Male Domination and Female Subjugation in The Handmaid’s Tale

Female subjugation creates a barrier of inequality between women and men, which causes the loss of respected dignity. Women are forced to disregard their freedom and rights that are crucial for social justice due to their position of inferiority. As a result, the concept of feminism comes into play as it is about gaining women empowerment to redefine the meaning of gender equality. In Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred and other fertile women (handmaids) are taken advantage of since nuclear warfare pollutes the Republic of Gilead, leading to a decline in birth rate. For the desperate need to restore reproduction, those who are able to conceive discard what is ordinary in order for them to survive in a society that permanently strips them of their individuality by exploiting fertility and by ceasing reality. Women’s bodies become political instruments once their identity slowly disintegrates from the deprivation of entitlement and self-worth.

Fertile women live up to their duties as handmaids and do not have the right to do anything else that can allow them to weaken the value of the reputation of men. Offred is a handmaid whose main purpose in Gilead is to bear children for an elite couple who are incapable of conceiving. She often recounts her life before the creation of Gilead when women had the opportunity to pursue beneficial careers saying that “all those women having jobs: hard to imagine, now, but thousands of them had jobs, millions. It was considered the normal thing. Now it’s like remembering the paper money, when they still had that”. Handmaids get the chance to leave the household they are assigned to if they must shop or walk to keep their abdominal muscles functioning. Their actions are definitely restricted and their past goal to have similar career prospects as men does no longer exist. Unlike Commanders, they hold prestigious positions in Gilead’s government as politicians, lawmakers, and military leaders. Dangerously low reproduction rates increase gender gap through the limitation of handmaids’ exposure in the workplace, leaving them with the responsibility to be impregnated by the most privileged.

Society shifts the blame for infertility onto handmaids who are treated nothing more than “two-legged wombs”. Gilead degrades handmaids knowing that the sole factor protected is their ability to procreate, no matter how shriveled they are on the outside. Offred describes how they are treated and in her own words she says, “we are containers, it’s only the insides of our bodies that are important. The outside can become hard and wrinkled, for all they care, like the shell of a nut”. Their survival depends on their reproductive capabilities. They are mostly valued for what they can physically offer so that they can help increase Gilead’s population. The truth is that, they are passageways that facilitate the production of children that Commanders will then take possession of after the weaning process. If they become infertile, they will end up in the Colonies where they die quickly from poor living conditions and pollution. Therefore, the oppression of women is showcased now that handmaids have no choice but to be the carriers of the next generation forgetting how to show true affection.

Handmaids are in a constant state of confinement as the Republic of Gilead forbid them to seek sexual pleasure or intimacy. The Ceremony that happens at the end of each month permits handmaids to only encounter sexual contact; they cannot have sexual relationships with anyone other than the man they are assigned to. Consequently, they are “losing the ability to feel” which prevents them from experiencing emotional connection. They are worthless childbearing vessels that crave for the restoration of their freedom and are longing to be touched to fulfill their deep desire for affection. Handmaids can obtain sex so easily that its meaning becomes insignificant especially when they do not gain any benefits from doing so. Men are fortunate enough in this situation because they get the opportunity to raise the children without their own biological mothers who move into another household to serve another Commander. Atwood makes women recognize their alienation from men through the flaws of a controlling regime that eliminate their identity.

Gilead’s name changes lose a handmaid’s sense of individualization. In the novel, the removal of handmaids’ real names generates a lack of stability and personal identity. Offred believes that they become lesser versions of themselves when their names are not used and she remarks, “I have another name, which nobody uses now because it's forbidden. I tell myself it doesn't matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter.” Offred thinks that getting to use her real name “does matter” and that the idea of replacing it will separate her from the aspect that defines who she really is. As a matter of fact, the possessive pronoun “of” and the first name of the handmaid’s Commander form the new name. Commanders predominately own handmaids as Gilead forces them to adopt their first names. The Gileadean state victimizes women instead of helping them preserve their individuality.

Male domination undermines women and keeps them from establishing their identity. The Handmaid’s Tale highlights a variety of factors that cause an imbalance in gender equality. The Republic of Gilead is an example of a patriarchal society that threatens both female autonomy and reproductive rights. Once fertile women become handmaids, their freedom immediately comes to an end. The factors that degrade women’s status successfully prove how weak they are in a setting where males possess the most power. Losing the right to work, the sense of intimacy, the protection of fertility, and identity affect women mentally and physically. Due to the confiscation of female qualities, women tend to question their existence in isolation. The intention of disregarding the value of women in any way, shape or form is wrongfully increasing the amount of differences that divide male and female. 

09 March 2021
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