It perhaps isn’t ideal to begin the new year by reading Margaret Atwood’s celebrated novel The Handmaid’s Tale. For all its genius, the unsettling, dystopian story does not leave the reader with an abundance of hope.
If anything, after the year we’ve had – while I don’t agree with the knee-jerk reaction of calling 2016 “the worst year ever”, it’s certainly been one of the more tumultuous and divisive ones – Atwood’s book feels more relevant than ever.
Written in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a future version of America, the Republic of Gilead. It is a totalitarian theocracy built on Christian fanaticism, where women are subjugated and divided according to specifically proscribed roles. Women are not allowed to read, work, control their finances, or communicate with men other than those they are related or married to.
Our introduction to this world is through Offred. She is a Handmaid, one of a group of women whose primary purpose is to reproduce. With birth rates declining, Handmaids are placed with married couples from the ruling class with the hope that they will bear them a child with the husband. It is Offred’s third placement, and she risks being sent to a concentration camp for “unproductive” members of society if she fails to produce a child or breaks any of the draconian laws.
What makes Offred’s situation so stark is her memories of life before Gilead. The book switches between her current life and flashbacks to her life before and during the overthrowing of the American government – when she was married with a young child and had a job. The fact that Offred remembers a time when society was radically different, and how quickly it all changed, only makes The Handmaid’s Tale even more disconcerting.
The future Atwood paints is terrifying not because it presents a hazy probability but because we already know it is in the realm of possibility; there are, in fact, societies in the world today that are not far removed from Gilead. Atwood herself has said in several interviews that she had based Gilead on practices and events that already existed within human society, either historically or in the present.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Gilead’s rise, though, is how easily it happened. Men, including Offred’s then-husband, fail to take seriously what Gilead is because the changes made – preventing women from working, removing their autonomy over their bodies – does not impact them. The subtext that Atwood so skilfully makes apparent is this: most people are content to keep silent about injustices as long as they themselves are not being affected.
I’d like to think this is highly unlikely. But I’ve seen this play out enough both locally and internationally to realise that, sadly, it is true.
Just a few months ago, when leaked tapes revealed US President-elect Donald Trump speaking about grabbing women by their genitals, more than a few men told me it was “just talk” and not meant to be taken literally. Last week, when women were molested at a public New Year’s Eve gathering in Bangaluru, India, several politicians blamed the women’s dressing. Meanwhile, here in Malaysia, an alarming number of underaged girls continue to be married off thanks to loopholes in the law.
My male friends usually profess shock at both the lengths most women go to keep themselves safe, and just how pervasive sexual harassment is. And all this while I am repeatedly told that gender inequalities have largely ceased to exist.
In that sense, The Handmaid’s Tale is still apt reading not just for this new year, but for the years to come too – at least until we arrive at a point when the story no longer seems likely, till it bears not even a faint resemblance to real life.
Sharmilla Ganesan is reading her way through the titles in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Join the conversation at facebook.com/BeBookedOut or Tweet @SharmillaG.