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Shames Radi
Ms. Lesser
English 12 (H)
4 April 2015
Women in The Handmaid's Tale: A Feminist Modernist Dystopia
Feminism began in the mid 1960's as the First Wave of Feminism hit. It
is the idea that women are should be capable of doing and should be allowed
to do anything men can do. Feminists believe that neither sex is naturally
superior and stand behind the idea that women are inherently just as
powerful and scholarly as men are. Many writers have taken up the cause of
feminism in their work. Margret Atwood is known as one of the most
successful feminist writers and her most successful and controversial novel,
The Handmaid's Tale, is set in a dystopian fictional, our protagonist and
supposed narrator, Offred tells us about this society her everyday life under
the tyrannical system of a male-ruled theocracy governed by men known as
commanders. The society has undergone many traditional changes from
what was there in the past that have extreme psychological consequences
on individuals, especially Offred who is separated from her family and set to
be a Handmaid.
Margaret Atwood sets out to investigate the concerns that come from
setting back womens rights in a society named Republic of Gilead in The
Handmaids Tale. Atwood wrote this novel to warn us against misogyny and

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sexism that exists when women are not granted the same rights as men,
when women are restricted their freedoms and when appreciated
predominantly for their functions rather than their ability and personality.
Atwoods novel envisions a future where men have took over society
and made women inferior to them. The protagonist in The Handmaids Tale is
known only by Offred and her real name was never revealed. This is
because Atwood did not want that character to be just another character,
she wanted the readers to step into the protagonists shoes and feel how she
is sensation and the anguish that she experienced in the Gileadean Society.
It is apparent that the women in Gilead are not individuals at all but rather
socio-political tools and possessions that men use to boost their standing in
society and repopulate the Caucasian race, though the suffering of females.
Margaret Atwood seemingly aligns herself more with Liberal Feminism,
which was more encouraged by First Wave Feminism than with the Second
Wave. First-Wave Feminism from the mid-nineteenth century to the early
twentieth century saw tremendous activity for the womens movement. Key
concerns included improvements in education, employment, and marriage
laws (Feminism 2). Margret Atwood reflects as a liberal feminist because
her ideas of how women should be treated are not too far-fetched but they
are rather appropriate and justifiable. Liberal feminists are considered the
more ordinary ones of the bunch. They think that there are differences
between males and females, but they believe social, legal, and economic

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opportunities should be equal for men and women. Liberal feminists are
concerned with individual rights and promoting change through legal and
legislative means while still operating within the current patriarchal
structure (Feminism3). In forty years, from 1920s, to the resurfacing of
the movement in the 1960s, women's matters and worries were hardly
considered to have any superior social significance or importance.
Considering on this quiet period, women were projected to have a steady
marriage and create a family with her husband and he would control her
activities to domestic concerns, volunteer work, and social interests in many
ways. However, the recurrence of the women's movement raised an
understanding about their discrete deficiency of prospectsmainly social. In
The Handmaids Tale , Offreds mother warns of the dangers of complacency
and prophetically tells her daughter, History will absolve me (Swale para
18). Offred is mom is seen as a radical feminist who has hatred towards men
and even warns her daughter about them.
In The Handmaids Tale, men tend to be very similar because of their
dominant traits. An example of this is that both Luke and the commander
share a penchant for the ways of the past and also explains that they have
very similar ideas associated with their love of old language and women
being incapable of abstract thought (Miner para 3). Even though most would
not like to associate the father of Offreds child with those ideologies, it is
very prevalent for him to express sexist thoughts even with his wife. Lukes

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sexism reveals that even before the Gileadean regime was formed, sexism
existed predominately among men.
In Atwoods novel, women were told that this society was made for
their benefit, but, in fact, they had not benefitted one bit from the Gileadean
society. Out of all the females, Handmaids are treated the worse and ranked
the worse even though they might be the most important because they
insure the survival of the human race by being child bearers. Handmaids
would not last long, second generation Handmaids would be daughters of the
Commanders. The commanders would not accept such social status and for
their daughters to be baby machines. Essentially, Gileadean women are
stripped of their names and identities in this unique society and are named
after their commanders such as Of Fred, Of Glen, Of Warren, Of
Charles, etc. because they are the property of this individual from now on. It
was through the use of the centers, such as the Red Center, that the
Handmaids were driven into their contemporary characters as semibrainwashed obedient breeding-slaves. This loss of identity is one of the
many unjust practices that women have to deal with in the Gileadean
Many of the ideologies that Atwood presents in her novel about men is
also presented in countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. In Iran, the 1979
Islamic Revolution led to oppression of women's rights and the return to
fundamentalist theocracy. Womens hair in Iran is viewed as suggestive and

