(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
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In the book of Genesis, which is the first book of the both the Christian Bible and Jewish Torah, a story is told about one of the supposed great patriarchs of ancient Israel – a man named Isaac. He and his wife Rachel have difficulty conceiving a child and so, with his wife’s approval, they purchase a handmaid, named Bilhah, to be a surrogate birth mother – and sex slave to Isaac – so the couple can have children. Bilhah, in the story, conceives two sons by Isaac – both of whom are immediately taken by Rachel as her own. Bilhah remains a handmaid to Isaac which, in Biblical euphemisms, means she is a sex slave.
The story is shocking to modern sensibilities and, in some respects, it’s unfair to judge and condemn the story since it is from a pre-modern culture. It is also hypocritical to judge the story too harshly since many of it’s customs are evident in today’s world..
Women in ancient societies had little status apart from their sexual purity, fidelity to a husband, or ability to bear children and be a servant. In essence, girls and women were valued for their bodies – objects to be sold, bought and used by men. It was a male dominant culture in which women had no rights and were, for all intents and purposes, property themselves.
That status for women is, I believe, mostly still true today. In 1984, Margaret Atwood wrote a novel entitled “The Handmaid’s Tale” about a dystopian America that uses the story of Isaac, Rachel and the handmaid Bilhah as the foundation for its laws and government. Due to a terrible rise of female infertility, caused by environmental pollution, a group of elite, religiously fundamentalist men stage a coup. In Atwood’s story, the coup leaders rename America as Gilead, they suspend the Constitution, send armed men into the streets to shoot protesters, and immediately pass laws stripping women of their money, their property and their ability to work except as a direct servants to men. Gilead’s government is a moralistic theocracy similar to Iran’s – only Christian. Women are rigorously controlled because the focus of society is to serve God, men and the increased birth of children.
Virginal daughters from upper class families are ordered to become stay at home wives of well-off men – and caretakers of their children. They are to wear blue clothing as symbolic of their moral purity. Since most women in Gilead are infertile, these wives collude with their husbands to enslave the few women who can still bear children. Nevertheless, these elite women are merely adornments for their husbands – and caretakers of children they did not bear.
Women of the middle class who can conceive are forced to become handmaids. They are women whose sole purpose is to serve as breeding surrogates for the elite men and their wives. Children that the handmaids bear become children of those couples. Handmaids wear red robes symbolizing the blood of birth.
Middle class women who are infertile are forced to become prostitutes for the elite class of men. They must wear purple clothing and spend their lives in brothels.
Women from lesser classes are forced to be cooks, maids, and servants to the elite men and their families. They must wear striped clothing as a symbol of their prisoner-like status.
Atwood’s novel focuses on the life of one handmaid named Offred – which literally means “of Fred” or, belonging to Fred. All handmaids are similarly named as “of” their male master’s first name.
The novel has found new resonance over the last two years with the election of Donald Trump and the start of the #MeToo movement. As much as the book is dystopian fiction, its depictions of men, and the women who collude with them, ring frighteningly similar to paternalism existing today. As in the story, too many men and women today, particularly religious fundamentalists, consider a woman’s role to be either as an object for display, as a bearer of children, as a sexual object, or as a domestic servant. If we think about it, that is mostly how the President treats women in his life.
Equally as frightening for me is the ability of today’s religious fundamentalists to control our current nation’s laws and government much as they completely do in the fictional Gilead. Atwood’s book offers a vision of how fundamentalists could take control of the US. Religion and false morality are used to control people and pass restrictive laws – particularly against women and others considered immoral. For instance, in the fictional Gilead, gays and lesbians are arrested and quickly executed for being “gender traitors.” Like women, homosexuals have historically been marginalized and targeted by straight men and religious zealots who, due to insecurity about themselves, cannot abide anyone who attacks the myth of religion or of male power.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is now a TV series playing on the streaming service Hulu. It is one of the most watched and talked about TV shows today. Margaret Atwood says her book, and the TV show, should be warning calls to what is happening now in the US – and how much worse it could get.
My October message series is entitled “Positive Halloween Masks” and I intend for it to champion the values women offer society by suggesting positive female masks women and men might wear. My message last week suggested we wear masks of ancient Roman goddesses Justitia and Prudentia. Jusiticia represents the search for truth and how that ideal must replace a rush to judgement and the use of opinions to replace facts. Prudentia is Justitia’s goddess companion who guides her in a search for truth with common sense and virtue.
Today, I suggest the possible wearing of a Halloween mask and costume that represents a handmaid. As a seemingly negative costume, I believe a handmaid instead represents sacrifice, courage and strength. Indeed, she is the ultimate sexual assault victim who heroically transcends her victimhood. As Hillary Clinton recently opined about #MeToo women, they are courageous figures who “resist, insist, persist and finally enlist.”
The story of Biblical Bilhah, the story of Margaret Atwood’s handmaid, and the true stories of millions of other women throughout history who have been abused and exploited by men – are all ones of quiet strength and fighting back. I believe its time for such women – heroes all of them – to be positively celebrated.
