The Woman Roles And Religion Oppression In The Novels The Handmaid's Tale And A Thousand Splendid Suns

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Table of contents

  1. Dystopian Societies and Female Oppression: An Overview
  2. The Handmaid's Tale: A Speculative Fiction Reflecting Real Historical Events
  3. Religious Fundamentalism and Female Subjugation in Gilead
  4. A Thousand Splendid Suns: Mirroring Afghanistan's Socio-Political Realities
  5. Symbolism and Imagery: Tools of Religious Oppression
  6. Conclusion: The Impact of Religious Fundamentalism on Female Individuality

Dystopian Societies and Female Oppression: An Overview

The protagonists in both ‘The Handmaids Tale’ by Margaret Atwood and ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ by Khalid Hosseini suffer in the societies in which they exist. Similarly, the theme of religious oppression underpins the suffering of the female protagonists in both the fictitious, dystopian society of Gilead in ‘The Handmaids Tale’ and the historical realities of Afghanistan in ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’. The Handmaids Tale is a dystopia written in a near future in which the protagonist Offred is oppressed by the totalitarian Republic of Gilead, a fierce theonomy. Contrastingly, the society in A Thousand Splendid Suns is influenced by the reality of the complex, cultural environment of Afghanistan from the early 1960s to the early 2000s. The protagonists in this novel, Mariam and Laila are oppressed during a period of immense political change and by existing social, moral and class structures overseen by the omnipresence of religion. Despite contextual differences, the theme of religious oppression underpins the suffering of the protagonists in both novels.

The Handmaid's Tale: A Speculative Fiction Reflecting Real Historical Events

The Handmaid's Tale is described by Margaret Atwood herself as ‘a speculative fiction about an American theocracy’ 1 as she draws on a number of real historical events to create a strong sense of reality about the dystopian society imagined. Originally published in 1985, the novel illustrates a late 20th century future where nuclear pollution has resulted in catastrophically low birth rates and complications. As a result, the patriarchal Republic of Gilead was founded by Christian fundamentalists called the Sons of Jacob, who impose strict, judicial religious laws. The novel itself is heavily influenced by the society in which Atwood lived and observed during the time of writing. The novel echoes the American socio-political climate of the 1980s, amidst the period of conservative revival and the election of Ronald Reagan following the ‘sexual revolution’ of the 60s and 70s. Atwood appears to satirise the conservative fundamentalists views of the time by creating the deeply flawed and hypocritical society of Gilead, depicting what a future under conservatism might look like. On the other hand, Atwood’s critics have compared The Handmaids Tale to the masculine Orwellian dystopias that inspired her surveillance society, such as ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and believe that the novel does not belong to the traditional dystopian genre as Atwood's novel lacks ‘the destructive force of satire,’ and has ‘no satiric bite’ 2. Despite this, the real threat of religious fundamentalists on female emancipation is realised in The Handmaids Tale where sexual freedom no longer exists and women are forbidden to vote, read or write and have become, ‘ambulatory chalices.’. Due to the ‘underlying muted feminist polemic’ 3 thematically embedded within the novel, The Handmaids Tale is often either referred to as a ‘feminist vision’ or a ‘feminist dystopia’ as Atwood not explores the politics of sexuality and reproduction in a totalitarian society, but how these scared feminist premises are hijacked by religious belief and warped into tools by the patriarchy, resulting in the destruction of sisterhood and the oppressing of females between one another.

