The Factors Of Women Oppression In The Handmaid’s Tale

Across the world today, women from different countries, ages, and rankings share a common concern among themselves, that being more often than not they fall below the spectrum of gender equality when being compared to a man. Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, helps demonstrate a futuristic outlook of what society may be like if men take control over a corrupt country. The perspective and attitudes of female characters are strongly present in this novel, as Stein explains, “The utilization of Offred as the sole narrator allows for the novel to convey a victim's sentiments against the oppressors”. As well, several real-life events including slavery, forced surrogacy, adoption, and rape is incorporated to prove how the past can repeat itself, and how the future can draw near. Throughout the novel, Margaret Atwood warns the reader that a society based on distorted Christian fundamentalism and male domination can lead to a dangerous society which functions on the oppression of women, and the division among genders.

To begin, dehumanization is one of the most important factors that allow men to dominate the new society. In the process of trying to provide a solution to society's problems, the men create ‘ideal’ females by restricting freedom, taking away power, and increasing submission. During the birth of the new country, women become the first targets to enact new laws. Their basic human rights to things like money, reading, writing, and speaking are stripped away from them, leaving them to fend for themselves or be dependent on men for survival. Once Offred was captured, Aunt Lydia explains to the girls that “There is more than one kind of freedom… Freedom to and freedom from. Now you are being given freedom from”. She is emphasizing on the fact that the freedom to choose is no longer an option, but rather the freedom from death is, and it comes at a great cost. In such a place where the needs, wants, and desires of women are deprived, it can slowly lead to the degradation of one's mental and physical health. In comparison, with any animal, the Handmaids need basic human rights and a steady environment to survive, without it they will die both mentally and spiritually. As a result of stripping women of all power, the only thing that remains in the eyes of the male government is 'sacred beings'. The women have no title, but rather a label of an object, used to help fix the problem of low reproduction rates. Offred describes her encounter with the ritual by saying, “I do not say making love, because this is not what he's doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate because it would imply two people and only one is involved”. The ritual is realistically rape, and because the Handmaids are fertile this act occurs every month with no consent needed; women are merely seen as a man's property. In addition, Offred begins to comply with society after all the horrid regulations and abuse she has been enduring. The life that is forced upon her has become normal and in her response she proclaims, “The fact is that I no longer want to leave, escape, cross the border to freedom. I want to be here”. Due to this act of compliance, it assists in degrading all women of Gilead, because Offred is allowing the men to take away who she is on the inside. Everyone knows to fully tear a person down is to get the person to give up on themselves. This is to say, dehumanization is the main tactic the men of Gilead use to strip the identities away from each individual woman. This act consequently brings on a great wave of depression, furthering the women into persecution.

The new Republic of Gilead operates under strict laws based upon the Bible. Each law can support passages that are manipulated into justifications. To begin, the act of rape is continually occurring, and men blatantly disregard the harm imposed on the Handmaids, because the laws put fertility above other issues. In Genesis 30:1-3 “ Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die. And Jacob's anger was kindled against Rachel: and he said, Am I in God's stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her” (King James Bible). In Gilead, the Wives represent Rachel, unable to have children, and the Handmaids represent Bilhah, forced to conceive for another. The Rachel and Leah Center, named after the passage, is where the Handmaids are instructed to, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth”, if disobeyed death will come as a result. Many people in the society support the law allowing for such an act to be carried out because they are persuaded into believing it is the only solution to save humanity. The Bible is very powerful, causing the citizens to follow through with the false passages, solely due to the fact that the higher power of God is influencing them. Furthermore, during the time before pre-Gilead, people were allowed to be who they were, but once the new laws were set in place ‘gender treachery’ became punishable by death. According to the bible, homosexuality is seen as an abomination. Gilead only permits heterosexual women and men, all others are seen to be against the law, due to their non-procreative sex being unable to support the country’s fundamentals. During Offred and Ofglen’s walk past the wall, they see a men’s salvaging where, “Three bodies hang there/with the white sacks over their heads looking curiously stretched, like chickens strung up by the necks in a meat shop window”. Gilead has no tolerance for traitors, and one of the man's sacks over their head symbolizes the crime of gender treachery. Moira and Ofglen both share the commonality of being a lesbian and consequently, it forces both women to hide their true selves. During the transition into the new society, Ofglen, her wife and her son attempted to flee, but they did not allow Ofglen to leave because Gilead only supports a constitutional relationship between a man and a woman. Thus forcing her to remain in the high-strung society, living out a life that is false and being required to perform sexual acts with men, that normally she would not want to do. Lastly, the Beatitudes are eight blessings located in the Gospel of Matthew, and they are modified to fit the new requirements of Gilead. Although women in Gilead are restricted from reading or writing, Offred could tell that “Blessed be the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed be the meek. Blessed are the silent”, were all wrong and in response, she snarled, “I knew they made that up, I knew it was wrong, and they left things out, too, but there was no way of checking. Blessed be those that mourn, for they shall be comforted”. Such a sacred text is abused for the sole purpose of advancing the government's plans. Allowing the words to be drilled into each citizen’s head, reminding them to be quiet and compliant with the new rules. To conclude, human nature can significantly be impacted by religion since people need, make, and exist inside structures of symbolism. In this case, the Bible was the main symbol and government officials, picked it apart to form principles that would restrict citizens, but simultaneously promote ulterior motives.

