How Indonesian Women Are Living the Handmaid’s Tale
This article was first published on MuslimGirl on 7th September 2017.
“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches!” is a phrase in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a Hulu series based on a novel by Margaret Atwood by the same name. Although the sentence is derived from Latin and doesn’t translate well to what it was intended to be, the message that they are trying to convey is, “Do not let them grind you down, bitches!” The phrase may be fictional, but it is still relevant. Especially when it comes to the realm of women’s rights, where the fight to control women comes from every direction.
Perhaps some of you have read Atwood’s dystopian novel, set in a nation that changed its constitution to the Old Testament. In this novel-turned-television-series, women who are divided into several classes and assigned roles decided by the government. Surprisingly (or, perhaps not), despite the story’s dystopian nature, Atwood managed to make her novel relatable to the lives of women in Indonesia, even in its social media sphere, where often we hear more or less the same story and similar efforts to erase women’s rights.
Our daily lives have seen an increasing religious fanaticism in Indonesia.
Strikingly similar to the type of women who play the role of wives in the series are certain Indonesian government official’s wives, female politicians and public figures that supported and promote the doctrines of Islamic Fundamentalism.
In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the women who are designated as wives are generally the ones who are fortunate to marry male officials who call themselves the Sons of Jacob, a group of men who succeeded in changing the constitution to the Old Testament. The wives submit to their husbands and fundamentalist Christian doctrines, strictly following the Bible. Some of them do not hesitate to support the elimination of women’s rights, ranging from the right to read to the right to ownership of property and wealth. They also strongly impose and support the belief that handmaid women should provide offspring because of the worldwide infertility problems experienced by both men and women. Strikingly similar to the type of women who play the role of wives in the series are certain Indonesian government official’s wives, female politicians and public figures that supported and promote the doctrines of Islamic Fundamentalism.
Today we can see not only men, but Indonesian women also participate in campaigning for polygyny, with the lure of heaven and an ongoing myth that says “many children can bring a lot of sustenance.” Women are “seduced” through various off- and online movements to forgo school and immediately get married with this goal in mind. In fact, there is a group on Facebook including members who are married women looking for second and third wives for their husbands. A similar effort is made by the wives in the series, who ensure that the handmaid can bear them a child. Women in both worlds (in the series and in reality) do not hesitate to support the process of conception performed by the husband to the handmaid.
Although the infertility problem is not as exaggerated as it is in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” there remains a similarity, which is the purpose of polygyny. Because many women still believe that children bring wealth and reward in the afterlife, which they need to be pursued blindly, polygyny for those purposes is encouraged. Unfortunately, many Indonesian children are neglected in the process and the population has unevenly increased.
In addition to the wives and handmaids, there are women who are considered infertile who are set aside to become Marthas (infertile servants) and Aunts (high-ranking women who oversee the Handmaids) and Econowives (women who marry low-ranking men and perform “womanly” duties).
Marthas are assigned to take care of the household of the officials and is easily paralleled to the Indonesian women who work as domestic workers, from babysitters to household assistants and maids. Aunts are tasked with disciplining the Handmaids and are the only ones allowed to read books based on religious texts, similar to the female clerics who promote polygyny in Indonesia.
Meanwhile, the Econowives suffer a double burden, as they are usually paired with employees and given low wages while carrying out duties to serve their husbands like the role of the Handmaid, and taking care of households like Marthas. The portrait of Econowives is painted by Indonesian women who come from the middle and lower economic class that continue to carry the burdens of having to take care of the family, serve their husband’s sexual needs and work in any role possible in order to sustain their families. These women often end up neglected by their husbands and may experience domestic violence.
In “The Handmaid’s Tale” universe, women who try to escape from the government are be herded and forced to choose between cleaning up toxic waste or becoming sex workers. Generally, educated women or women who have sexual orientations other than the heteronormative concept who are caught running away choose to become sex workers rather than returning to the class divisions. They are inevitably forced to serve male officials and businessmen from abroad. These women are known as Jezebel. From the days of the Renaissance to the present day, sex workers are known as the “free” women, even though their lives are marred by uncertainty, they have at least some sort of freedom that other women are not afforded. And so that goes with the condition of female Indonesian sex workers.
The relevance of Attwood’s 1985 novel to the reality of women living in Indonesia’s social dynamic today is jarring. While East Timor, neighboring Indonesia, was able to accept the diversity of sexual orientation and gender expression, Indonesia instead hunts and criminalizes people who are considered far from heteronormative. Raids are conducted on gay and lesbian communities living under the same roof.
The United States (which now forbids transgender people to serve the country) in the series, which became the Republic of Gilead, punishes those who have different sexual orientations and gender expressions and call them “gender traitor” and condemns them to the death penalty. The Canada we see in the series is home to refugees who escaped from the theocratic government, similar to the Canada we see today now becomes a safe place for refugees from around the world.