Women’s rights are human rights. ~ Elisabeth Moss
I first read The Handmaid’s Tale the summer of 1989 while living in Saudi Arabia. Margaret Atwood’s award-winning novel was published in 1985, and I’d been aware of it, but completing my psychology internship and doctoral dissertation, while working and raising two kids, had taken precedence in my life. Suddenly, in Saudi Arabia, I had nothing but time.
My husband Curt had taken an engineering job with Aramco Oil company and we were living on the company compound called Ras Tanura, located on the shores of the Persian Gulf. We had discussed the move at length, weighing pros and cons, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. It was an excellent opportunity for him, the salary was so extraordinary we could pay off bills and accumulate savings, and I would have a “break year” before seriously launching my private practice. It would be our grand adventure.
All was well, until the first day in Saudi when, after being fingerprinted, I was photographed holding a placard with Curt’s employee number under my chin. From that moment forward I would be identified only by my husband’s information. And then, my passport was confiscated by Aramco. To get it back, my husband would have to file for an exit-visa for me. I had my first panic attack that morning in Saudi when I realized how utterly powerless I’d become. Unlike being in the States, it was not possible for me to call a taxi, go to Dhahran Airport, and jump on a plane for home.
In Saudi, the list of restrictions, especially for women, was limitless. I couldn’t leave the fenced and heavily guarded compound, except via approved transportation…the company bus, certain taxis, with my husband driving. I couldn’t drive myself or ride a bike or even walk off the compound. There was a strict dress code. I wasn’t allowed to work, because I didn’t have a work-permit. (I worked, counseling Western and Arab women illicitly…risking Allah knows what!)
People sometimes ask me, “Didn’t you know what you were getting into?” The answer is, “no.” There was a glossy, coffee-table formatted book, Aramco and its World, extolling the luxurious good life in Saudi. There was a company orientation telling new-hires and their families what Aramco wanted them to know. This was before the internet, when we could have done our own research. The closest I found to an honest account was The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom, written by an undercover journalist, Sandra Mackey, and published in 1987. Even after reading Mackey’s memoir, I thought I was prepared.
The truth is, reading is one thing…experiencing quite another. I didn’t know how it would feel to go from being a well-educated, independent, professional, free woman…to being locked in a compound and utterly dependent on a man’s (and a Kingdom’s) good graces. I didn’t know how it would feel to be without purpose, left idle and alone while my kids were at school, my husband at work. Every day I struggled with anxiety, depression, loneliness, and boredom. Most days I rose at dawn to run on the beach before the sun brought intolerable heat. I haunted the compound library, reading old, heavily censored magazines, and checking out books for home.
“Here’s one I know you’ll like,” said Trudy, the librarian, as she presented me with The Handmaid’s Tale.
I started reading that afternoon and I read straight through. I rocked and cried as the protagonist, Offred, narrated experiences and feelings that mirrored my own. When I finished the book, I wrote home to my family and friends in the States, telling them, “If you want to know how I feel living in Saudi Arabia, please read The Handmaid’s Tale.”
For those of you not familiar with the book, it is a dystopian novel set in a “near future” New England area of the United States. The government has been overthrown and what is now called The Republic of Gilead is a totalitarian theocracy in which woman, in particular, are stripped of all their rights, rendered powerless, and their bodies politicized and controlled…especially sexually and reproductively.
Birth rates all over the world have dropped precipitously from many factors, so fertile women in Gilead were separated from their own children and partners and ascribed the role of handmaid. They are then assigned to infertile high-ranking couples in order to (hopefully) become impregnated by the husbands so as to provide children to the couple and the Republic. Handmaids are easily identified by their long, crimson robes and winged white bonnets designed to obscure their faces and limit their vision. Handmaids are forbidden to use their real names and become known by names identifying the men who now possess them. In the real world, the protagonist’s given name was June. Now she is called Offred…of Fred. (In Saudi, I was Ofcurt!)
I copied a quote from the book onto a piece of paper, and put it where it could inspire me every day. The quote, Nolite te Bastardes Carbornundorum, translates to Don’t let the bastards grind you down.
This past spring, a televised series of The Handmaid’s Tale premiered on Hulu. The production is compelling, extraordinarily well done, and Elisabeth Moss is stunningly convincing as Offred. It is mostly true to the book, but, instead of the future, it is set in the here and now. The details of the take-over are alarmingly convincing, and paint a terrifying picture of what could conceivably happen here in the United States under our current administration. I highly recommend watching it.
As expected, there are criticisms of horrifying events portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale as extreme, unrealistic. However, all are currently happening or have happened to women all over the world. Previously free women in Iran and Afghanistan have been covered in chadors and veils and forced out of public spheres and back into their homes. Google “stonings,” and you’ll see a list: stonings in Iran, stonings in Saudi Arabia, stonings in the Middle East, stonings in Afghanistan. Google “female genital mutilations,” and the list includes India and Michigan. Google “arranged marriage,” and you’ll find India, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, European countries, the United States.
Everything portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale happens to women and girls in Saudi Arabia every single day of the year. My novel East of Mecca was inspired by my own experiences in Saudi, those of the women I counseled, and what I discovered happens to Saudi (and other) women within the Kingdom on a regular basis.
Atwood’s novel and the series on Hulu have inspired women to don crimson and white handmaid’s costumes while protesting against gender discrimination and healthcare bills infringing on women’s reproductive and civils rights in Ohio, New Hampshire, Texas, Missouri, Washington, D.C., Colorado, California, and New York.
Last month in Europe, actress Emma Watson made news as she hid one hundred signed copies of The Handmaid’s Tale in different locations around Paris. The novel is a selection in her feminist book club, Our Shared Shelf, which is part of Goodreads.
You don’t have to identify as a feminist (I obviously do!) to recognize that women’s rights are human rights. But, if you don’t consider the infringement on women’s rights a personal issue, and, if you’ve never felt any kind of discrimination and/or abuse simply because you’re female, consider yourself blessed. In the meantime, millions of girls and women worldwide are not so fortunate. Aren’t we all sisters, no matter where we reside? To paraphrase Matthew, 25:40, isn’t what is done unto the least of our sisters, done unto us, as well? Aren’t we our sisters’ keepers?
While living in Saudi Arabia, I woke up to a new appreciation of all I’d taken for granted as a woman living in the United States. That 4th of July was the saddest our family ever spent. No charming, cheesy, hometown parade…laughing at hokey floats and tearing up at Souza. No watching fireworks reflected in the waters of Lake Michigan. No waving tiny flags in appreciation of the multitude of freedoms we enjoy in our country.
This week, I will attend the parade and marvel at the fireworks. At the same time, I will continue to resist having long-won freedoms stripped away…because I’m fortunate enough to live in the United States, where I can.
Wishing all of you the happiest Independence Day possible! Thank you for so much for taking time to read this post.