Bodies and Sexuality in Gilead: A Queer Ecofeminist Reading of The Handmaid’s Tale

Editor’s note: It’s EHN’s five-year anniversary this week! Like in previous years, we’ll be celebrating all week long by featuring exciting work every day to mark the occasion. For this last day of our anniversary week, we’re sharing another of our Top 3 pieces since 2018, a post by Asmae Ourkiya on how a queer ecofeminist reading of The Handmaid’s Tale shows us how social and climate justice are linked (originally published on September 24, 2020).

If you ever wondered what the world would look like as a right-wing, conservative, white supremacist dystopia, then Margaret Atwood’s masterpiece The Handmaid’s Tale is for you.[1] In her well-known novel, Atwood links nature’s oppression and women’s subjugation by showing the consequences of environmental degradation on women, the LGBTQ+ community, and marginalised groups. The Hulu adaptation of the novel, created by Bruce Miller and starring Elisabeth Moss and Samira Wiley, was released in 2017 and has attracted millions of viewers, including myself. While binge watching all three seasons and impatiently waiting for the fourth one, I could not help but think about how many acts of cruelty against women, the LGBTQIA+ community, and marginalised people are actually the norm in a number of societies. It also made me realise that the show amplifies what queer ecofeminism stands for.[2]  

Atwood pays special attention to the degradation of the environment in her reimagination of the United States as The Republic of Gilead. The story revolves around the deterioration and collapse of the nation as a result of nuclear weapons use, pollution, and other irresponsible actions against nature. Lands became infertile, and so did humans. Chemical exposures lead to a huge decline in birth rates, and sterility and deformity of newborns leads to a drastic oppressive change in governance—a new country called Gilead.

The new regime in Gilead forced the rare women who were biologically capable of reproducing but have been in unmarried relationships (labeled as “sinful”) to serve as handmaids and carry children to the infertile, powerful couples leading the country.[3] In Gilead, “there is no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s the law,” Atwood writes. These labels come with a steep price; handmaids who are unsuccessful in conceiving a child are deemed barren and are sent to work in The Colonies, areas in the former U.S destroyed by nuclear bombs. “Unpeople,” and “unwomen,” as barren and non-conforming people are labeled, are sent there to do the laborious and deadly task of cleaning up the destroyed and radioactive environment.

A major feature of the oppressive rule in Gilead is the imposition of extreme binary gender roles and the compulsion of heterosexuality, hence the commodification of bodies with wombs capable of reproduction. People are separated based on their genitals. If you can be impregnated, you are a handmaid. Women in Gilead are classified by status: wives of commanders, maids, or handmaids. Yet all of them, regardless of their social status, are prohibited from reading, writing, or wearing trousers. Freedom and authority are given to white heterosexual men who use this power to kill queer people in the name of God, going as far as hanging their bodies to the wall as a reminder of the punishment for homosexuality.

Emily, played by Alexis Bledel, is the one of the characters in the show that pays a huge price for her sexuality. After being separated from her Canadian wife and their son, she is assigned to a Commander’s household, where he rapes her in the presence of his wife with the aim of impregnating her. The rape scenes in the show are known as “The Ceremony,” a cult sex (rape) ritual where the high positioned men and their wives lay the handmaid between them, and while the wife holds her arms, the Commander penetrates the helpless handmaid in order for her to conceive a child for the barren couple.

Emily is revealed to be a member of the Mayday resistance, a secret group that aims to overthrow Gilead. When caught having sex with one of the Marthas (a class of domestic servants in Gilead), the Martha is hanged and Emily faced female genital mutilation as a consequence. The only reason she is not killed was because she has good ovaries.

A moving image (GIF) of two women dressed in red with white hats walking. One says to the other "I have two good ovaries. So they were kind enough to overlook my sinful past.
June and Emily from The Handmaid’s Tale.
[Image description: a moving image (GIF) of two women dressed in red with white hats walking. One says to the other “I have two good ovaries. So they were kind enough to overlook my sinful past.”]

Margaret Atwood took inspiration for The Handmaid’s Tale from two major events: the rise of the Christian right in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s, and the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. It is not hard to see the resemblance between the authoritarian regime that rules Gilead and the divine Islamic law that rules Iran. Gilead’s ruler, Commander Joseph Lawrence , shares a number of similarities with Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Both men enforced a utilitarian vision of what a state should be, which led both the United States (in fiction) and Iran (in reality) to shift from progressivism to fascism.

How did Iran turn from nurturing and growing poets like Forug Farrokhzad, whose poetry pushed women’s sexual desires to the forefront, to covering Iranian women from head to toe? The same question goes for the fictional story of the United States’ transformation to Gilead. Examining the historical context leading up to the Iranian Revolution reveals themes in environment, gender, and governance that are echoed in Atwood’s work. A perfect example to depict an anti-essentialist representation of women in Iran pre-Islamic revolution would be the Amorous Couple painting from the Qajar Dynasty in ninteenth-century Iran. The painting represents two androgynous women who are supposedly lovers. Yes, Iran was as queer as a dynasty can be! So what changed?

Painting of two androgynous women
Amorous Couple (early ninteenth century), Hermitage Museum. Unmistakably lesbian Sigeh courtship rituals, which continued from the classical period into the twentieth century, were also codified. “Tradition dictated that one [woman] who sought another as ‘sister’ approached a love broker to negotiate the matter. The broker took a tray of sweets to the prospective beloved. In the middle of the tray was a carefully placed dildo or doll made of wax or leather. If the beloved agreed to the proposal, she threw a sequined white scarf (akin to a wedding veil) over the tray […] If she was not interested, she threw a black scarf on the tray before sending it back.”
[Image description: Painting of two androgynous women hugging each other while one of them offers a drink to the other. Both women are from Iran during the Qajar Dynasty, which can be seen through their fancy clothing and jewellery.]