Religious Fundamentalism and Female Subjugation in Gilead

Given that Atwood herself announced that, ‘There's nothing in the book that hasn't already happened', we learn that the nature of Gilead is influenced by contextual fears at the time including growing concerns about pollution, nuclear power and declining birth rates. Interestingly Atwood’s assertion that she ‘invented nothing’ in Gilead is affirmed by her clippings in 1984 of Ayatollah Khomeini’s actions in Afghanistan that forced women out of education and the workplace into ‘their burqas and their homes’ 4 .She also clipped accounts of Iranian prison refugees, reporting violent torture including the use of electric prods reflected in the use of ‘cattle prods’ by the Aunts in her novel. In addition, the novel's epilogue references the Philippines, “under the rubric of 'salvaging,' that engaged in state-sanctioned murder of dissidents” 4 .Meanwhile, Ceausescu's government in Romania at the time outlawed both birth control and abortion, closely monitoring women for pregnancy and linking women's wages to childbearing, much like how the value and life of a Handmaid depends on her ability to bear a child. Atwood provides a criticism of these events by removing them from their real-life contexts and amplifying them to extremity in her novel, illustrating how governments and policies underpinned by religious ideology are a far cry from utopic societies. The social and political structures established in Gilead, a supposed utopian society, are revealed to be fiercely oppressive and 'in practice miserably lacks spirituality and benevolence'5.

A Thousand Splendid Suns: Mirroring Afghanistan's Socio-Political Realities

A Thousand Splendid Suns written by Khaled Hosseini is almost entirely influenced by the socio-political contexts of Afghanistan throughout a 40-year time period. The society in the novel is a mirror of reality in Afghanistan, unlike the fictional Gilead. The political backdrop of A Thousand Splendid Suns begins in Herat in 1964 and ends in Kabul in 2003. By contextualising the experiences of two Afghan women with contrasting upbringings against immense political changes that impact them both, Hosseini narrates the extent in which the suffering of the protagonists is underpinned by religious oppression. Within the period, the society undergoes ‘radical transformations in its socio-cultural fabric’6 and women suffer a double subjugation in the form of both patriarchal dominance and the ripples of oppression emanating from the persistent conflicts. Firstly, the era of King Zahir Shah existed followed by the Republic of Mohammed Daoud Khan's communist rule, then the arrival of the Taliban following the mujahideen conflict and Soviet withdrawal and finally, the interim presidency of Hamid Karzai. Comparing the lives of women before and after the harsh and oppressive arrival and rule of Taliban enables Hosseini to ‘depict the degree of injustice done to women of Afghanistan’7. The Taliban government drastically changed the law and order of Afghanistan, replacing secular law with Islamic Shari’ah law. In accordance with feminist literary criticism, Hosseini illustrates the stark differences between the former western influences on the country and the new religious order through the portrayal of the protagonists Mariam and Laila to highlight their suffering.

Moreover, their suffering is is almost entirely endured and directly related to politics as the undercurrent of religious oppression in society and inherent political violence is mirrored in the interactions between characters. Similarly, to The Handmaids Tale a smaller, power politics is at play within the relationships between characters in the novel. For example, the religiously influenced domestic hierarchy in Rasheed’s household and the Commanders Household. In addition, the significant matriarchal hierarchy created as an extension of patriarchal authority and bi-product of a totalitarian society is mirrored in both novels. Through Mariam’s humble and illegitimate origins labelling her ‘harami’, she is viewed negatively by both men and women in society and often scorned and ostracised from the female community. By the same token, women in The Handmaids Tale have differing social positions and small pockets of authority based on their adherence to the religiously influenced societal norms. In this way, religion also dictates the character motives within the novel and the politics of character relationships and interactions. Furthermore, through Marxist literary criticism, the thematic ‘socio-political activism’ in the novel that strongly explains Mariam plight compared to Laila’s privileged upbringing, highlights ‘the missing values of gender and class equality’8 .Hosseini’s choice to incorporate the constant change of political regimes and leaders in Afghanistan to demonstrate how ‘the conditions of violence and conflict magnified oppression’ 6 highlights the influence of religion in the daily lives of women, allowing him to explore female suffering under religious oppression more comprehensively than in his previous literary works such as ‘The Kite Runner’.

