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The Real-Life Inspirations Behind The Handmaid's Tale

By Abigail Chandler on at

Famously, when Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale she stated that nothing in the book hadn’t already happened somewhere in the world. The excellent TV series is continuing that tradition of keeping its horrors as grounded as possible. And those horrors aren’t drawing inspiration from medieval history – it’s all stuff that’s happened within the last 100 years, or is happening right now.

Taking children away from ‘unfit’ mothers

At the start of the show, June/Offred has her daughter snatched from her, despite being part of a loving family unit. But because June and Luke’s marriage is a second marriage, and therefore null in a world where divorce isn’t allowed, June’s child is taken to be placed with more ‘appropriate’ carers.

We’ve seen this in the ‘Magdalene laundries’ of Ireland, where unwed pregnant women were confined and forced to work off their ‘debt’ to the Catholic-run institutions who delivered their babies – and then often put them up for adoption without the mother’s permission. These ran until the late 20th century, and horrific abuse occurred in a number of the institutes.

Another similar – but even more shocking - event occurred in Australia where, from the 1890s to the 1970s, Aboriginal children were forcibly taken from their parents, raised in homes, and then released into white society once they were 18. This was done in an attempt to assimilate (wipe out) Aboriginal culture.

Forced breeding

The most shocking part of The Handmaid’s Tale is the plight of the handmaids, who are ceremonially raped by their commanders in an effort to not only boost the falling population, but to make sure children are born to the ‘correct’ fathers.

This seems the most unlikely aspect of the show, but it happened in Nazi Germany. Lebensborn was the Nazi’s state-sponsored eugenics programme with the goal to raise the birth rate of ‘pure’ Aryan children. They would mate unwed Aryan women with similarly Aryan men and then raise the resulting children either in institutes or with (also Aryan) adoptive parents. Nazis would also kidnap Aryan-looking children from the countries they conquered and place them within Lebensborn institutes. There is still some debate over whether the women were volunteers or forced to take part.

Similarly, Romania in the 1960s decided to fix its low birth rate by banning abortion and contraception and forcing all women to be examined by a gynaecologist once a month to monitor pregnancy and fertility. It led to a shocking increase in maternal and infant death rates, and high numbers of children in orphanages because their parents couldn’t afford to raise them.

The colonies

While we’re talking about Nazis, it’s obvious to point out that the ‘colonies’ of The Handmaid’s Tale – where disobedient people or undesirables are sent to clean up toxic waste until they die – bear a striking similarity to Nazi labour and concentration camps (and Soviet labour camps immediately after the Second World War).

Illegal abortion

In The Handmaid’s Tale, having an abortion has become a crime punishable by death.

In many countries today, including Ireland, abortion is still illegal. In Ireland, it’s punishable by up to 14 years in prison and is allowed only to save the woman’s life. In some countries, like Chile and the Philippines, it’s illegal without exception.

Driving ban on women

It’s only when Ofglen steals a car that we, as viewers, realise that women are not allowed to drive in Gilead. The look of fear and exhilaration as she rebels in the most minor of ways – at least until she runs over an Eye – is one of the most powerful moments of the series.

It also reminds us that women are currently not permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia, where human rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul has been arrested and jailed a number of times, including for flouting the driving ban.

Like Ofglen in an earlier episode, al-Hathloul has reportedly not been given access to a lawyer following her most recent arrest.

Female genital mutilation

Poor Ofglen, who, again, suffers the cruelties of Gilead when she is forced to undergo the removal of her clitoris to help ‘cure’ her of the ‘affliction’ of being gay. The prevailing wisdom of Gilead, and many real-life countries, seems to be ‘so long as women can get pregnant, then who cares if they enjoy sex?’.

FGM is still rife across the world and is used as a tool for controlling women and their sexual urges. An estimated 200 million women alive today have undergone FGM, and it is still being practiced in many countries across Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

FGM was only criminalised in the UK in 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published.

Blame culture

In one disturbing scene, trainee handmaids are forced to accuse one of their number of being to blame for her own rape. It’s a sickening scene, but one that is barely removed from today’s world at all. Rape victims can still be questioned on their sexual history, what they were wearing and how much they had drunk at the time of the rape. Meanwhile, perpetrators are being given lax sentences so that it doesn’t impact on their career potential.

Rapid political change

The aspect of The Handmaid’s Tale that is most regularly dismissed is the idea that a country could change so rapidly and become a theocracy almost overnight. But, remember, we’ve seen that happen as recently as 1979 when the Iranian revolution saw Iran become an Islamic republic in the space of merely a couple of months.

It’s possible in Western countries too. Don’t forget that Donald Trump, within his first six months in power, turned his back on almost the entire world by pulling America out of the Paris Agreement – a move which seemed impossible only a year ago.