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Paternalism to a New Extreme

The first four sections of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale paint a very descriptive image of a dystopian future world known as “The Republic of Gilead.” In this world that seems to be a future of what used to be the United States, true fundamentalism and paternalism rules. Women are demoted to roles and are considered the property of their husband. “Handmaids” live to bear the children of their “Commanders.” In this bleak existence, people in general are banned from sexual expression unless they are permitted to marry.

The first thing that popped out to me about this society was how they justify this existence. The Aunts tell stories about how things were before Gilead and describe it as a horrible place where women were constantly at risk of sexual exploitation. Using things like cat-calling as an example of how life was “worse” before Gilead is how they justify the oppression of women under this new republic. They claim that this restriction is for the sake of protecting women, and that they are better off being completely abstinent and separated from men than having to worry about protecting themselves constantly. This means of justifying a clear dystopia reminded me of how many totalitarian dictators justify their oppressive regimes by claiming that they are protecting their people from some outside threat.

Another thing that I noticed overall in this section is how this world reminded me of Persepolis, or more specifically, of fundamentalist Iran. The oppression of women in this fictional world seems like a dramatized version of how women were (and still are) treated in Iran. Given how this book was written in 1985, it makes me wonder whether Atwood was inspired by the treatment of women in Iran to write this book. Of course, women have been treated this way (usually under the justification of religious beliefs) for centuries across various different cultures. Whether the justification is in the name of Islam or Christianity, women have faced the same oppression throughout time. I am very interested to see where this story in Gilead goes.

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  1. Nora Apt Nora Apt

    There is an undeniable parallel between the oppression of women in Persepolis and The Handmaid’s Tale. Both fundamentalist Iran and the Gilead implement regulations restricting/controlling women’s clothing; however, I think a major difference between the two is the size of the populations that these regimes affect. All women in Iran face the repercussions of Fundamentalism, whereas oppression affects the women of the Gilead in varying degrees as a result of their social status.

  2. Rachel Nugent Rachel Nugent

    What you said about the Aunts telling stories about how the old days were unsafe for women reminded me about the statement from the book where she mentions the different types of freedom, the difference between being free to and free from. I think it’s an interesting perspective but frightening to think about the way this works very well to manipulate the women in this society.

  3. Emma Joaquin Emma Joaquin

    The point about the Aunts telling stories about how bad things used to be is scary given they are describing today’s modern-day society. It seems to be a warning that because today’s society is stilled filled with misogynism and sexism that we have to step up to not let something like this to occur (even if this is a an extreme example.

  4. Michael Paul Michael Paul

    the Aunt’s stories are scary because it either means that she was brainwashed and truly believes what she says or that she fears speaking out. The latter option is more worrisome but could allow the Aunt to change her mind. Perhaps there are people out there willing to rebel, but it would take a leader to start this conversation.

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