It is a tale of terror in a place of intolerable repression. It is a country where people keep secrets, live in fear, trust no one. In this place, women are forced to undergo monthly pelvic exams in their workplaces to ensure that pregnancies are carried to term. High school girls cannot graduate without similar medical invasion. Miscarriages are investigated. Women die of illegal abortions. Children are abandoned to orphanages where they languish, maladapted and malformed for lack of affection. It is a horrific story, but it is not fiction. It happened during the Ceausescu regime in Romania, which ended after 24 long years with the execution of the despot and his complicit wife.
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is fiction. In Margaret Atwood’s chilling story, a religious group called the “Sons of Jacob” overthrows the U.S. government late in the 20th century. Women are assigned specific roles, mainly as housekeepers or mothers, known as Handmaids. Brainwashed at training centres and bullied into submission, Handmaids learn that their role is to bear children for the elites. They are made to believe that the ills of society are their fault while men remain blameless and superior. They, too, are forced to have monthly examinations. Here’s the thing: Everything in Atwood’s compelling story has actually happened somewhere at some time. Her genius was to unite real historical or current events and practices into one time and venue in order to reveal the horror of possibility.
Both of these “tales” – one in which history suggests prologue, the other suddenly seeming eerily prescient – remind us that slogans like “the war on women” are hardly sufficient for what is happening in our own time. “Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn’t really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn’t about who can sit, who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it,” a character in The Handmaid’s Tale says. It is at least about that.
The fact is that whether it comes from budding fascists or raving fundamentalists of all denominations, what’s going on right now in America, and elsewhere, is that a few ideological fanatics are attempting to hold their fantasies of political and moral superiority over the rest of us, obsessing all the while about their invented theocracies. As one blogger wrote on www.veracitystew.com, it is “their vision of some sort of Puritanical utopia and should be the only goal for the country: a world where…sex is for making babies, women stay at home barefoot and pregnant rearing the children as they gaze adoringly at their man-hero husband who is the embodiment of God himself, and who is the master of God’s creation. It’s the patriarchal wet dream.”
All over the globe right now, from countries as diverse as Senegal and Saudi Arabia, India and Israel, Afghanistan and Algeria, religious fundamentalisms are fuelling political actions that are grossly hostile to women and dangerously oppressive to individuals and organisations not in agreement with their agendas.
Here’s one example. A current draft report on “Traditional Values” prepared by a Russian diplomat for the International Sexual and Reproductive Rights Coalition for the United Nations General Assembly says that “all international human rights agreements…must be based on, not contradict, the traditional values of humankind. If this is not the case, they cannot be considered valid.” In the report, theories and matters of personal opinion are presented as statements of fact or law with no evidentiary support while substantial international sources are overlooked. So too are harmful “traditional values” such as female genital mutilation. There is no room for a plurality of views but there is the suggestion that human dignity can be abrogated. Diversity does not exist.
The comments of Lukasz Kaminski, president of Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance, in ‘The New York Times’ recently are germane: “In order to defend ourselves in the future against other totalitarian regimes, we have to understand how they worked in the past, like a vaccine.”
Perhaps in America we can begin by asking how it was that McCarthyism flourished for so long, and how it is that right now so few people – in government, the media, and among the general public – are willing to stand up to social conservatives as they wage vicious attacks on women’s reproductive rights (and even The Girl Scouts!).
We can demand that Rick Santorum explain remarks like this one made in 2008: “Satan has his sights on the United States of America. Satan is attacking the great institutions of America, using those great vices of pride, vanity and sensuality as the root to attack all of the strong plants that are so deeply rooted in the American tradition.” Or this: “The Father of Lies has his sights on what you would think the Father of Lies would have his sights on: a good, decent, powerful, influential country – the United States of America.”
We can make Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin explain why they will be exempt from the wrath of misogynists just because they support Christian conservatives. We can ask them where it leaves them when a Supreme Court Justice (Scalia) adjudicates that women are not covered by the equal rights guaranteed in the 14th amendment. We can ask them how they’d feel about being subjected to state-sanctioned invasions of their person.
Or we could simply say, as one woman does in The Handmaid’s Tale, that we won’t “let the bastards grind [us] down” – and mean it.