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‘The Handmaid’s Tale’s’ Relevance Today

The Handmaid's Tale title in against black background
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Roar writer Alice Delhaye on the similarities between Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and society today.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” was written by Margaret Atwood and published in 1985. Through the character, Offred, it tells the story of the Gilead Society, an oppressive and totalitarian society that replaced the United States. Gilead, inspired by religious puritanism, is notably characterised by its extreme patriarchalism.

What is especially striking in this book is its realism. This might be surprising to some but in fact, everything that happens is factual: in the prologue, Atwood explains that everything she wrote did happen somewhere, sometime. She only brought every event together. This makes “The Handmaid’s Tale” not only a science fiction novel, but also a speculative fiction. Atwood defines it as literature that deals with possibilities which have not yet been enacted but are latent.

When it was published in the mid 1980s, the novel seemed very far fetched and was regarded as a distant dystopia; after all, was it really possible for a developed society such as the US to significantly regress in civil rights? We didn’t think so.

However, the past few years have proved that nothing is impossible and that individual rights remain fragile and complicated to maintain or even improve. While we are not living in “The Handmaid’s Tale” universe, recent events reminded us that a Gilead-like society is plausible. As Atwood underlined after Trump’s election in 2016: “We’re not living in Gilead yet, but there are Gilead-like symptoms going on”.

Indeed, we can draw a frightening number of parallels between the novel and today’s international society.

Starting with the idea that in “The Handmaid’s Tale” women are first and foremost considered as the mothers of society. They are categorised and defined by their biology which is reduced to the possibility of them bearing children. Women who are fertile are handmaids; they are assigned to a couple in which the woman is sterile and their sole role is to get pregnant and give birth. Their function is to go from couple to couple and serve as a surrogate. As a result, birth control and abortion are prohibited so that as many women as possible can have children.

This oppressive organisation of society can be linked to the broad issues of abortion and contraception that many regions are still facing worldwide. Examples range from contraception deserts as well as the appointment of Justice Amy Barrett in the United States, to extreme cases such as Poland’s stance on abortion.

Indeed, contraceptive deserts are counties where women lack access to a health centre that offers the full range of contraceptive methods. This incites women to opt out of contraception methods, even if they want or need to opt in.

Furthermore, the recent nomination of Amy Barrett as Supreme Court Justice has sparked debates about women’s rights. Although she denied that she wanted to overturn Roe vs Wade, she did qualify abortion as “always immoral” and confirmed that “specifics on access and sanctioned restrictions [on abortion] could change”. Her nomination can thus rationally be perceived as a danger of a setback in women’s rights. Furthermore, the fact that Barrett took the place in the Supreme Court of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg is deeply disturbing. While Ginsburg, the first woman to ever be a Justice, was the “Supreme Court’s feminist icon”, she is being replaced by a conservative woman. This rotation in the US Supreme Court feels like a regression.

A more extreme and concrete instance is Poland’s near total ban on abortion. What is especially frightening is that Poland’s regulations on abortion are not old rules that have not yet been changed, but in fact new ones. Since October 2020, abortion in Poland is only allowed “in cases of rape or incest or when the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother”. The 1993 law that allowed abortion when there were foetal abnormalities was deemed unconstitutional. According to the BBC, in 2019 “98% of abortions were carried out on those grounds” which explains the expression “near total ban”.

This is an explicit setback for women’s rights that is not even being sanctioned by the European Union.

Another parallel is the systematic lack of accountability of men for sexual violence. In the UK, the huge majority of rape victims are women. In 2019-2020, the police recorded 55,130 rapes. Of those, only 2,102 resulted in prosecutions and 1,439 in convictions in England and Wales.

Moreover, another trait of resemblance is the power of men over women which can be illustrated by the recent example of Princess Latifa. In February, she accused her father of having held her hostage since she tried to escape Dubai in 2018. These accusations of oppression, abuse and control against her father Mohammed ben Rachid Al Maktoum entailed questions about women’s rights in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In fact, while women do have rights, “some of them are dependent on the formal approval of a male guardian”, usually the husband of male next of kin.

All of these instances underline that women’s rights, and in general individual and civil’s rights, remain fragile and we should not take them for granted.


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