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so is the female form so they are asked to cover it on the basic modesty
standards. Handmaids uniforms are very similar to the Iranian dress code of
chador, which is basically a dark cloth wrapped around the body to cover a
womens figure (Beeman 9-10). The only difference is color between these
uniforms; Handmaids wear red while Iranian women were dark, usually black
cloths. The color red is the color of energy, passion, action, ambition and
determination. It is also the color of adultery and sexual passion. The color
description of red perfectly describes Handmaids, who are committing
adultery by the intersexual nature of their relationship with Commanders and
their Wives. Whereas, black is the color of the hidden, the secretive and the
unknown, creating an air of mystery. That color is also a seamless portrayal
of the Iranian women because you cannot view their body forms. Offred in
the novel says this after she witness the first glimpse of the outside world
after United States turned into Gilead:
It's been a long time since I've seen skirts that short on women. The
skirts reach just below the knee and the legs come out from beneath
them, nearly naked in their thin stockings, blatant, the high-heeled
shoes with their straps attached to the feet like delicate instruments of
torture. The women teeter on their spiked feet as if on stilts, but off
balance; their backs arch at the waist, thrusting the buttocks out. Their
heads are uncovered and their hair too is exposed, in all its darkness
and sexuality. They wear lipstick, red, outlining the damp cavities of

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their mouths, like scrawls on a washroom wall, of the time before
Then I think: I used to dress like that. That was freedom. (28)
This scene in the novel shows that the people of Gilead live repressed lives in
fear of government retaliation. By using the Japanese tourist, Atwood
reminds us that the entire world has not become this dystopia, but that the
others are powerless to help. They remain ignorant of the mayhems that are
occurring in this new land. We understand if change is to occur, it will have to
come from within. The outside world is not aware of the dilemmas of the
people of Gilead. They just assume the culture of the Americans changed to
be more conservative.
Traditionally in Saudi Arabia, men and women do not interact if they
arent married or relatives. Public places are segregated based on gender.
The same goes for the Gileadean society. Men in Saudi Arabia are allowed to
have four wives (women they do not know) at a time as long as they can
treat them equally, but polygamy is uncommon in most of the population
(Cole 10). Similarly, in The Handmaids Tale, the marriages are
predetermined and you do not get to meet your spouse ahead of time. Men
are also allowed to have multiple wives (Handmaids) to be able to conceive
as many children as possible. The society structures in Iran and Saudi Arabia
are similar to that of the Republic of Gilead by dress and division of genders.
In The Handmaids Tale, the detachment of women in the Republic of
Gilead is based on their reproductive qualities and status. Wives are

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categorized as leading (for women) and are usually childless, these infertile
women commonly have gardens to reward for their lack of child bearing
merits: "many of the wives have such gardens, it's something for them to
order and maintain and care for" (14). Econowives are a lot like wives except
they are lower in society and less affluent. Marthas come in next followed by
Handmaids. Marthas are usually older and infertile whereas Handmaids are
typically young and are expected to be fertile. Women deprived of the
aptitude to effectively reproduce were deprived of their gender-identity by
being branded as unwomen.
Atwood ponders that women are being viewed as nothing more than
baby machines. In the Gileadean civilization, women that cannot have
children are not considered women at all; they are considered unwomen in
this theocracy. They are sent to clean deadly waste disposal site, where they
end up not surviving for very long. Men in power in Gilead used the
decreasing rate of Caucasian babies as a method of attaining power.
Ecological welfare is revealed to have noteworthy concerns for the
general condition of women in the Gileadean society. The fact that the
chances [of having a healthy baby] are one in four (112) shows how
concerning this was for the Caucasian race in United States. The air itself
was so packed with perilous chemicals led to a severe degeneration in birth
rates; in addition, there were exploding atomic power plants, water that
swarmed with toxic chemicals, a mutant strain of syphilis that caused a

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necessity for treatment but the disease eventually became resistant to all
types of medication they tried (112). This disease gave the Republic of
Gilead a sustainable justification to dominate and control the reproductive
rights of its residents, especially the females among them.
The Aunts in the Red Center directed women against themselves and
their own beliefs. The Red Center restricted the Handmaids in that their daily
lives were strictly scheduled and their ability to talk, walk, read, and even
use the bathroom was limited so disorder would not occur. That idea is
established when Offred reveals the fact that the propaganda meetings
appeared to be succeeding when she said already we were losing the taste
for freedom; already we were finding these walls secure (217). This is
demonstrated when Offred reflects that the habits and traditions of her
former life seemed lavish, decadent almost; immoral, like the orgies of
barbarian regiments (113). That is predominantly heartbreaking because
the previous habit that inspired that thought was simply the ability to store
books and pens in a desk. Although such a small fluke of life is outwardly
insignificant at first, it is actually revealing of something deeper.
Even though Offred regularly ponders these indoctrination sittings and
demonstrate that they have had a significant influence on her thoughts and
behavior, as explained above, there are occasions when she reveals that she
does not completely have faith in in the new system under which she lives;
for example, when Aunt Lydia labels Offred and the other Handmaids as the