Like almost all sexual assault victims, Offred the handmaid realizes that in order to survive both mentally and physically, she must remain silent about her traumas. And her self-imposed silence is reinforced by men who literally force Offred and other Gilead handmaids to wear leather straps across their mouths – so they cannot speak or scream.
As surrogates whose sole purpose is to procreate, Offred and the relatively few other women who can conceive are controlled in what they can and cannot eat. Their monthly cycles are also closely monitored so masters can assault them on the best days for conception. While Gilead calls such intercourse “sacred ceremonies,” they are in truth rapes of the handmaids – all while masters’ wives watch, much as the Bible implies that Rachel allowed and watched Isaac’s rape of Bilhah.
Offred learns to mentally erase her rape experiences. In one harrowing scene, she is shown dreaming and thinking of another place and time, mentally oblivious to what is happening to her, all during the several minutes her master has his way with her.
The attacks on handmaids in Atwood’s story are also routinely done against women today. Many men still assume they have a right to use and abuse women’s bodies as they wish – often in the name of supposed morality. They seek to control women’s reproductive decisions and her rights as an autonomous and fully equal person. And such actions take a profound toll on many women.
Studies show, for instance, that the reaction of sexual assault victims is often to compartmentalize memories of their trauma. They store them in remote parts of the brain as a way to avoid, as much as possible, reliving the assault. Other negative effects can also be unconscious – such as irrational fears, anxiety, sleep and eating disorders, relationship problems, depression and addictions. Many sexual assault victims, studies show, cannot recall details of their trauma unless they are remembered after intensive therapy. Other victims, instead of mentally forgetting an attack, regularly experience vivid flashbacks of their assaults and feel once again the terror and humiliation of what happened.
All of these conditions result from what is commonly called post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD – a dysfunctional emotional response that is widely acknowledged as a problem for combat soldiers and victims of horrific accidents. But, as we saw with the Kavanugh hearings, women are not believed to suffer symptoms of PTSD. Sexual assault victims are also taught by our society to think they caused, deserved or even wanted an assault. Women’s reaction is therefore to remain silent – often for many years – until an assault is too late to be charged as a crime.
The result is a culture, supported by both women and men, that utterly fails to understand sexual assault, its negative effects on victims, and the well documented reasons why they frequently suppress the harassment and do not immediately report it. Only 40% of all sexual assaults are ever reported – and reasons for that are several. Women fear that their every behavior will be scrutinized, that they will be shamed for their sexual history, or they will be labeled as mentally unbalanced, manipulative or simply as a liar.
Indeed, according to a study by Stanford University, myths about false reports of sexual assault are widespread – ones like “women cry rape when they regret having had sex,” or “women accuse wealthy and powerful men of rape in order to enrich themselves,” or “there was not enough physical evidence to charge a man with rape so the woman must be lying,” or, as I earlier mentioned, “if a woman was truly raped, she would have immediately called the police.” Because of these myths, ones recently repeated by Donald Trump, a women is far more likely to be believed when she is robbed than when she is sexually assaulted. The truth is, according to Stanford’s study, only 2% of all sexual assault reports are made up – the exact same percentage as that for all other false crime reports.
Women of the #MeToo movement, for whom I’ve used the handmaid to represent, should therefore not only be believed, but also honored for the courage to share their stories – despite all of the negative repercussions that befall them. Indeed, news reports this last week indicate that Dr. Blasey Ford and her family are still unable to return to their home because of continuing death threats against them. Meanwhile, Mr. Kavanaugh, as a member of the Supreme Court, now enjoys free federal protection for he and his family.
The Handmaid’s Tale, as both a book and TV show, is resonating with many people today because the characters are depicted as strong and intelligent resisters. They are not meek and fragile. Offred submits to the overwhelming state power against her, but she also resists – secretly conspiring against Gilead’s government while she gains the confidence to confront her male master with a forthright awareness of his true position. She understands the implicit power female victims hold over abusive men. Misogynists are actually very insecure. They must constantly assert their manhood because, at their core, they’re quite weak. The women they abuse, harass and diminish, however, persevere with quiet dignity and are far more resilient. It is their truth, power and legacy that will ultimately prevail.
In that light, Offred enjoys a close sisterhood with other handmaids. Enslaved as they might be, the handmaids nevertheless refuse to sacrifice their humanity and compassion. Simply by refusing to be defeated, by surviving to fight back – they exemplify the spirit of #MeToo women today. Strong in courage and coming together to validate and support one another, women are no longer silent victims. They are instead victors.
And it’s that paradoxical truth that tells me the #MeToo movement will not be easily stopped. Men have extraordinary power, but they are no match against women with truth on their side. To support them, I encourage a continued celebration of all who stand against abuse, who come out of the shadows to share their assault stories, and who represent handmaids across the millennia – women like the Biblical Bilhah who was exploited by one of the supposed great men of the Bible.
Try as men like Donald Trump might – to control, humiliate and disbelieve handmaids, their efforts will fail. The era of cultural, economic and political control by white, straight men will soon end. I believe that is a primary reason why some white straight men are so angry and fight so hard against many social justice causes. An age of dawning equality for both genders, and all people, is now emerging. This new age may suffer occasional setbacks as it is birthed, but it will nevertheless have the final victory. And for this old, white, gay man, that time will gladly come.