Hundreds of women clad in red, their heads bowed and topped with white wimples, moving slowing in formation with clasped hands is the most unforgettable image from the weeks of recent protests throughout Israel against the judicial reforms proposed by the extreme right-wing government.
Even more than the sea of blue-and-white flags, this is the picture from the protests that has made headlines around the world and it is an arresting sight, even if you don’t know that the demonstrators are wearing costumes drawn from the TV drama, The Handmaid’s Tale.
For those who are familiar with the drama and with the Margaret Atwood novel on which it is based, the costumes add an extra layer of commentary to the protests because of The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian story of a world in which women are completely subjugated and used only for their reproductive capability.
In the novel and the series, which stars Elisabeth Moss and has been running since 2017 (and which can be seen in Israel on Hot, Yes and Cellcom TV), a totalitarian government called has taken over what was once the US and the country is now called Gilead. In a world where fertility rates have dramatically declined due to disease and pollution, fertile women are forced to become “handmaids” who bear children for the ruling class and to wear the distinctive red and white garb that the protesters have adopted. Iranian protesters in England and demonstrators in Poland and the US have also donned these costumes to fight for women’s rights.
Atwood's response to the protests
These images have drawn strong reactions from many around the world, including Atwood herself, who tweeted aerial photos of hundreds of women in Handmaid’s garb from the Israeli demonstrations last week, and who wrote, “I have never seen so many ‘Handmaids’ protesters marching like this except in the @HandmaidsOnHulu tv series!”
Atwood also wrote, “Astonishing,” in response to a photo of the protesters tweeted by Ha’Aretz correspondent Allison Kaplan Sommer.
Novelist Gary Shteyngart tweeted a picture on March 18 that Ivanka Trump, who is visiting Israel with her family, posted on social media a day earlier, showing her praying at the Kotel in a long red dress. Trump posted the message “Shabbat Shalom!” while Shteyngart wrote, “The Jewish Handmaid’s Tale.”
Bonot Alternativa (Building an Alternative), the group behind the Handmaid’s Tale protests, has no plans to stop and its leaders have emphasized in interviews and on social media that the costumed demonstrations are not only a response to the proposed judicial reforms. The group’s leaders have emphasized they are also a protest against violence against women, such as murder and sexual assault, as well as many other issues in Israel, including the divorce laws and sex-segregated public events. So even if a compromise is reached soon on judicial reform, the women in red are likely to continue protesting.
The Handmaid’s Tale television series will broadcast its sixth and final season on a date to be announced, probably later this year.