“‘The Testaments’ Refused To Leave Me Alone, Even After The Last Page”

“Knowledge is power and history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” – Margaret Atwood

Women dressed up as Handmaids at a protest in favor of abortion rights. Via Flickr

It took 35 years for Margaret Atwood to return to the dystopian world she created and finally write a compelling sequel to her widely-acclaimed novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel regained popularity in post-Trump America, and the Handmaid’s garb became a symbol of resistance among women fighting for their rights to their own bodies.

Gilead no longer seemed a distant land in pro-life anti-abortion America, and it was soon adapted to television in a series that has been shocking the viewers since 2017. The irony, however, is that this ‘thought-up’ Gileadean theocracy was never a fragment of Atwood’s imagination; every incident that takes place in the book had some precedent in human history. The same is the case with the Elisabeth Moss-starrer TV series.

The Testaments, which is Atwood at her best yet again, recently earned her the Man Booker prize this year, shared with Bernardine Evaristo, the first black woman to achieve this feat. Atwood promised answers to the readers of The Handmaid’s Tale in this sequel, and she delivers. She says that the novel was inspired by the events of the world we’ve been living in.

Narrated as a story told by three women (one in her fifties and the other two much younger), The Testaments is a shocking journey that takes its readers through the heart of Gilead’s darkness. It answers the questions of its past, present and yes, its future.

Set some 15 years ahead of The Handmaid’s Tale, the novel opens in a worn-out by war Republic of Gilead, it seems like the place has lost its sheen, and the rules don’t seem so iron-clad anymore.

To be honest, the place looks like any other place in this world. The readers can sense an end, and so begins the journey towards this supposed end.

What gripped me the most as a reader were questions that refused to leave me alone ever since I finished reading this book. If the world were to turn into a Gilead-like dystopia, would all of us just be the victims?

If yes, then how do we explain the Aunts, the Marthas, the Wives, the other professionals such as doctors, drivers, dentists, and so on? Aren’t all these people in a way a product of a world they did not invent but helped propagate?

I don’t blame them for choosing life over death or a little power over victimhood. I don’t blame the women for inflicting tortures on other women in a bid to survive in a world which was no longer fair for the fairer sex. But I do feel that such a world exists everywhere in some proportion.

Not all of us would be Handmaids now if there were a world like this. Don’t get me wrong but look at the history which is replete with complicity—of people who chose to go ahead with life on a path strewn with corpses of those who didn’t. Yes, I am thinking of Hitler’s Germany, but I’m also thinking of Modi’s India and Trump’s America with their freshly constructed detention camps. Maybe I am taking it too far, but how do we explain the minorities some of us killed while the rest of us chose to look away? My point is, all of us won’t be the victims; some of us would be the ones who were complicit, or too busy to care.

Aunt Lydia, the woman who goes on to wield the same amount of power in Gilead as the men, is one such example. She does not try to defend her actions, but she tells you her story, she tells you how she gained power in a state that hated women. She tells you how she took the tortures inflicted on her with a silent promise that she would strike back. It is in her narrative we get an inkling of Gilead’s fall. It is in her narrative that I could sense Atwood’s voice the most, a voice that often answered the questions that popped in the reader’s head—a voice that cautions and navigates those of us who wanted in.

Atwood finally gives us a glimpse into this dystopia, its origin and its possible future. And what I saw did not disappoint me. I wouldn’t call this latest work a dystopia—as it rather takes a utopian turn, leaving the readers with the hope for a better future. It gives you hope that all those who are pinned to the ground, suffering injustice at the hands of those in power today shall not do so forever. They will rise.

The Handmaid’s Tale confined the readers to Offred’s perspective, but The Testaments, written as a story assembled from historical artefacts, gave us a chance to understand other women in this frightening world. We get the perspective of an Aunt in her mid-fifties, a young girl who grew up in Gilead with no education or freedom, and the last one is a feisty young girl who was smuggled out of Gilead and grew up in Canada. It is through their stories and the subsequent intersection of these stories that we finally decode the tired, old Gilead we see in The Testaments.

As the novel comes to an end, Atwood attempts to close the distance with her readers. It gets too real, and her message is loud and clear: If our nations were to turn into totalitarian state like Gilead, what would it look like? Where would it place you?

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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