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front line soldiers of the new way of life (first generation), Offred writes it off
as phony courage and afterwards says that she wants to choke her (113).
Her derision for the propaganda is also obvious in the fact that she is only
truthfully blissful during the secretive bathroom encounters with Moira, her
top-secret friend for whom she frequently aches for. Additional indication of
the indoctrinations failure to totally convert her is when she sneaks into the
Commanders room to join him at night even though she recognizes that
doing such a thing is obviously prohibited. As she put it, I should have felt
evil; by Aunt Lydias lights, I was evil. But I didnt feel evil (157). From a
feminist perception, it can be seen that Offred is a bright and somewhat
sovereign woman, as opposed to the superficial mockery that the Republic of
Gilead appears to grip as its foremost vision of females.
Though it appears to have been effectual in applying its new system of
proceeding a society, one main setback with the Republic of Gilead is the
unfeasibility of its endurance. Granted its practice of driving women into
performing as Handmaids, it would have to deliver Handmaids for each
succeeding generation. The Commanders and Aunts recognize that the
Handmaids of upcoming generations will be more effortlessly instructed, yet
they flop to take into account the fact that those Handmaids will most likely
have to come from the descendants of the Commanders and their Wives.
Even taking into thought the rigid religious fundamentalist mindset of the
Commanders, it is unlikely that they would be willing to hand over their

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daughters to a status of sexual slavery. Maybe the Handmaids would be
disappear once the birth rate reached an acceptable level; however, it is
plausible to advance that numerous of the men will be grudging to submit
the absolute power and control they exercise over the lives, brains, and
sexuality of the dominated women underneath them; indeed, the point that
the Republic was eventually destined to fail is proven at the end of the book
in the Historical Notes.
After the aforesaid indication is taken into thought, it is basic to see
that the Republic of Gilead is undeniably a dystopian vision. From the
standpoint of cultural feminism, it has harnessed a variety of tools such as
propaganda, religion, and psychological indoctrination in order to dominate
its female populace. Women in that society are not people at all; instead,
they are simply walking wombs. Everything that happens in The Handmaids
Tale has a practice in past or has initiated to arise as an inclination in social
history; therefore, this story should serve as a threatening cautionary tale to
the perils to which our civilization might fall target in the near future.
When this novel was distributed, Atwood was profoundly critiqued but
the bookworms admitted the fact that it was a severe dispute at the period
because of what was going on in the 1980s and what occurred before. With
that in cognizance, the visualization of the Gileadean Society seems to be
dangerous and somewhat improbable at that time period. Modern readers,
however, finds this fictional narrative oddly worrying because we some of the

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pieces of this novel still occur in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia. In the
western realm, this novel seems like it is nearly impractical to take place but
with even particular fundamentalists viewing philosophies like individuals
presented in the book, we can never be undisruptive.

Works Cited
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. Boston: Houghton Mifflin,
1986. Print.
BEEMAN, WILLIAM O. "Iran." Countries and Their Cultures. Ed. Carol R.
Ember and Melvin Ember. Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2001.
1057-1077. Academic OneFile. Web. 4 Apr. 2015.
COLE, DONALD POWELL. "Saudi Arabia." Countries and Their Cultures.
Ed. Carol R. Ember and Melvin Ember. Vol. 4. New York: Macmillan Reference
USA, 2001. 1927-1939. Academic OneFile. Web. 8 Apr. 2015.
"Feminism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Ed.
William A. Darity, Jr. 2nd ed. Vol. 3. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2008.
119-122. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.
Swale, Jill. "Feminism, and politics in The Handmaid's Tale: Jill Swale
examines the social and historical context of Atwood's novel. (Literature in
Context)." The English Review 13.1 (2002): 37+. Literature Resource Center.
Web. 4 Apr. 2015.

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Miner, Madonne M. "The Handmaid's Tale: Overview." Reference Guide
to English Literature. Ed. D. L. Kirkpatrick. 2nd ed. Chicago: St. James Press,
1991. Literature Resource Center. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.