In her book, Sexual Politics in Modern Iran, Janet Afary shows the normalisation of same-sex relationships in Iran and how the end of the nineteenth century meant the beginning of the war against queer and non-conforming people. The beginning of the twentieth century was the time when the perception of homosexuality in Iranian society started to change—a shift exacerbated by regime change and instability in Iran.

The discovery of oil in the country in 1908 led to the formation of the London-based Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) in 1909. This was followed by the establishment of the Pahlavi Dynasty after the Qajar one. A few papers have been published where the British involvement in the enthronement of Reza Pahlavi as Shah as well as the coup d’état that overthrew him. Michael P. Zirinsky, for instance, writes thoroughly through the political distress that Iran had gone through during the nineteenth- and twentieth century with a focus on the period between 1921 and 1926. He shows how Britain always wanted to dominate the country especially after the establishment of APOC which later on in 1954 became British Petroleum Company (BP). Coincidence? Absolutely not. It is no secret that the 1953 coup d’état known as Operation Ajax, which occurred a year before Britain completely took over the oil company, was sparked by the nationalisation of APOC. Regardless of the U.S. denial of its involvement in the coup, the result is evident: Iranian rulers were puppets manipulated by both Britain and the United States to serve financial profit from the oil. Evidently, right after the operation’s success, oil revenues for both Americans and Europeans increased from $34 million in 1954-1955 to $181 million in 1956-1957—and kept on going up.[4]

“[I]n alliance with key Iranian political forces and with the support of Great Britain, he slowly increased his strength until he could crown himself shah […] Power can corrupt; under Reza’s absolute rule the Pahlavi state developed into a tyranny excoriated by liberal nationalists and Islamic activists alike. But that is another story.”

Reza Pahlavi, despite being the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, did not remain in charge for as long as he perhaps hoped for. His power came to an end a couple of decades later when he was overthrown by Khomeini. Once Reza no longer served western interests, his time as Shah came to an end. He was replaced by someone sympathetic to selling oil to Britain and the U.S. who supported a number of oppressive social programmes, including anti-homosexuality and strict enforcement of gendered differences. Thus Gilead became the reality of Iran due to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Homosexuality at this time became punishable by death and women became enslaved to the Islamic rule.

Before the revolution, homosexuality and same-sex encounters were practiced widely in Iran and were rarely perceived as taboo or sinful. In the wake of the revolution, thousands of LGBTQIA+ people have been prosecuted for their lifestyle, continuing to this day. The link between the profit generated from oil businesses and the exploitation of women and oppression of queer people can be traced back to the Shah Pahlavi’s refusal to sell oil to Britain and the U.S., and his desire to nationalise it. Despite Khomeini’s attempts at overthrowing the Shah and being exiled for 15 years, he only succeeded after receiving support from both countries. The moment Pahlavi refused to abide by the rules that profited the West, he was replaced with Khomeini because this latter agreed to export the oil instead of nationalising it.

Looking back at Iran’s history, less than three decades prior to this revolution, the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) was founded. During the same year, NIOC took control over the country’s petroleum industry. The 1979 oil crisis occurred due to the decline of oil output which led to a huge increase in oil prices worldwide. These events made 1979 a remarkable year in Iran’s history. Heterosexuality became the “natural,” compulsory hijab led more than a 100,000 women to protest against it, and earth’s exploitation of its most wanted natural resource increased. The interconnection between bringing foreign oil firms or nationalising the Iranian industry, and the freeing of women and sexuality or oppressing both cannot be disregarded: When earth is being violated and used for profit, so are women. And so is their sexuality.

More than a 100,000 Iranian women protesting the obligatory headscarf on March 8, 1979. Image from Rare Historical Photos.
[Image description: A black-and-white picture of a massive crowd of women demonstrating.]

The Handmaid’s Tale may be a fictional novel but it is unfortunately becoming our reality. The rise of the right-wing politics worldwide is a serious threat to social and climate justice. It’s up to us to use critical thinking skills, educate each other, break the binary norms, and free bodies and sexualities.

[1] Margaret Atwood is a Canadian novelist, poet, and critic known for her environmental activism in her writing. Her book The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian speculative novel published in 1985 that depicts the horrors of a totalitarian regime that took over the United States, and that enforces the domination and subjugation of women by men.

[2] Ecofeminism, as both an intersectional movement and critical theory, is useful for analyzing oppressive hierarchical systems and seeing how they are intertwined. Ecofeminism is an activist movement and literary theory that links the oppression of women and minorities to the oppression of nature. It emerged in the 1970s amidst women from different backgrounds and further developed in academia in the 1990s. Ecofeminism has been queered by a number of researchers in environmental humanities, including Jessica Ison, Catriona Sandilands, Greta Gaard, Joni Seage and Ariel Salleh. These scholars have merged queer ecology and ecological feminism. They discuss the negative impacts of heterosexism and heteronormativity on society and our understanding of the natural world. For more, see also my recent article on NiCHE.

[3] In Gilead, a woman with a sinful past is any woman who did not follow a Christian life, was in a relationship without marriage, was sleeping with a married man, gave birth to a child outside of marriage, or was a lesbian. Throughout the show, we learn that the handmaids were chosen based on these criteria, while righteous women were left to live in their households with their families.

[4] Michael P. Zirinsky, “Imperial Power and Dictatorship: Britain and the Rise of Reza Shah, 1921-1926,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 24, no. 4 (November 1992): 639-663. See more in Ervand Abrahamian’s Iran Between Two Revolutions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982).

*Cover image: Graphic from Flickr.

[*Cover image description: Illustration of three characters from The Handmaid’s Tale, no faces shown and all three of them have their fists up in a resistance meaning.]

Tagged with: