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'The Handmaid's Tale' Is a Reminder of How Fast Everything Can Change

The series is surprisingly relevant in Indonesia, despite the fact that it's not even streaming here.

by Syarafina Vidyadhana
14 June 2017, 11:12am

All images by George Kraychyk / Hulu

The dystopian future of The Handmaid's Tale is so effective because it's as alien as it is uncomfortably familiar. This is a future where the United States is finished, replaced with the Christian fundamentalist government of Gilead. It's a future where fertile women are forced to serve as "handmaids," or human baby factories, for wealthy women who are incapable of having children themselves. A future of hangmen, civil war, and crushing religious authoritarianism.

But The Handmaid's Tale sets this dystopia in the very near future. Flashbacks namecheck contemporary concerns, showing that "Offred" was living in a world like ours, one with Uber, Tinder, and ISIS before an attack on Washington DC sent the whole thing spiraling toward totalitarianism.

This is one of the most terrifying things about The Handmaid's Tale—which concluded its first season on Hulu this week. The show is a reminder of how quickly everything can change. And here in Indonesia, The Handmaid's Tale's central conceit, that your whole world could change tomorrow, is uncomfortably relevant in a country where a recent events have left many of us wrestling with questions about what it all really means.

There's a general sense that the status quo has a certain gravity in Indonesia. Many voters believe that it doesn't really matter who wins an election. Tomorrow, the traffic, the chaos, and the cost of living here will all be the same. My aunt offered a simple assessment of the recent Jakarta gubernatorial election that was an embodiment of this idea. "At the end of the day, traffic will just as bad as any other day," she remarked. "And we will still have to work our assess off to make ends meet."

It was a convincing argument. Indonesia has been through a lot in the 24 years I've been alive. We've had regime changes, riots, terrorist attacks, tsunamis, earthquakes, and spates of bloody sectarian violence. We've built one of the region's strongest democracies. We've gotten wealthier, even if it's hard to see it in everyday life. But my day-to-day is about the same. Politics change. Life moves on.

But The Handmaid's Tale is a reminder that sometimes life doesn't move on. News sites like to juxtapose images of Afghanistan in the 1960s with the country under Taliban rule. That's a 30 year gap. But these stories forget that Afghanistan changed much quicker than that. The country was run by Mohammad Najibullah, a communist president with Soviet ties, when Kabul fell in 1992 to mujahideen forces. Four years later, the Taliban was in control. They smashed televisions and satellite dishes, forbade women from working, and held public executions. That's a complete change in less than a decade.

Need another example? Look at Iran under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Iranian women were liberated under the Pahlavi dynasty. The shah raised the marriage age for women to 18, extended suffrage to women, and established a number of new laws promising gender equality. When the shah was ousted from power in 1979, it took Ayatollah Khomeini only a few months to curtail women's rights. Beaches were suddenly gender segregated, married women were kicked out of universities, and the age of marriage was halved from 18 to nine.

And sometimes nations quickly change for the better. Myanmar was ruled by an authoritarian military junta until it was dissolved in 2011. Four years later, the country held its first national elections since the 1990s, an election that was won by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) a mere five years after she was released from 15 years of house arrest.

Photo by George Kraychyk / Hulu

The Handmaid's Tale does what most dystopian fiction does best: remind us that we live in a fragile and constantly changing world. And it offers viewers here a chance to think about whether Indonesia could one day dramatically change too, explained Teraya Paramehta, a lecturer in the English studies program at University of Indonesia.

"It helps us imagine the unthinkable possibilities of the world so we can reflect on the reality that we live in," Teraya said. "In the context of feminist dystopian fiction, we can see what the world might be like if our society was governed by such an intense level of biological and social constrictions."

Margret Atwood, who wrote The Handmaid's Tale in 1985, explained that she didn't start the novel because she believed the world would ever resemble the future she had created. "You don't write those books because you hope those things will happen," she told Broadly. "You write those books because you think they might happen, but you'd rather they didn't."

Atwood's success as an author is her ability to crystalize so many of our fears into a truly terrifying future. That's why The Handmaid's Tale feels so relevant to so many people. In the United States, fans of the show see it as a warning about government efforts to curb reproductive rights or as a stab at the heart of Trump-era misogyny.

And in Indonesia, we can see it as a warning of the dangers of religious radicalism. The Gilead of The Handmaid's Tale is a government run by radical Christians—something that we never had to worry about here. But radicalism is radicalism and the fears, whether of a future under Christian fundamentalists or Islamist radicals, are about the same.

The Jakarta governor's race was characterized by the international media as a national test of tolerance. Hardline Islamists rose to new levels of power during the incredibly divisive campaign as they accused the now-jailed Christian governor of committing blasphemy. That man, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, lost the election. This isn't to imply that his rival, incoming governor Anies Baswedan, is a hardline Islamist. He isn't. But experts say that his campaign illustrated the political usefulness of engaging with the country's fringe Islamist hardliners.

"Besides being a test for the people, it was also a test to see whether SARA [inflammatory racial and religious] sentiments can be effective as a tool to gain political influence," Iklilah Muzayyanah Dini Fajriyah, an expert in gender and Islamic studies, told VICE Indonesia. "And in a way, it was a success. Anies won the race and Ahok is behind bars. Other politicians might now copy the same campaign strategy to win their respective races outside Jakarta."

Photo by George Kraychyk/ Hulu

So how realistic are fears that Indonesia could take a dramatic swing toward religious fundamentalism in my lifetime? A recent op-ed in The Diplomat argued that Indonesia could become the same as Pakistan in ten years' time. No offense to Pakistan, but seriously? Pakistan?

"It's a divisive time," Iklilah told me. "Some encourage jilbabisasi [hijab enforcement], female domestication, and think that Sharia is good for the people's morality. Others understand that fundamentalism threatens our democracy, and our future. And we can see how this manifests: those who see Sharia as the solution to moral issues will support discriminating laws."

But that doesn't mean the whole country is in danger of becoming a Sharia state, she explained. Indonesia's founding document, the Pancasila, still enshrines religious freedom for six recognized faiths. And President Joko Widodo, perhaps sensing the rising influence of hardline Islamists, has been using the Pancasila itself to defend against radicalism.

"It wouldn't be easy to adopt Sharia law," Iklilah told me. "I'm pretty optimistic that we can fight against fundamentalist groups threatening the Pancasila."

So is The Handmaid's Tale a wake-up call for Indonesians who think nothing here will ever change? It's doubtful. The series is in English, and it's available on Hulu, a streaming service that doesn't even exist here. Indonesian fans are watching the series on illegal streaming sites in a language most of the nation can't fully understand or using fan translated subtitles.

And entertainment doesn't really ignite social movements, at least not here.

"It's easier to see traces of a certain literature or art in a social movement than to determine that a certain book or artwork is the main trigger of a social movement," Teraya explained.

There's also no guarantee that everyone will see something to fear in The Handmaid's Tale either. Someone who believes in strict gender roles, literal readings of the Bible, or the usefulness of dictatorships might find something to like in the future presented in the series.

"Dystopian fiction not only relies on the context of time and space, but also perspective," Teraya said. "One's dystopia could be another's utopia."

It's not hard to imagine that someone out there is rooting for the system of Gilead instead of Offred.