfilling the rights of her husband over her). It was assumed that mothers “love” their children, but this tended to be seen as a potential problem (especially in the case of mothers’ influence on their young sons), because “female emotionality.”

In Gilead, no abortion or birth control were allowed, and only “natural” births were permitted, with midwives and no anaesthetic and women chanting. Fortunately, we didn’t go quite that far, but we believed that there were almost no circumstances under which an abortion would be permissible (to save the mother’s life, basically), and using birth control was definitely discouraged. I homebirthed (midwife, no painkillers). Sisters would attend  the births of other sisters, reciting the Quran and duas as they labored.

The other day, I was watching a movie, and when the scene suddenly shifted to a woman giving birth… I couldn’t believe it. I did that, I said to myself. I used to do that. What on earth was I thinking, to do it again and again, trying to piously welcome however many children God might give me?

We bore children and did our best to welcome them, all right, but some were admittedly more welcome than others. “We hold our breath as Aunt Elizabeth inspects it, a girl, poor thing, but so far so good, at least there’s nothing wrong with it.” (p. 145) Ouch. Yes, we paid lip service to the idea that “Islamically” daughters are a blessing, but in reality it was a more high status thing to give birth to sons, and we preferred to have boys, though we wouldn’t admit that openly even to ourselves. And our daughters and our sons were treated differently and unequally by our husbands and by the community, pretty much from the get-go. One might rationalize this as us subconsciously wanting to spare girls a more difficult life—I think that was part of it, but it was also because we had unconsciously internalized the notion of femaleness as lesser, as inferior. After all, that was constantly being reinforced by people’s actions, whatever the claims about “respecting women” and “women’s dignity” might imply.

Back in the day, I rarely read fiction. It wasn’t encouraged, and I didn’t usually see the point, anyway. So, reading this book was an interesting experience. I found that my mind reacted with it differently than it would have to a book that dealt with the same issues (religion, patriarchy, authority and its abuses, totalitarianism, female patriarchal surrogates, love…) in a straightforwardly analytical way. With fiction there are characters and predicaments; you identify with some to varying extents, cringe at or applaud their choices, think about how this is similar to your own life or different from it, or what you would have done if you had been in their place… it opens up channels of reflection and subversive possibilities that non-fiction doesn’t tend to. Which is presumably one reason why some people do not approve of it.

 

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  1. #1 by Nabeela on October 13, 2014 - 12:43 pm

    Maybe you’ll need to do some more reading, but I would love it if you would compile a “Recommended Reading List” for those who struggle.

    This is a great book review because of the profound depth of your personal experiences and insight. Well done.

    • #2 by xcwn on October 13, 2014 - 2:55 pm

      Thanks for commenting, and for this great suggestion. I haven’t read nearly enough to be able to compile a list of recommended readings/stuff to watch. As far as non-fiction is concerned, Kecia Ali’s Sexual Ethics and Islam is awesome, as is Ayesha Chaudhry’s Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition. But fiction? Dunno.

      Does anyone have any suggestions?

      • #3 by nmr on October 15, 2014 - 12:18 pm

        Puts prophethood in a completely different light: “Children of the Alley” by Naguib Mahfouz. The book is actually quite funny in parts, he has a real gift for capturing dialog.

      • #4 by xcwn on October 16, 2014 - 11:23 pm

        Good idea—that’s another one I haven’t read, but want to.

  2. #5 by rosalindawijks on October 16, 2014 - 3:20 pm

    Amina Waduds Quran and Woman and Inside the Gender Jihad, Progressive Muslims (an anthology by different writers, edited by Omid Safi), Standing alone in Mecca by Asra Nomani (which is more of a personal tale/journey), everything by Fatima Mernissi, everything by Karen Armstrong and Annemarie Schimmel, everything by Farid Esack, and Scott Kugles magnum opus Homosexuality in Islam.

    • #6 by xcwn on October 16, 2014 - 11:29 pm

      I liked some (but definitely not all) of the chapters in Progressive Muslims. Some of Farid Esack’s stuff appealed to me (I certainly appreciate his refusal to be an apologist for patriarchy in his essay, “What men owe women.”). Some of Scott Kugle’s stuff I liked too.

      Haven’t read Nomani’s book. I’m suspicious of anyone who positions themselves as a lone savior of the Muslims. Karen Armstrong is too apologetic for me.
      As for Annemarie Schimmel—no way in hell. I can’t stand romanticization of patriarchy.

      But anyway. I’m not trying to tell anyone what to like or not. If it helps you, then that’s great. Reading widely is probably a good antidote to whatever we were exposed to before. At least then we get a better idea of the possible range of interpretations that are out there.

  3. #7 by rosalindawijks on October 16, 2014 - 3:21 pm

    Oh yes and everything by Khaled Abou el Fadl.

    • #8 by xcwn on October 16, 2014 - 11:31 pm

      Yes, I like his earlier stuff.
      He does have an unfortunately tendency to be apologetic as well as to slide into polemics, though….

  4. #9 by likeoldkhayyam on October 19, 2014 - 1:35 pm

    Great post. My sister has been urging me to read Handmaid’s Tale for ages. I guess I’ve been afraid it would hit too close to home.

    • #10 by xcwn on October 19, 2014 - 5:05 pm

      It hit close to home for me. But reading it was cathartic, in a way.

      I’ll certainly never look at the “woman in hijab is like a precious pearl” memes in the same way again. 🙂

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