Symbolism and Imagery: Tools of Religious Oppression

In addition to the wider contextual and thematic religious oppression inherent in the nature of the societies in both novels, both authors use rhetorical devices such as symbolism and imagery to highlight the suffering of the protagonists. The futuristic neo-puritan, totalitarian society of Gilead has a wealth of tools of religious oppression in order to enforce authority, one of which is clothing. The freedom for women to wear what they chose has been erased and replaced with mandatory conformity of the state’s belief in religious humility and modesty. The women who are Handmaids like Offred wear long, red, draping dresses covering every inch of their bodies. Offred frequently complains of how uncomfortable and hot the clothing is, suggesting it’s a form of continuous physical oppression, “that sucks in heat and blazes with it at the same time.”. The symbolism of the striking red colour is described by Atwood herself as “the colour of blood, which defines us” (womankind). Here red alludes to menstrual blood and the all-important womb in Gilead, symbolising the oppression of women’s reproductive and sexual rights. The colour red is also an alarming and jarring colour suggesting its oppressiveness over the wearer and the dominance of the ideology of the state. The red colour of the Handmaids uniform comes to symbolise all blood in the novel and is linked to the most violent tool of religious oppression in Gilead, the Wall, where traitors to the Republic are publicly and gruesomely hanged as a deterrent. On the wall, the red blood starkly contrasts the white cloth over the male doctors’ heads, “blood, which has seeped through the white cloth” the same contrast seen in Offred’s uniform that is complete with white wings. It also contrasts their white lab coats that symbolise their previous profession and, in this instance, their current role in society as criminal abortionists under religious oppression. The significance of colour on the suffering of the protagonist is enforced by Offred’s experience in Jezebels nightclub. In the brothel the clothing is multi-coloured and vibrant, but even so the ceaseless religious oppression at the nucleus of this society perverts the ideas about freedom to wear colour as unnatural and oppressive. In addition, the Wives of the commanders wear blue, a colour symbolising their pure motherly role often associated with the biblical Mary, but more like Ruth they are mothers who have not directly conceived themselves due to their old age and infertility. The contrast between the Handmaids red uniforms and the Wives blue uniforms is used to symbolise how religious oppression has invaded sisterhood and caused suffering to the protagonist Offred. For example, Offred envies Serena Joy’s blue ‘uniform’, “Her dress is crisp cool cotton. For her it’s blue, watercolour, not this red of mine”. This symbolism is explored further through natural imagery, Serena’s flowers are a motif symbolic of her wifely status and religiously juxtaposing lack of fertility, “Then we had the irises, rising beautiful and cool” amongst the contrasting red tulips symbolising Offred being cut off with her shears.

Moreover, Aunts, the unmarried women who oversee the Handmaids training, wear modest brown uniforms with cattle prods attached whilst the Martha’s, the unmarried domestic servants, dress in green associated with cleanliness. Finally, the Econowives, married to lower class men wear, “striped dresses, red and blue and green and cheap and skimpy,”. Though they appear to have more freedom of dress, the colours are prescribed and almost derogatory of their lower-class position, making their freedom every bit as restricted as the other females. The colour-coding of women in society is illustrates how the theonomy demands ‘functions’ of women and how the Sons of Jacob have enacted the ‘virtual enslavement of women,’ reducing them to ‘mute, replaceable objects’ 9 .The men are also subject to uniforms and the colour black is a sign of power in Gilead. Those who are either Commanders, Angels, or Guardians, wear black, symbolising death and threat, reminiscent of the of the SS officers’ uniforms in Nazi Germany. Any of these men could also be a member of the Eyes, the secret police those who epitomise the religious oppression inherent in society. Comparatively, in A Thousand Splendid Suns the male antagonist is not subject to uniform wearing, yet his infliction of religious oppression is expressed through his indicative clothing. Rasheed is often described to be wearing dirty clothing stained with grease and “yellow sweat stains”, suggesting his embodiment of the negative and hypocritical religious beliefs that dictate his actions. As a result of this form of this religious oppression, the individuality of the protagonists is completely stripped away amplifying their suffering.

