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“The Handmaid’s Tale,” the Burka, and the Contradictions of Secularism

Alessio Franko
June 13, 2017
by Alessio Franko IT STREAMED live on Facebook: In protest of Texas state Senate Bill 8, which bans a reliable form of late-term abortion and piles on bureaucratic obstacles to abortion access, three young women occupied the capitol building in Austin and read aloud true stories of women who struggled to get the abortions they needed. Another group of women formed a circle around them, tactically supporting the readers’ command over the space. Unlike the readers, this circle of protesters held signs and wore a striking uniform: a flowing red robe and a face-obscuring white bonnet.

Thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign, one need not have seen the TV show to recognize their costume as the one worn by “handmaids” in the dystopian drama, The Handmaid’s Tale. Based on Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name, this Hulu series follows a woman (Elisabeth Moss) who is abducted and forced to act as a surrogate mother for the elites of Gilead, a hyper-patriarchal theocracy that overthrows the U.S. government amid an epidemic of infertility.

The chorus of voices calling the series timely for our current arch-conservative White House risks obscuring how intrinsically compelling the series is. The Handmaid’s Tale is a political thought experiment, true to the spirit of Atwood’s book, filling out the picture of how the Gilead coup d’etat is made possible through vividly distinct flashbacks. It is every bit as much, however, an experiment in affect. Adam Taylor’s musical score alone, a spot-on simulacrum of dizziness and nausea, throws the viewer headfirst into a brutal, topsy-turvy world that nonetheless feels like a very real, very near future. The pilot episode became immediately notorious for depositing viewers at the border between manic paranoia and revelatory sobriety, with an appetite to keep watching.

Released in weekly installments, The Handmaid’s Tale is not even through with its first season, but the visual effectiveness of the handmaid’s uniform has instantly earned the series a lasting place in our cultural consciousness. The monochrome robe is so flowy that it borders on amorphous, a viscous coating that swallows its wearer’s body and leaves no traces of her shape. The bonnets, with their rigid outstretched “wings,” evoke blinders on a horse, or the cone you fasten around a dog’s neck to keep it from meddling with its groin. The suit voids the handmaid’s sexuality, her uniqueness, and her capacity for self-expression. Unable to be a complicated being, indeed to be much more than an animal, she certainly cannot be her own best political advocate. Wearing this costume, the Austin, Texas pro-choice activists were able to argue, with one image, that there can be no democracy without bodily autonomy, that hardline Republicans were attacking the very foundation of secular society.

AT A DEEPLY intuitive level, the robe and bonnet look like oppression: they are so uncanny, so alien, maybe just so ugly, that there’s no way anyone would wear them without being absolutely forced to. Sure enough, military authoritarianism is essential to the conceit of The Handmaid’s Tale. Though Moss’s defiant handmaid “Offred” is the story’s singular driving force, her image in the most widely distributed advertisement is accompanied by a masked, gun-toting soldier behind her. In the rare moments on the show when heavily armed “guardians” do not appear onscreen, their spine-tingling, muffled walkie-talkie dispatches permeate the soundscape. The handmaid’s clothes themselves do not enslave, they are the retroactive justification of enslavement. Oppression is a two-step program: Force them to put on the costume, then belittle them for choosing to wear it.

So why does the latter of the two steps provoke such a strong visceral reaction even though it is only an extension of the first? We might consider how Hulu’s costume design nods to another controversial piece of religious attire: the muslim burka. The influence of the burka on the handmaid’s costume is hard to deny: Whereas the 1990 film adaptation of Atwood’s novel focused on coding and conformity by dressing the handmaids in red pencil dresses and chiffon veils that left their hair visible, Hulu’s design has a functional edge to it. Like the burka, it takes the principle of modesty to its logical extreme, hiding the woman from the world around her and vice versa. Banned in country after country, the burka has proved to be the great frustrater of religious tolerance in secular society. In extending its own burka ban this past year to include the popular burkini, a modest full-body swimsuit, France dropped the pretense that any of its banning had to do with face-covering as a public security risk. The real implication of the French ban is absurd, however: that the secular entity that protects your right to free practice of religion may, at its discretion, turn around and demand your exclusive commitment to secularism.

