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Did Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale change the way we view the concept of Middle Eastern harems?


Image taken from: https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-ancient-traditions/imperial-harem-ottoman-empire-more-just-beautiful-women-007835 (accessed on the 5th of March, 2019)

There are many paintings and works of art depicting a world of fantasy, exoticism and mystique. The women in the harems were often painted to look extraordinary beautiful, with delicate features and voluptuous bodies. Thousands of tourists pay to visit the harem of the Turkish Topkapi palace each year, anxious to get to experience a glimmer of the life of luxury and fantasy that they perceive women in the past have lived in. However, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale[1] has recently shed light on an aspect of female harems that was often overlooked and ignored. In a dystopia whereby women are reduced to reproductive objects their sole purpose in life to be concentrated around the notion of sex and pregnancy. The life of the handmaids bears a striking similarity with that of the women in paintings of Middle Eastern harems that many love to admire. Whilst the paintings are centered around beauty and exoticism, Atwood makes it clear, through the perspective of a handmaid named Offred, that the life of women reduced to the purpose of sex and procreation is far from one of luxury. Instead, Offred’s perspective centers on the pain of waiting, the painful amount of time she has to fill in a world where the only thing she’s allowed to do is procreate. Just like the women in harems, Offred is given the ‘luxury’ of being bathed and spared from household chores that other women do. Although, the use of her perspective makes it clear that the sparing of chores is not a luxury, but a punishment that allows her to think about everything that she had lost and what little she had been reduced to. Just like Offred, the women in Middle Eastern harems were often captured and forced into harem life, leaving a life behind in the countries which the Turks invaded. Atwood’s exposure of the reality of harem life is not something new. Edward Said’s[2] idea of the ‘Orient’ helps explain why the saddening lives of sex slaves have been painted to appear as ones of luxury and majesty. As Edward Said had previously contended, the west is obsessed with fetishizing what it views as ‘foreign’. Such fetishizing has not been confined to women in the harems of the Middle East, but extends to the concept of Geishas, as evident by the publication of novels such as Memoirs of a Geisha.[3] In the wake of a trend towards feminist dystopia literature, it is interesting to see the women who have suffered in Harems in the past finally having their truth told.


Aysha Alawadhi

Middle East Section Feature Writer

23 March 2019


 

[1] Atwood, M. (1996) The Handmaid’s Tale.


[2] Said, W (1978) Orientalism


[3] Golden, A. (1999) Memoirs of a Geisha.

[1] Atwood, M. (1996) The Handmaid’s Tale.


[2] Said, W (1978) Orientalism


[3] Golden, A. (1999) Memoirs of a Geisha.



Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes above.

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