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“The Handmaids Tale” from a Muslim Feminist Perspective

I first watched the trailer on the same day the first episode aired and was instantly intrigued. The history buff inside me initially took it as a historical series due to Elizabeth Moss’s hood and petticoat. As the video went on I realized that the plot was much more complicated than meets the eye.

Of course, this was all happening in the middle of finals week, so I decided to postpone watching the series until after my exams were done; until then I did a reasonable amount of research. To be brutally honest: prior to watching the promo, I had never heard of  Margaret Atwood’s feminist novel. The plot immediately blew me away—set in New England, a Christian fundamentalist group overthrows the U.S. government, replacing the Constitution with a very strict, Puritan-esqe version of the Bible.  Bit by bit modern working women are stripped of their jobs, bank accounts, and identities. They are reduced to their fertility and levels of obedience. The fertile ones become “handmaids” forced to bear children for the new society’s elite and their barren wives.

The most chilling thing is that Atwood’s series doesn’t take place in Tudor England, or in some long-forgotten barbaric civilization, but in a possible future.

Given everything that has happened within the past two years alone; the 2016 presidential elections where the world watched (and is still watching) in horror as the soon-to-be-president bragged about grabbing women by the genitals. Many thinkers and feminist have compared “The Handmaid’s Tale” to Trump’s America, and as an American woman and a feminist, I can definitely identify with many of their analyses.

mv5botyxmjg2zjitnmu0yy00zdmxlwfiotatmzjjzmqwmdvjmwu0xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymte2nza0ng-_v1_sy1000_sx1500_al_Although the various abnormal behaviors of some the characters may seem distant and simply a work of fiction; the fact is that in some parts of the world some of these issues that show up in “The Handmaid’s Tale” are a harsh reality.  As a Muslim woman, I couldn’t help but make many comparisons between the fictionalized Christian fundamentalists in this series and the very real extremists that plague various parts of the Middle East and other parts of the world.

Although the rise of Gilead (the setting for “The Handmaid’s Tale”) and groups like ISIS occurred in very different ways there is a common theme: instability and conflict serving as a springboard for religious extremism to thrive and establish its own state with its own ideology.

Both seem to cherry-pick which verses or passages they choose to use or believe in; the Wahhabi version of Islam is very good at this, they will intentionally take literal interpretations of Quranic verses which have been taken metaphorically for centuries. The whole ‘handmaid’ thing, women being forced to bear children for their oppressors, echoes a lot of what happened in Bosnia during the 90’s when thousands of Bosnian women were forced to bear the children of their Serbian rapists.

The sex scenes were as awkward as they come, with the Commander reading Bible verses before he proceeded to rape them. I couldn’t help but think of this article in which an ISIS fighter starts praying before and after he rapes a pre-teen girl.

We cannot ignore the effect truly oppressive societies have on women, how they are treated and how they treat each other. In Gilead, there is a hierarchy created among its female members, the wives, wardens, and handmaids. The first two groups have influence and often abuse their power over the handmaids, treating them little better than ‘walking wombs’. But even the wives and wardens are barred from any of the elites’ meetings (only white males allowed) and are still in many ways second class citizens. While female recruits are very rare in present-day extremist organizations, many groups have begun making videos to target a female audience in recent years. Women who fight for ISIS have often been given power over the sex slaves to make sure all the other women living in the territory adhere to their strict attire code, etc.

mv5bzji4yzliogetm2fizi00zdq5ltg5mzktmtkzzmzhyjjmmdy4xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymte2nza0ng-_v1_sy999_cr001776999_al_However it isn’t only religious extremism to blame for the condition of  Muslim women in many societies, but also certain cultural practices.

I will never forget the episode when one of the handmaids wakes up to find that her genitals have been mutilated. The warden wastes no time informing her that she will still be able to bear children, since that is her purpose, to begin with, to be a walking womb. As a Somali-American, I couldn’t just write this scene off as an another disturbing scene in a series known to mesmerize and thrill. Last summer I spent some time in my mother’s hometown Hargeisa, a city in northern Somaliland. I had an interesting discussion with my grandmother, Shams, who is firmly against this absurd custom. She explained how significant this ritual has been since the days of the pharaohs. It has historically been seen as a rite of passage: first, the girl is cut, then sewn up, leaving a small hole for menstrual blood and urine to flow. She is then cut open just a bit before her wedding night.  The purpose of this practice is to ‘protect’ the honor of the girl and to make sure she stays a virgin. Other sexual organs are removed since they are believed encourage ‘wantonness.’ Childbirth is horrendous since the woman has to be reopened then sewn back up every time. Although more and more Somalis are rejecting this practice, it is still seen as a litmus test for ‘purity’ by many elders.

The underlying common thread between “The Handmaid’s Tale” and what is going on in some Muslim countries is how people manipulate religious texts to incite violence and terror in the name of God. More so, how women’s freedoms and authority are quickly undermined when totalitarian regimes rise; what is truly eerie about this show isn’t that this could happen but that it already is.

Photos: IMDB

  • Chantelle Meikle

    Thank you for writing this, I couldn’t help but think the same as I was watching it. So many beautiful women suffering through silence and subjugation in this world.