As with the handmaid’s costume, it can be hard for the secular-liberal imagination to countenance voluntary donning of the burka. There’s no way, we surmise, that Muslim women would give up being visible in public unless coerced by the pervasive misogyny of religious orthodoxy. While that pervasive misogyny definitely exists, however (as versions of it do in nearly every secular social sphere), we must acknowledge that women all over the world do choose to wear burkas, for all sorts of personal reasons. To dispute this would be to engage in the same denigration of female agency for which we rail against the misogynist. Our gut instinct to equate the burka with non-autonomy shows how highly we value autonomy -- yet how narrowly we define it.

IN CONFRONTING US with this tension, The Handmaid’s Tale reveals a slipperiness in our conception of secular society. Secularism positions itself as the condition of possibility for progressive inclusivity and pluralism; to live both freely and in harmony with our neighbors, it suggests, we require a neutral ideological common ground. Defined primarily in the negative, as non-religion, secularism is easily mistaken to be a self-evident ur-ideology, to which all other value systems are subordinate. We identify ourselves and each other, for instance, as “secular Jews” to appeal to a certain shared history and set of values, exactly not to say that we aren’t Jewish. But secularism thus writes itself into an untenable paradox, as to honor both its core values and its claim to neutrality, it must be inclusive of its own detractors. No wonder Atwood envisions secular society collapsing.

The Handmaid’s Tale is attuned to a certain contemporary worry that leftwing secular culture is bankrupt, vulnerable, resting on a creaky foundation. A recent episode brings us into a speakeasy where the leaders of Gilead (naturally) indulge in the liquor and sex they themselves outlawed. We learn that the women in the club, effectively state-coordinated prostitutes, are those who “couldn’t assimilate” — CEOs, journalists, professors, women of education and status. In a world that looked more like ours, they were thinkers and leaders. These are the exact people we would want at the vanguard of the anti-Gilead resistance, but instead they have all thrown in the towel. They will live out their days wondering if they were, in fact, brilliant, or if their success was entirely contingent on a power structure that was willing to acknowledge and elevate them. Readers of Atwood’s novel might recognize this theme: You can be the most educated person in the world and still understand nothing about it.

The aim of secular education is to create and spread knowledge, but knowledge itself is not what nourishes secular culture. Rather, what we pass down through the generations, long outliving the theories that they generate, are the practices of pursuing knowledge, the shared vocabulary of the arts and sciences, and the community they both enable. Fixating on knowledge and its implicit objective status, as we do when we call rightwing and internet cultures “post-truth,” ignores the multitude of different foundations on which human beings build communities. Whether you are gathering to discuss politics or gathering to pray, the point is the same: to gather, to experience life alongside the people you care about. The need for some mediating neutral ground falls away when we recognize that while belief systems are not commensurable, the human needs they speak to are common to everyone.

Its crushing fatalism is a large part of what makes The Handmaid’s Tale so cathartic. Glimmers of hope for Offred feel real, but something would be missing if, in the next episode, all of the handmaids killed their rapists and saved the world. At the same time, gauging our responses to the series might help us as we imagine a society that is both more inclusive and less vulnerable to being overshadowed by vile alternatives. “It’s all gonna be over one day. Everything is gonna go back to normal,” says Offred, trying to comfort a distraught fellow handmaid. Touching as this gesture is, wouldn’t it be better to decouple the secularism of her former world from “normalcy”?

Perhaps uniforms feel like a threat because they prompt us to wear our own tradition that much more proudly, not for its intuitiveness or its universality, but simply for our faith in it.

Alessio Franko is a Brooklyn-based writer of teleplays and radio plays. He trained as an actor at HB Studios in New York and earned his bachelor’s degree in Cinema and Media Studies from the University of Chicago.