As a feminist, I have a fascination with the similarities between the religions of the world that are so opposed to each other in so many different ways but seem to have so many common elements. One of those elements, inescapable in Atwood´s novel, is the subjugation and persecution of women in the name of religious beliefs.
Over the last 15 years, the veil has moved into the public consciousness as a symbol of female persecution and male dominance. It´s a debate that´s well worth having and one that is alive and well in a number of Muslim countries. It´s a question for another blog whether the veil is any more offensive than the g string or thong, is the morality of covering up any better or worse than the overt sexuality of clothing and advertising in our world?
In Atwood´s novel, the veil is certainly a symbol of the control and power than men have over women´s lives. The genius of Atwood is that she takes existing ideas from current society, like religious extremism in parts of America and some Arab states, and pushes them to the very worst possible case scenario. By doing so, she forces us to turn a mirror upon the religions that would prefer a woman to be subject to the needs and desires of the male. She forces us to think about sexuality and the way that it can be controlled and destroyed by patriarchal control in the name of religion.
Ultimately, Atwood is a great modern feminist and an utterly brilliant modern writer. By setting The Handmaids Tale in a seemingly post apocalyptic future, we see the horrors of dictatorial control over women. We see men as military fascists, herding women and treating them as a lesser breeding tool. The most wonderful and frightening aspect of the novel is that the beliefs within it are alive and well in this century, right here, right now, no need for an apocalyptic disaster to push some on the America right to an even greater desire to control women. The irony is of course that America went to war on terror to give people greater freedom, but that excludes the freedom for women. The other irony is that those on the far right of American society have a great hatred of Muslim cultural traditions and yet the extremists on both sides have very much in common when it comes to female sexuality and power.
It´s a fantastic, exciting read. It does not have to be read as an overt political text and I´m sure Atwood wouldn´t necessarily want it to be. However, many women in the world today are suffering under culturally prohibitive patriarchal mores. Many other women are living in the mythology of the cultural enrichment of breast enhancement and surgery leading to the perfect woman. Many women are repressed by the veil; others are repressed by a culture that values female beauty and submission above all other qualities. It´s a novel worth reading for the exciting story line and Atwood´s visionary writing. It´s also a novel worth reading to reclaim feminism as a battle worth the continuing fight.