The Handmaid’s Tale: An “Islamic” Republic of Gilead?

The New York Times has an interesting write-up on The Handmaid’s Tale. This TV series is adapted from Margaret Atwood’s novel from the ’80s, about a dystopian America in which Christian fundies have taken over and turned the land into a repressive living hell. The funny thing is, this new America — called the Republic of Gilead — evokes Islamic customs more than Christian ones, even by the lights of hardcore fundamentalism. Atwood’s rule for herself when writing the novel was that everything for Gilead had to be based on a real-world antecedent. She draws on many influences, and I’ll go through some of the examples mentioned in the article, then cover additional ones which surprisingly the article ignores.

Color-Coordinated Clothing

In the Republic of Gilead men wear black, women wear colors, and the colors reflect the women’s caste: red for handmaids (fertile women who bear children for the elite), green for Marthas (the house servants of the elite), blue for wives (the spouses of elite Commanders), and brown for aunts (the high-ranking women responsible for indoctrinating the handmaids, overseeing births, and presiding over “mob justice” executions). As Atwood is quoted in the article, organizing people according to what they’re wearing dates back to the Code of Hammurabi. Often we think of the Third Reich’s yellow stars for Jews and pink triangles for gays. But aside from the color, the head-to-toe garb calls to mind the Islamic chador (which Atwood wore on a trip to Afghanistan in 1978), which is probably why the handmaid dress code struck me as Islamic more than anything else.

Some might compare the garb to the habit of a Catholic nun, but that’s a weaker analogy. Like priests, nuns take on a religious vocation and assume their dress code voluntarily. In Gilead, the handmaids are a class of women through no choice of their own, imposed on them by their fertility. They are like everyday Muslim women who are forced to wear the veil, chador, hijab, etc.

Mob Justice

Because the handmaids are so repressed, they need occasional release, which they get when they are allowed to torture and execute criminals. In the premiere episode they beat to death a rapist (read: a “low-life” rapist of elite wives, not a state-sanctioned rapist of handmaidens like themselves). The handmaidens basically stand in a circle and violently abuse the offender until he is dead. As Atwood says, the precedent goes back to the Dionysian revels of ancient Greece, in which the Maenads (female followers of the god Dionysus) tore apart sacrificial victims for their deity.

Mob justice obviously doesn’t need religion to drive it, and there are many examples throughout history that set the example. However, there is another scene of handmaid execution that comes in the season finale, and which requires the particular punishment of stoning. Stoning is not a Christian punishment but an Islamic one, and has been common in Islam throughout all its history. (See below, “Death by Stoning”.)

Declaring Women Barren

In the Republic of Gilead, it is blasphemy to suggest that a man could be sterile. The fertility problem is on women alone, and this idea derives from all three Abrahamic faiths. In the Judeo-Christian Bible and Qur’an, the male never comes under judgment for sterility. Barrenness falls on the woman’s shoulders and is a curse from God. That’s what people thought for centuries, and why Henry VIII kept changing wives, unable to credit that he might have been the problem, and not them.

Why Ofglen Does What She Does

When things look bad for Ofglen, she resorts to a final desperate act of resistance against the state of Gilead, taking out a few guards with a stolen vehicle — a stupid thing to do, but which Atwood compares to Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire. It’s a weak analogy, because Ofglen wasn’t religiously inspired. While Buddhism frowns on suicide for the most part, in some cases it can be seen as a deed of self-sacrifice, as when the 109 Tibetan Buddhists burned themselves as a sacrifice for the Tibetan people. These self-immolaters were acting similarly to the Buddha, who in one of his incarnations offered his body as food for a hungry tigress.

There is room for selfless suicide in Buddhism, just as there is an imperative for suicide bombing in Islam, and those religious differences matter since what nominally calls them forth is exactly the same: China has oppressed the Tibetans as horribly as Israel and western powers have done in the Muslim world — yet there are no Tibetan suicide bombers. Religions aren’t the same, despite what we’re often told. Buddhist suicide is purely self-sacrificial; Islamic suicide is also homicidal, and the more people killed, the greater the glory in paradise; Christian suicide is sinful in the extreme. What Ofglen does in The Handmaid’s Tale is simply a (non-religious) human response to a tyranny that cannot be defeated; a protest that will perhaps be remembered and inspire others down the line.

And what about these…?

Female Circumcision

The New York Times article fails to mention one of the most arresting scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale: Ofglen’s gentital mutilation in episode 3. There are misunderstandings about female genital mutilation (FGM) that need clearing. We are often told that FGM isn’t an Islamic problem but an African problem. While it’s true that some African countries do this, most female circumcision occurs either in Islamic countries or close to them. Moreover, Islam is the only religion that officially mandates it: “Circumcision is obligatory, for every male and female, by cutting off the piece of skin on the glans of the penis of the male, but circumcision of the female is by cutting out the bazr clitoris.” (Umdat al-Salik e4.3)  The problem goes well beyond Africa in any case. Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization declared female genital mutilation a “human right”. Muslim clerics have defended it around the globe. It’s a huge problem in Britain, and a huge percentage of the Muslims in Britain are not from Africa. It’s common in Iraq and in the Maldives. 40 percent of Kurdish women have been victims of it. It is actually very accurate — if not politically correct — to say that FGM is an Islamic problem.

