Monday, May 15, 2017

The Handmaid’s Tale and Saudi Arabia Uncovered
by Gloria Geller

Spring 2017, a new made for TV program (created by Bruce Miller) based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel is being shown on BRAVO. This past Sunday I saw the third show in the series (directed by Reed Morano).  In the next hour, the CBC’s Passionate Eye presented a British documentary, Saudi Arabia Uncovered (2016, produced by James Jones), a clandestine view of the secret underworld of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In this review I compare a work of fiction to the reality of life in Saudi Arabia.

Atwood’s book was published in 1985 and was made into a film in the late 1980s.  At the time, Atwood was responding to several contemporary issues including the advent of the Moral Majority, the rise of the religious right in the U.S. in reaction to the sexual liberation of the 60s and 70s; the effects of the environmental degradation on humans and authoritarian/totalitarian government the decade after the military coup in Chile.  This was also before the demise of the Soviet Union, and before the velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia, and Solidarity in Poland.  The book was written at the height of the second wave of feminism as women in the west sought to unchain themselves from patriarchal control in both the public and private spheres of life.  Control of women’s reproduction and therefore their bodies and minds are central to patriarchal societies.

Some 30 years later another generation is being exposed to the concerns Atwood presented in her book.  The reviews of the TV series tend to see the ideas as relevant today, even prescient at this time, given the results of the American election of Donald Trump as president and the regression to conservative views, misogyny, racism and xenophobia we are witnessing.  We see that in many countries in the world, particularly Africa, repression of the “Other” continues unabated.  The Arab Spring has failed and the Middle East burns, torture is commonplace as is war between and among repressive regimes and religious fundamentalists seeking to move backwards to earlier times.

How does this program play out in the 2nd decade of the 21st century?  A comparison between the Handmaid’s Tale and the documentary Saudi Arabia Uncovered is presented here in response to this question. 
Briefly, the story of the Handmaid’s Tale tales place in what appears to be a contemporary-looking U.S., however, degradation of the environment has affected the ability of many women to reproduce.  Many women are no longer fertile or if they do give birth the babies are badly malformed.  The women who remain fertile and have healthy babies become very important in a society where the population is in sharp decline. Martial law had been declared at some point in order to deal with terrorism and a far right and Christian fundamentalist religious revolution has occurred and the country is renamed Gilead. Initially people continued living as always ignoring what was happening to those who fell under the political repression that affected others but not them.  Then things began to change drastically.  We are most aware of how women in particular are affected by new edicts.
The women lose their jobs, their bank accounts are seized and then the women are brought to re-education centres and are classified into categories based on their reproductive potential.  They are dressed in outfits according to their functions.  The narrator, now named Offred (Elisabeth Moss) wears a red outfit and has a white wimple over her head meant to block her vision.  She represents the fertile woman while Marthas are women who are the servants who are unable to bear children.

The barren wives of the men who belong to the ruling class dress in contemporary clothing and are in control of their homes.  The fertile women or handmaids of the wrong class are forced to live in a ruling class household with the job of having a baby for the family.  Somehow, it seems that the men are assumed to be able to father a child. Offred had lived with a man in a common-law relationship with whom she had had a child.  When she was caught by the military/religious police she is separated from her partner and the child is snatched and taken away.  Offred has a room of her own in the house.  She has little to do as there are no books, TVs or more contemporary electronics available to her.  She does some of the family grocery shopping daily.  She leaves the house, meets another woman, Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) with whom she is partnered and they go to the market.  They are watched and have to be careful of what they say to one another, no one can be trusted. 

The handmaid’s monthly cycles are monitored as to the time she would be most fertile.  At that time she is brought to the couples’ bedroom where the man, the Commander (Joseph Fiennes), rapes her while the wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), sits on the bed with the handmaid’s head in her lap holding hands.  There is great celebration when a handmaid becomes pregnant and delivers a viable baby.  The handmaid breastfeeds the baby until it is weaned but the baby belongs to the family, not the biological mother who no longer has a purpose in that household.

Offred and Ofglen at times walk along the waterfront, taking the longer and more isolated route to the market and converse about things not generally allowed.  Ofglen tells her she had a woman partner, a wife, and they had a son.  She also tells her there is a resistance fighting the regime.  The women walk past the bodies of people hung by the regime, their bodies were left hanging as a warning to others.  We’re also told other people are banished to colonies (sounds like concentration camps) on the outskirts of the city.

