Stop comparing today’s Ireland to The Handmaid’s Tale
Coping: Laws that discriminate against women are aftershocks of a past dystopia
So many women cite Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as a turning point in their lives; a work of literature which, as great literature is wont to do, unlocked something in them. The book tells the story of a woman called Offred (literally ‘of Fred’, because she belongs to a man by that name) living in a near-future where a theocratic dictatorship called the Republic of Gilead has been established within the borders of the former United States of America. Fundamentalist Christians suspend the constitution, essentially declaring a permanent state of martial law. The result is a hell on earth which only an old testament literalist could consider utopia.
The book has been adapted into an excellent drama showing on Channel Four. Visually, it is exquisite, juxtaposing elements of life as we know it – pedestrians on leafy streets, or the blandness of crappy music at the supermarket – with violent, inhumane images that clash and leave you feeling horribly unsettled. The original book inspired healthy analysis of the role of women in society, and the concept of inherent self-worth. This new adaptation is continuing to do so by bringing Atwood’s work to a whole new generation of young women and girls.
All over social media, women have been discussing the new iteration; the dialogue it has inspired thirty-two years after the book’s publication is wonderful. However, the number of women declaring that they had to turn it off because it’s ‘too close to home’, or because they can ‘relate too well’ to the events depicted in the programme is concerning.
They have it backwards – we are not slinking into dystopia. Rather, we are still engaged in the long crawl out of it. With the deliberate (hard won) erosion of the Catholic Church’s political and ideological monopoly in Ireland, women have blossomed. If there is any comparison to be drawn between Ireland and Gilead, it is the old Ireland, where women were imprisoned and their babies stolen from them to be neglected, abused or given away like ugly secrets.
Primarily, The Handmaid’s Tale gives a chilling depiction of what can happen when extreme religious ideology is taken to its logical conclusion – the absolute dismissal and oppression of women and any sort of minority, and the sacrifice of human life and happiness to illogical moral principles.
It is not a depiction of Ireland or even Trump’s America, for all their respective legitimate failings. We are ignored, but the women of old Ireland were silenced altogether. That is dystopia. As our voices grow louder, they become harder to ignore. As we throw off the smothering legacy of old Ireland, we move closer to bodily autonomy.
A dystopia like Gilead runs on the fresh, frenzied intent of newly-minted zealots and lifelong closeted extremists. Far from being zealous, Ireland’s government is largely in denial of the will of the people, in large part because those who shout for change don’t always vote.
Our state is not a dystopia. Rather, the laws that inadvertently discriminate against women are the aftershocks of a past dystopia; the great creaking skeleton of an oppressive and monstrously misogynistic Catholic Irish state.
What we have now is mostly a tragedy of the commons. There is little malign intent in those in power; rather the majority arse about and wait for someone to take responsibility for change without embracing that it is their elected duty.
Meanwhile, the only real meat on the skeleton of that old Catholic dystopia exists among the ranks of conservative religious and older Irish voters (not all, of course).
This latter demographic in particular is the one that votes in the largest proportion. Any party tasked with publicly supporting constitutional reform in relation to the Eighth Amendment sings to this demographic for its supper. Older people as a demographic will punish them in the polling booths.
To be the party to bring legal abortion into Ireland is to be the party that risks its own skin. We don’t live in a dystopia. We live in modern Ireland, where politicians with sometimes sloppy morals naturally represent those who vote in the largest numbers and fear rustling the old bones of Catholic Ireland. But dystopian Ireland is dead and gone.
It’s with all the generations of neglected, imprisoned and mistreated women and children; in the grave.