The Genesis of A Modern Dystopia- Has the Handmaid’s Tale Come to Life in Afghanistan?


“I know this must feel so strange, but ordinary is just what you’re used to. This may not be ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. This will become ordinary.” -Aunt Lydia, The Handmaid's Tale

Afghanistan War, Afghanistan Women, Handmaid's Tale, Fact and Fiction

Change is inevitable; societies crumble and regimes turn to dust, ideologies build upon one another in the quest for dominance, and ordinary lives are embroiled in this vicious power-play. The line separating fact and fiction is a permeable one, all art is created within and deeply entwined with particular socio-political contexts. There often comes a time in human history when there is a spillover; when the movie continues after the rolling credits, lyrics hang heavy in the air and ink seeps through the pages, deeper and deeper, till we can’t tell what is a dream and what is reality.


The Handmaid’s Tale is an Emmy-winning series based on a book written by Margaret Atwood. It narrates the tale of a totalitarian regime, founded on deeply religious ideals, that has seized control of America, naming itself Gilead. The show follows June, a fertile woman in an age where infertility caused by the raging effects of global warming is the new norm, who, along with hundreds of other handmaids, is sent on postings to the homes of the esteemed men who led the revolution and established the State of Gilead. Here, the handmaids are forced into sexual servitude to bear children to these Generals and their “barren” Wives and repopulate the world that sees the dawn of a new day- one where the safety of women is ensured by their strictly defined roles, where people have taken to a rural, non-materialistic way of life and where justice is meted out by the few men in power.


Following America’s decision to enter into negotiations with the notorious terrorist organization, Taliban, and withdraw American troops from Afghanistan after decades of warfare, the world has theorized and debated upon the effects this one decision would have on humankind. However, no amount of dialogue was enough to brace oneself for the rate at which the Taliban took control of the entire country. Entire provinces fell in a staggering domino effect and President Ghani fled the country saying he did not wish for more bloodshed on his account, as a sense of panic and frenzy descended upon Kabul.


The dystopian world crafted in The Handmaid’s Tale bears striking resemblance to the functioning of the Taliban when they last held power from 1996 to 2001. Their reign led to an outcry due to the enforcement of their extremely harsh interpretation of the Sharia. The Taliban was known for their destruction of historical monuments of great significance, such as the Buddhas at Bamiyan, their relentless suppression of women, and their banning of activities that ranged from movies and music to girls attending school.


Mere days after the Taliban established control over large parts of the country, a social media post was circulated telling the villagers in a remote Northern district to marry their unwed daughters and widows to the insurgents. Issued in the name of the Taliban Cultural Commission, it read “All imams and mullahs in captured areas should provide the Taliban with a list of girls above 15 and widows under 45 to be married to Taliban fighters.” Other such orthodox orders were taking shape; it was said that girls beyond the sixth grade would be barred from attending school and furthering their education.


Through their spokespersons such as Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban vehemently dismissed such claims as propaganda and baseless rumors. On the 17th of August, the Taliban, continuing their stance as a moderate organization, declared “amnesty” and claimed that indeed, they would allow women to work, but according to the tenets of the Sharia. On the one hand, pacifying statements urging normalcy were being made while on the other, the very fabric of reality for hundreds of thousands of women across Afghanistan rested on a single issue- how exactly does the Taliban interpret the Sharia? Looking into the statements made by Zakir Naik, an Islamist preacher, the future looks grim. Naik claimed women “do not possess an absolute right to work at the place of their choice”, this is substantiated by the fact that females do not have a financial obligation to provide for their family according to Sharia law.


When the Taliban gained control of Kandahar, their erstwhile capital during their last glory days, they are said to have walked into the Afghanistan Azizi Bank and ordered the women working back home, telling them to not return. A shockingly similar sequence of events played out in Herat. In The Handmaid’s Tale, through a flashback, we are shown how June, working as an Editor, and her female colleagues are escorted out of their workplace by armed guards without any explanation. Before the official creation of Gilead, the women's credit cards are discontinued and all their money is transferred to a male relative’s account. We do not require a translator to read between the lines and tell us there is a striking parallel between the two accounts, one fictional and one soon to become our reality.



Retrieved from: https://www.noorimages.com/under-the-taliban

(This image by Nina Berman shows a woman in a burqa, holding a diploma from a vocational school with her photo ID; the last remnants of her identity and who she was before the Taliban regime.)


A line from A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini says, “When the Taliban had found the paintings...they'd taken offense at the birds' long bare legs. After they'd tied the cousin's feet and flogged his soles bloody, they had presented him with a choice: Either destroy the paintings or make the flamingos decent. So the cousin had picked up his brush and painted trousers on every last bird.” What remains to be seen is how or if the fates of countless Afghans will unravel in the coming few weeks and months and years and perhaps, even decades under Taliban rule. Has the Taliban really evolved for the better or is this just a farce to appeal to the Western world, avoid debilitating economic sanctions and legitimize a regime based on oppression and fear? Only time will tell.