Imagine a country where women have no jobs, no rights and are valued only for reproductive success. Imagine a country where girls aren’t taught to read in case they get ideas. Imagine those women and those girls having to cover themselves head to toe in restrictive red dresses and white bonnets in case men get ideas. Imagine public stonings and hangings of deviants to terrorise the populace into a state of paranoid purity. Welcome to the Republic of Gilead.
It is almost 35 years since Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale. The book envisaged the United States becoming a theocratic dictatorship, its byzantine cruelties leavened by folksy Puritan homilies: ‘Praise be!’ With fertility in decline, elite couples in the regime had fertile females assigned to them as ‘handmaids’. The wretched brood mares took the name of their Commanders. Atwood’s heroine was called Offred — literally ‘of Fred’.
This week a sequel, The Testaments, was published. It was hardly your average book launch. Atwood held court at the National Theatre as the actress Lily James read aloud and the event was broadcast live to cinemas around the world. With all due respect to the author’s brilliance on the page, interest in The Testaments was largely driven by the Emmy award-winning TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale (now in its third series). Proof that it had become a bona fide cultural phenomenon came when make-up mogul Kylie Jenner held a Handmaid’s Tale-themed birthday party. Guests were ‘gifted’ an ‘iconic’ red cloak, women had ‘Of’ put in front of their names and everyone got tanked up on ‘Praise Be Vodka’ and ‘Under His Eye Tequila’. The 22-year-old billionairess attracted criticism for being ‘tone deaf’ about all that rape and torture stuff. But, c’mon, guys, lighten up: Gilead was trending!
Best of all, Atwood has been hailed for prophesying the terrifying totalitarian age of Trump. Actress Elisabeth Moss, who plays Offred, said that she couldn’t help but recognise the similarities between Trump’s America and the brutal regime in the story. Wait, has Donald really frozen women’s bank accounts and enacted laws so they could be compulsorily raped and forced to give up their babies to the ruling class? Well, maybe not exactly, but, you know, ‘chilling parallels’, ‘frighteningly relevant’, blah blah. With no greater self-awareness than Kylie Jenner, feminists in the US co-opted the handmaid’s penitential costume of scarlet robe and white head-dress as a symbol of the #MeToo movement and of protest against the threat to reproductive rights. ‘I wish Handmaid’s Tale was insane Game of Thrones shit and pure fantasy,’ lamented Moss. ‘I wish that were true. But it’s not.’
She’s right, of course — just not in the way she thinks. For females in Saudi Arabia, Taleban-controlled Afghanistan and Islamic communities much closer to home, Gilead is not a reading at the National Theatre that makes you feel pleasantly indignant before you pick up an avocado and herb salad wrap at Pret. It’s the hateful, oppressive place where they live.
How can it be that western feminists read The Handmaid’s Tale without looking at a woman in a burka walking down the street and thinking: ‘Hang on, that’s what those bastards do to girls in Gilead?’ While women in Iran are thrown in jail daily for daring to remove the veil, their sisters in Europe and the US continue to be useful idiots for the fundamentalist brutes who try to keep them in the dark.
Atwood is far too great and wise a novelist not to grasp this contradiction. In The Testaments, she writes of the futility of a girl making a complaint of rape because her voice ‘counts for little or nothing… even with grown women, four female witnesses are the equivalent of one male’. What else is that but a reference to sharia law, where a woman’s testimony is worth half of a man’s? The new novel’s depiction of teenagers ‘present at school and then one day not present… disappeared from their former life’ is clearly about forced marriage. Last year, the UK’s Forced Marriage Unit gave support to 1,764 cases — a 47 per cent increase on the previous year. Summer is high season for Muslim schoolgirls being sent ‘home’ to marry whiskery old goats, which is why police and the border force launched Operation Limelight at Heathrow in July to scan flights from ‘countries of prevalence’ for ‘abuse, female genital mutilation and breast-ironing’.
Cutting off clitorises isn’t Booker-nominated dystopian fiction; it’s excruciating fact for British girls from Bradford to Bristol. And just look at Al-Hijrah school in Birmingham which is still segregating boys and girls despite a 2017 court of appeal ruling that it was unlawful. (‘Society is best served by separate spheres for men and women,’ says Commander Judd in The Testaments.) In January, Ofsted inspectors found the school would not allow girls to eat lunch until the boys had finished.
I admire Atwood, not just for the enchantment of her prose, but for the courage of her often unfashionable convictions. She will turn 80 in November and doesn’t take any rubbish from snowflakes, riding out a social media backlash after voicing concerns about the #MeToo movement, calling for due process in the case of a former professor accused of sexual misconduct. ‘Their ideology becomes a religion,’ she wrote of the feminists who started a witch-hunt against her. ‘Anyone who doesn’t puppet their views is seen as an apostate, a heretic, a traitor, and moderates in the middle are annihilated.’
It was the coolest, most lethal response yet heard to these hideously over-heated times. I only wish that Atwood would tell her fans that she is not writing, primarily at least, about the way that Trump’s America could go in the future, but about how things are right now for females in repressive Islamic societies. We are so blessed compared to them. To don a red dress and white bonnet, to pretend their suffering is ours, to talk of tyranny, is the most appalling moral vanity.
Imagine a country where women have no jobs, no rights and are valued only for their reproductive success. Imagine a country where girls aren’t taught to read in case they get ideas. Imagine a country where boys eat lunch while girls have to wait. Imagine women having to cover themselves head to toe in case men get ideas.
Sadly, we don’t have to imagine. There are millions of handmaids. The nightmare of Gilead is right here.