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The customs and rituals of Gilead also enact suffering onto the protagonist. The dystopic and unnerving rituals are described as ‘Orwellian’ 3 and include those such as Testifying that enforce the oppression of women under a totalitarian theonomy. During Testifying, the Commander reads appropriate excerpts from the bible- forbidden to be read by women. Most notably a Genesis chapter is read, 'Behold my maid Bilhah. She shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her'. The verse exemplifies the nature of the Republic whose primary aim is to procreate and in doing so oppresses all women. This aim accumulates into the subsequent Ceremony that deprives Offred of her right to choose and surrenders her reproductive rights to the household patriarch, whose actions encouraged by the authoritarian state and protected by divine right.

Similarly, the tools of religious oppression enacted on the protagonists in A Thousand Splendid Suns are of the purpose of enforcing scriptural authority. The realities of the harsh Taliban rule in Afghanistan saw the Islamic symbol of the burqa become a form of religious oppression on Mariam and Laila. The burqa is an important rhetorical device in the novel that for Laila, symbolises the erosion of her past freedoms. Contrastingly, Mariam felt it comforting as it shielded her from the judgmental society in which she lived. The burqa is one of the only visible and physical symbols of religious oppression in A Thousand Splendid Suns. Like the women in The Handmaids Tale, women are instructed to cover themselves before they leave their homes, “You will not, under any circumstance, show your face. You will cover with burqa when outside. If you do not, you will be severely beaten”. The burqa wearing is enforced on the protagonist Laila by her husband Rasheed who appears to hold authority and power by upholding religious values that ultimately oppress and cause the suffering of the female protagonist by the symbolic stripping of her individuality. Unlike the abundance of physical tools in The Handmaids Tale, the tools of religious oppression in A Thousand Splendid Suns are largely invisible. They are often the unwritten intricacies of the extreme patriarchal society realised in Afghanistan. The many social conventions influenced by Islamic fundamentalism were enforced by the Taliban government and imposed on women in Afghanistan in the form of twenty-nine laws outlined in the novel. Some laws that restricted the freedom of free movement of women included in the novel are enforced by Rasheed who does not let Mariam and Laila leave their home, especially unaccompanied by him, “It is not proper for women to wander aimlessly about the streets. If you go outside, you must be accompanied by a mahram, a male relative. If you are caught alone on the street, you will be beaten and sent home”. Correspondingly to The Handmaids Tale, the impending fear of corporal punishment is underpinned by religious beliefs about proper female comportment and subsequently causes the suffering of the protagonists in both novels.

The Taliban government also discouraged western popular culture that was acceptable during the reign of the Najibullah-led communist government, this included superficial activities such jewellery wearing that were in conflict with religious ideas about modesty and humility- a conflict explored in the modesty of uniforms in The Handmaids Tale. Other rules such as not being permitted to speak unless spoken to and making eye contact with men were enforced. Notably the rule “You will not laugh in public.”, epitomises the oppressive natures of the societies in both novels. A lack of enjoyment and humour is present in the everyday lives of the protagonists in A Thousand Splendid Suns and in the unsettling arrangement of the Ceremony that must be endured by both the Handmaids and Wives. This alludes to religious ideas of suffering in order to reach enlightenment. Both societies are created on fundamentalist beliefs of contrasting religions, Christianity and Islam yet both require the suffering of the protagonists in order to adhere to moral righteousness as perceived by the societies in which they live. Furthermore, the Taliban government in A Thousand Splendid Suns banned the education of women and forbade their attendance at schools, otherwise instructing them accept the traditional roles of housewives and motherhood. The significance placed on traditional gender roles in religion is reflected throughout the two novels as emancipation is reversed and reduced to the objectification and subjugation of women in their respective societies. In A Thousand Splendid Suns women are constricted to an inferior position in all aspects of society and their value is determined by how well they fulfil their role according to religious beliefs, much like how women in The Handmaids Tale are reduced to “two-legged wombs” and are expected to fulfil their reproductive purpose, there only purpose.

Moreover, in A Thousand Splendid Suns the ‘Department of Vice and Virtue’ was created to ensure that religious laws were upheld “these are the laws that we will enforce, and you will obey”. The duty of the department is to oversee and supervise the Shari’ah laws imposed and punish those in violation of them. In the same fashion, the secret police in Gilead called the Eyes, ‘reminiscent of the Gestapo or the Soviet KGB’10 have the identical purpose and desired outcome, fear. Both organisations were set up to ensure conformity to the religious beliefs of the state, the beliefs that actively oppress and cause the suffering of the protagonists in both novels.

