Literature coming alive – how women turned into “handmaids” during the Israeli protests.
By Marica Micallef
During the ever-growing protests in Israel, something very interesting was captured – a group of women all dressed in red and with a white cape.
And this has also captured the attention of the Canadian author Margaret Atwood, who has also tweeted approvingly of such women. Why? Because these women have utilized Atwood’s famous dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” themes of the book in the mass anti-government protests across Israel. The book had also been turned into a tv series.
“Over the past 12 weeks, many of the protests across the country have included an eye-catching display of dozens of women silently marching with their heads down and their hands clasped, wearing the red robes and white caps made iconic by the story.”
Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”, which was even one of the choices that local students sitting for their English Advanced level had, is a dystopian novel set in the future. It was published in 1985 and it takes place in a patriarchal, totalitarian theonomic state called the Republic of Gilead, run by a totalitarian dictatorship, which had overthrown the American government, in a near-future New England.
This regime brings along a lot of changes, most significantly, by limiting women’s rights. Women became the lowest-ranking class and were not allowed to own money or property, or to read and write. Most significantly, women are deprived of control over their own reproductive functions. This is because the novel presents us with an era of environmental pollution and radiation, where very few women are fertile. So, the handmaids, as those few remaining fertile women, are forcibly assigned to produce children for the “Commanders”, the ruling class of men. Handmaids lived with the Commanders and their wives and during the phase when they were ovulating, they had to have sex with the Commander while the latter’s wife holds their hands and watches.
The novel also examines issues such as how women are oppressed in patriarchal societies, how they lose their agency and individuality, and the various ways they fight back and attempt to become independent.
In the novel, women are classed socially and follow a strict dress code. The handmaids wore red with large white bonnets so that they are easily seen. It is also intended to function as a sign of female subservience. It is red because it indicates the handmaids’ fertility, echoing the colour of menstrual blood. Their large white bonnets were used to cover their hair and blinker them to the outside world.
So these brave Israeli women, who have also blocked intersections, staying in character during the protests and keeping quiet as they walk in formation, decided to protest wearing such costumes, “because they believe Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies will lead to a ‘dark future’.”
Women protesting in Israel in a “Handmaid”-style say they want to emphasize the potential repercussions of such extensive reforms to the political system.
Moran Zer Katzenstein, founder of the women’s rights advocacy group Bonot Alternativa said that under this overhaul, women are going to be the first to be harmed.
Those participating are seeking to drive home the fear that the government’s plans to massively overhaul the judiciary will leave minorities and women unprotected and hence why they resorted to reference the futuristic novel where subjugated women are forced to bear children for male leaders of a patriarchal society.
Atwood must surely be stupefied and proud to see how her literary masterpiece is educating a generation of readers, both young and old, as we work to combat these incredibly challenging times.
And so am I, humbled and honoured to watch, since I have studied and taught her masterpiece, together with those of George Orwell, and more, which are now not only coming true but are also becoming alive.
Because while the corrupt governments are erasing history and turning the world into a totalitarian state of Gilead, literature and life are vibrating high through the people who are trying to build afresh a new history.