In the third episode Ofglen disappears as far as Offred is concerned.  We are shown that she has been arrested and charged for being a gender traitor, a lesbian.  She is taken to a completely white, sterile hospital setting where she has a muzzle placed over her mouth.  She is then brought to trial with others and found guilty based on a biblical stricture.  She and her woman partner are taken away together, her partner is hanged in front of Ofglen who is then removed back to the sterile hospital prison.  She wakes feeling sore to find her genitals covered in a bandage and is told she has been genitally mutilated, so she no longer will be attracted to another woman but can still become pregnant.

Fear, repression, isolation, horror, in the form of fiction.  Those of us who live in liberal democratic societies can’t imagine losing everything we take for granted although Atwood suggests that such a thing is possible.

And then the reality.  A couple of British journalists (unnamed) go to Saudi Arabia to film.  Journalists must request permission from officials and no filming is allowed.  They lie about their reasons for coming to Saudi Arabia and they work with a local photographer (unnamed) as they clandestinely film what we don’t usually see of this repressive kingdom. The filmed is produced by James Jones. The similarity between the images in Saudi Arabia and Gilead is chilling.

The journalists discuss the cases of three Saudis – Raif Badawi, the blogger who was sentenced to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison for insulting Islam whose wife and children now live in Quebec.  Ali Nimr, a 17 year old Shia youth who was charged with sedition and treason for  participating in demonstrations and yelling slogans.  He was sentenced to death by beheading.  It is believed he was charged because his uncle a prominent Shia cleric was a leader of the demonstrations in opposition to the ruling family’s repression of Shias.  His uncle was among 47 men executed in early 2016.  The other is the woman who photographed herself driving a car which is forbidden to Saudi women.  Women are only allowed to go out accompanied by a male.  She was charged with terrorism and jailed.  She later ran for municipal office when women were allowed to vote at the municipal government however her name was removed from the final list.

We move through the city of Riyadh with the photographer.  Our vision is limited because the camera is hidden.  The photographer’s voice is disguised.  He wants us to see the parts of the country not normally seen by outsiders.  We are told that ¼ of the people live in poverty.  We see sewage flowing through the streets in the slums, and women begging on the street.  We hear that only 1/5 of Saudi women have jobs.  We are told about the religious police following the directions of the Department of Virtue and Vice.

It is also explained that the key problem is Wahhabism, the very repressive Islamic sect that the ruling family supports and the basis for sharia law practiced in the country.  We are told that children are exposed to hatred basically of anyone who does not support Wahhabism.  Those who did not follow this religion deserve to be killed – Jews, Christians, other Muslims including the Shias who live in Saudi Arabia.  It is maintained that Wahhabism is the source of terrorist actions that have been generated by Saudis including the 911 bombings in the U.S., Bin Ladin, Al Qaida and of ISIS.  The belief is that as long as Wahhabism continues in its present form new terror groups will emerge. 

The repression in this society is about protecting the ruling family.  Any criticism of religion or the royal family is considered to be an act of terror.  People are encouraged to spy on one another.  We actually see a woman screaming that she didn’t do what she was accused of, something to do with her stepdaughter.  She is dragged around by a member of the religious police who beheads her on the street, captured by the camera.  We see the headless bodies of several men strung up above the street which is meant to maintain the terror, no doubt.  We also see the Chop Chop square where public executions are held and see large drains for the blood to flow through, the Roman Forum in the 21st century.

We see British and American apologists trying to rationalize their support of the Royal Family, stating that Saudi Arabia is an important partner and ally.  After the film was released the British Foreign office stated that it is “working with Saudi Arabia to improve its human rights”.  The officials also state that they raise the Badawi case and that of Ali’s, saying he won’t be executed.  Badawi’s family in Quebec hadn’t heard from Badawi at the time of the filming.  Other organizations including the UN express their concerns about the human rights record of Saudi Arabia while the EU has banned arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which apparently is not a problem for the government of Canada which has approved the sales of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia.  Spokespeople for Saudi Arabia condemn the film as do some of the people whose comments are posted on on-line descriptions of the documentary. 

It is shocking to see the similarities between Atwood’s dystopian Gilead and Saudi Arabia.  The joining together of religious fundamentalism and the political power of totalitarian, particularly theocratic regimes illustrate the murderous power of patriarchal ideology that brooks no dissent.

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