In both novels there are characters that embody religious oppression and actively cause suffering to the protagonists. The character Rasheed in A Thousand Splendid suns is both driven and shaped by Islamic fundamentalism and its beliefs. He abuses his position as the household patriarch to inflict mental and physical abuse on the protagonists Mariam and Laila, contributing to their suffering. Rasheed’s brutal actions and abuse are justified and validated by scripture and thus, according to him, the will of god. Hosseini uses rhetorical devices such as the symbolism of pebbles to encapsulate how the nature of society and the suffering of the protagonists is underpinned by religion and enacted by those such as Rasheed. For example, the symbolism of pebbles, an important and recurrent symbol in the novel particularly associated with Mariam. As a child she made stacks of pebbles to represent her isolation from her father and his legitimate family “Solitary, eleventh pebble,” and from society as a whole, because in line with religiously influenced social convention, Mariam was an illegitimate child whose existence brought shame. This illustrates how the protagonist suffered since childhood due to the oppressive religious undercurrents in society. Furthermore, when Rasheed criticises Mariam’s cooking he not only insults her but, “He snatched her hand, opened it, and dropped a handful of pebbles into it...Then he was gone, leaving Mariam to spit out pebbles, blood, and the fragments of two broken molars”, leaving her to suffer alone. In addition, the protagonist Laila is also associated with the symbolism of pebbles as, “a shower of dirt and pebbles and glass” rained down as when her home was hit with a bomb. The pebble motif symbolises the suffering of the protagonists in their male-dominated society that is underpinned by religious oppression and encapsulated by political violence.

In contrast to Rasheed, the Commander in The Handmaids Tale has a specified high-ranking role and duty in the totalitarian theonomy of Gilead. The Commander embodies the authority of the religious ideology of Gilead, much like how Rasheed embodies the negative aspects of Islam. Once again, the role of patriarch is used to oppress the protagonist. The commander both controls and gambles with Offred’s life by letting her read the bible, play scramble and visit a brothel, breaking the law and endangering her. His little regard for the consequences of Offred’s involvement demonstrate his sense of exceptionalism afforded to him by misogynistic religious ideology. Similarly to A Thousand Splendid Suns, a small inanimate object such as a pebble and scrabble piece has the potential to cause significant suffering to the protagonist. The way in which small rebellions can cause great suffering to the protagonists highlights the extent of religious oppression in both novels.

Conclusion: The Impact of Religious Fundamentalism on Female Individuality

To conclude, it is ultimately the destruction of female individuality and inquisitiveness by religious fundamentalists that causes the suffering of the protagonists in both novels. Both in the fierce theonomy of Gilead and contextual Afghanistan the success of the totalitarian patriarchy relies on female subordination, realised through domestic hierarchies that self- regulate one another. Moreover, the false female collaboration enacted in The Handmaids Tale and the conformist, virtue-driven society in Afghanistan proves to be the primary cause of the suffering of the protagonists. Both novels are more than contextual dystopia’s and fictions as encapsulated by Offred’s words in The Handmaids Tale that directly addresses the reader 'who knows what the chances are out there, of survival, yours?”, suggesting that the answer to patriarchal totalitarian societies underpinned by religion is not the ‘destruction of either sex’ but their ‘mutual survival’ .

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The Woman Roles And Religion Oppression In The Novels The Handmaid’s Tale And A Thousand Splendid Suns. (2021, September 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 14, 2024, from
“The Woman Roles And Religion Oppression In The Novels The Handmaid’s Tale And A Thousand Splendid Suns.” Edubirdie, 09 Sept. 2021,
The Woman Roles And Religion Oppression In The Novels The Handmaid’s Tale And A Thousand Splendid Suns. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 14 Apr. 2024].
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