Even where Christian groups practice FGM (in Egypt, Nigeria, Tanzania and Kenya), it is not prescribed religiously. There is no Christian analogue to either the Muslim hadith in which Muhammad approves FGM “if the cutting is not too severe”, or to the Umdat al-Salik (Reliance of the Traveler), cited above, which is the authoritative source on Islamic law. Put simply, FGM has never been a Christian requirement. So this part of The Handmaid’s Tale evokes Islam — and mainstream Islam at that — more than fundamentalist Christianity.

The Ceremony

Even more curious is that the New York Times ignores the central plot device: the Ceremony, which we get a graphic view of in episode 4. The ritual is based on the account in Genesis 30:1-5 where Rachel is unable to have children and so she gives Jacob her handmaid Bilhah as a surrogate for him to have sex with. This story becomes the basis for the class of handmaids in Gilead, which are needed because of the declining birth rate among humanity caused by toxic environment. Fertile women are taken to become sex slaves of Gilead’s political elite, and their sole purpose to produce babies for the elite women, being shuffled from one home after another to bear children.

Now, the handmaid text of Genesis 30 has never in Christian history been interpreted as religiously prescriptive, but in The Handmaid’s Tale the Christian authorities of Gilead have run wild with it, making the basis for their Ceremony. It proceeds once a month, whereby the Commander stands in front of his bed while banging his handmaid as she lies in the lap of his wife. This is supposed to make the act an intimate affair for all three parties involved. I admit this is an ingenious idea for a dystopian setting, but in reality preposterous as a fundamentalist Christian belief that could ever become the rule of law. First of all, just because something happens in the bible doesn’t mean that it’s prescriptive. Most of the Israelite holy wars, for example, were understood to be acceptable for the Israelites alone, not later Jews and Christians — God, in other words, approved slaughtering the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Jesubites, but none after, and his commands never amounted to “marching orders” for believers. Unlike Allah in the Qur’an, Yahweh never commands his subjects to fight unbelievers as a general rule or to subjugate infidel nations. (He does command, prescriptively, that the promised land be kept pure and free from idolatry, which serves as the basis for modern Zionism.) Most warfare in the Bible is descriptive, while in the Qur’an it’s prescriptive.

Likewise, the text of Genesis 30:1-5 isn’t prescriptive, and it’s no wonder Jews and Christians have not felt compelled to do as Jacob and Rachel did. The closest thing to the handmaid ceremony in today’s world is garden-variety sex slavery and/or concubinage, which is prescribed in the Qur’an and Islamic law (Qur’an 4:3, 4:24, 33:50; 23:1-6; Umdat al-Salik O9.13). So when people say that the Ceremony of Gilead comes across as more Islamic than Judeo-Christian — even though it’s based on a text from the Bible rather than the Qur’an — they actually have a good point.

Death by Stoning

In the finale (episode 10) the handmaid Janine is found guilty of trying to harm the baby she gave birth to, and so is sentenced to death at the hands of her fellow handmaids (per “mob violence” above). In the Republic of Gilead, the punishment for trying to harm a child is death by stoning. Stoning has never been a Christian practice, though it derives from the Old Testament and was used in ancient Judaism. On the other hand, it has been a consistent Islamic practice throughout history, prescribed by the Qur’an and many hadiths.

Stoning continues to be the law in Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates — especially for men and women caught in adultery, and for women who refuse to wear the veil. All versions of sharia law, in fact, require stoning for those who commit adultery, and for women don’t wear veils. There are Muslim countries that don’t implement these particular sharia punishments, but those countries are not operating according to a supposed “moderate” form of sharia; such does not exist. So this scene in the finale evokes Islam without question.

Conclusion: An “Islamic” Republic?

While it’s evident that Margaret Atwood drew on all sorts of antecedents, religious and secular, I was getting heavy Islamic vibes from the Republic of Gilead. I haven’t read the novel, and so I don’t know the source material, but I wonder if either Atwood and/or the series writers were trying to imply that religions carry an equal potential for harm — in this case that a nation under Christian fundamentalist rule can turn out just as bad as, say, a place like Saudi Arabia. Critics are also saying that The Handmaid’s Tale is a “timely warning about the Trump administration”. That too is nonsense. For all of the threats Trump presents — and he indeed presents many — he has not, and will not, come anywhere close to endorsing the notion of a government so crushing (like that of Saudi Arabia and other Islamic nations) that it is able to mandate repressive class divisions, state-sanctioned rape, and the obliteration of individual identity. I really enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale as a dystopian fantasy, but as a speculative outcome of Christian America at its worst, it’s impossible to take seriously.

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One thought on “The Handmaid’s Tale: An “Islamic” Republic of Gilead?

  1. Reading your article (I haven’t seen the series or read the book) I think there’s a clear analogy with Muslim culture and initially thought Atwood was wary of being too specifically Christian for fear of offending her readership – Muslim readers probably constituting a minority – but maybe her problem was her starting point? Catholicism would have provided much more fertile source material – the Virgin Mary as a role model, the confessional, all that bling etc – but American fundamentalism is a predominantly protestant phenomena. In that context, it’s ironic that the women’s headgear is more suggestive of Catholic nuns than anything one might associate with Protestants or Protestantism (aside from its equally obvious association with the burqa).

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