• Manavi Rhythm

The Handmaid’s Tale: A Human Rights Review

You fit into me like a hook into an eye, a fish hook and an open eye.


The Handmaid’s Tale written by Margaret Atwood and published in 1985 by O.W. Toad Limited is a dystopian take on 21st century USA. When you have had freedom of all kinds, where you are free to choose anything for yourself, it is very difficult to imagine a world taking it away. The Republic of Gilead, an authoritarian, barbaric regime on a mission to bring back traditional values for creating a “better world” does exactly this, and that too by taking the rights of others. It is going back from a rights-based liberal world to a despotic regime.


The main issue of the setting is the plummeting birth rate in the country owing to use of contraceptives, abortions, environmental pollution, same-sex marriages, etc. Women with ‘viable ovaries’ are just to produce children. This very belief that women are only meant for procreation is the central theme around which the novel revolves. It also makes women responsible for everything that goes wrong with the pregnancy. Men cannot be sterile; the notion of fertility and sterility is only associated with women. If the wife is unable to produce children, it is only due to the defect in their systems. Here comes the handmaid into the picture. These are usually “fallen women” who had been raped or committed adultery in the past or were gender traitors. With wives unable to reproduce, the handmaids (who have already been tested as having good reproductive health) are now responsible for bestowing children upon the couple. This exploitative relation treats them as means to an end (produce children). This is done through the heinous act of rape which is marketed as a holy “Ceremony” for all to come to terms with (especially wives because the wishes of the handmaids don’t matter at all). This is the chance for them to redeem themselves of all their sins by following what God wants. They are conditioned to be “good, obedient girls” using cattle prods and torture.


Women are treated as inferior, second-class citizens. This portrayal of women as “two legged wombs” not only makes them means but also takes away all the agency available to them with regard to their bodies and life. Life, especially for women, is without dignity. They cannot read and write, cannot work. They are meant to engage in household chores like knitting, gardening, cooking, etc. They have no freedom to choose for themselves. They cannot own property or drive. A male guardian is responsible for them. There is no equality between residents. They are deprived of basic human rights like freedom of expression and opinion, press, right to dissent, right against torture, etc. Anything against the diktats of the regime becomes sedition and invites a death sentence.

Same-sex marriages are criminalised due to the fact that they cannot be consummated, as a child cannot be born out of that wedlock. Right to family is not available to the ‘sinners’ which include homosexuals and after first time marriages.


The Biblical allusions: Man is a fearful being and as Machiavelli pointed out very well, it is better for the ruler to be feared than loved as love brings obligation but fear of punishment or death brings respect (The Prince). And nothing derives more fear than the wrath of God. This fear is exploited by the “commanders” by establishing legitimacy from the holy scriptures themselves. Gilead, the name means healing and soothing (Balm of Gilead as used in Jeremiah). Other such references include the story of Rachel and Leah, Angels, Marthas, Jezebels (referring to sexual immorality), Eyes of the Lord, etc.


The morality compass is meant to be used only on women while men can have all they want whenever they want it. Jezebels are the places where high ranking men can indulge themselves in pleasures of the flesh. Women who can’t produce children are at their service. There also exists a hierarchy between men and this hierarchy determines who gets what. Those lower down are not allowed to take in a handmaid.

What we see today in this 21st century actual world is not all roses. Recently many countries like Argentina have legalised abortion but we still have miles to go. The recent Indian government affidavit opposing same-sex marriages claiming it to be against the “solemn institution” of marriage “between a biological man and a biological woman” is problematic. Orwell’s 1984 world proved to be real but we cannot afford for this tale to come true for it will be taking a step closer to the worst rights nightmare. It is a cause of worry but moreover it should serve as an example to ponder over. Going back to where it started, the inimical yet fitting relation of the hook and the eye is reflective of the fact that not everything that fits is good. June, a “handmaid” in the book, recalls actions that could have been taken and weren’t, the efforts that could have been made but weren’t when it began, the first blot appeared, it all starts from just one inaction. The thought that it won’t hit home keeps us from taking the very first but necessary step. And this is where it all starts to go wrong. This is all the more reason to think as one mind, to be vigilant, to keep our eyes and ears open to even the slightest possibility of violation, to demand justice as one people and ensure the future is brighter, for we all are human first.

About the Writer


Manavi Rhythm is currently pursuing her master’s in International Relations and Area Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University.


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