The society's new rules that were founded by men, create an even deeper worsening to the oppression of women in the novel. The use of male authoritative roles, female suppressing roles, and colour coding all contribute to the functioning in society, in which brings the men great success. In order for the men’s society to uphold order, they create roles for themselves that include the duty of a Commander, the watchfulness of an Eye, and the protection from an Angel or Guardian. Within these roles, men are provided with many luxuries that are prohibited from women. Reading and writing is some of the many allowable activities men can do. Offred explains the hierarchy in the house: “I wait for the household to assemble. Household: that is what we are. The Commander is the head of the household. The house is what he holds”. The commanders, above all, are the highest-ranking men and their role is to keep women in line and compliant with the rules, which is important because these men ensure the society progresses onward. On the other hand, women in society are tasked with typical duties such as bearing children, maintaining a household, cooking, cleaning, and showing respect, and obedience to the man of the house. No women in Gilead are allowed to be given a role that self fulfills them because the men are afraid it would cause the whole country to crumble down. In a description of Serena Joy, Offred elaborates how “She doesn't make speeches anymore. She has become speechless. She stays in her home/now that she's been taken at her word”. A woman like Serena, who was once an inspiration among both men and women has been stripped of her voice after becoming a part of the society. Serena is a Wife meaning she is seen by other women as high ranking, but that does not matter to her because the role she is given is belittling and provides no sense of happiness or accomplishment. Serena’s assistance in building Gilead’s walls has forever left her empty with regret. 

Finally, the use of colour in The Handmaid’s Tale signifies different levels of sexuality and dominance among the genders. All citizens are required to wear a specific colour of clothes, so others can determine what their purpose in society is. The lighter colours are often worn by women, representing their ability to conceive, whereas the darker colours, worn by men represent power. Offred describes her outfit as “Ankle-length, full, gathered to a flat yoke that extends over the breasts, the sleeves are full”. All the women’s clothes, especially the dress of the Handmaid ensures no skin is showing, protecting the decency and portraying the women as respectable. In addition to colour coding, the issue of segregation arises, which further divides each gender among rankings. As well, it centers people out and causes one’s true identity to be shadowed because when others look, it causes them to stereotype based upon ability, not personality. Overall, the problem with such roles is, they take over people's lives. Genders and social class define whom each individual is in society, resulting in people, especially women becoming disconnected with their humanity. Men receive assertive authoritative roles while women are given demeaning roles that cause them to look weak and inferior to that of a man.

In conclusion, the main factors forcing oppression on women are due to corrupt laws, the act of dehumanization, and rules based upon gender. As a result of the constant oppression, this allows the society, run by men to carry through with their fundamentals and motives. Unfortunately, by enacting such fundamentals women’s rights and freedoms are taken away. They forcibly have to participate in non-consensual sex, their obligations are to follow religious laws, they are given roles based upon gender, and above all, each identity is taken away from every woman. Relating to the occurrences in the novel, Glosswitch expressed that, “Events have already come true. It’s just that the women didn’t notice until they started to be called ‘hosts’”. This truth is reflecting upon the matter of how the society becomes so bad in the novel that the women are only used to procreate. In Gilead’s alternate society, women have no authority, forcing them into hardship, demonstrating to the readers of today how society has the potential of becoming more corrupt. Without equality to balance the scale of genders, then society’s everyday rules are at great risk to fail. Consequently, because “the media often objectifies women as mindless beings with trivial aims in life” (Muhammad), this contributes to the worsening of the issue. Instead of standing by and watching this potential reality come true, all humans need to take Margaret Atwood’s warning into consideration and begin to treat one another with respect, promoting equality to the best of one's ability. 

09 March 2021
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