Republic of Gilead

Republic of Gilead

Infobox fictional country
native_name = Republic of Gilead
common_name = Gilead|
continent = North America
country = USA
government_type = Theocratic military dictatorship|
event_start = Revolution
year_start = 21th century
year_end= ?
p1 = United States
flag_p1 = Flag of the United States.svg|

capital = "unknown"
official_languages = English "(de facto)"
The Republic of Gilead is a theocratic fictional country that is the setting of the Margaret Atwood dystopian novel "The Handmaid's Tale".


The country exists within the borders of what was originally the United States of America. However after an unspecified catastrophe (possibly a nuclear or biological war or extreme environmental pollution) and a staged terrorist attack on the President and Congress, a revolution occurred which deposed the United States government and abolished the US Constitution. A new theocratic government was formed under the rule of a military dictatorship.

The Republic of Gilead is governed according to strict Old Testament-based religion. Other religions are not tolerated, and those who do not conform are quickly executed by the state or shipped to areas of the former US known as the "colonies" which have dangerously high levels of radiation. For a brief period at the outset of the Republic, Jewish people also have the option of emigrating to Israel as they are regarded as "Sons of Jacob" and therefore deserving of special treatment. Those who may have formerly been considered African-American are redesignated the "Children of Ham" and transported to National Homeland One, believed to be located somewhere within the boundaries of what was previously North Dakota. However, some sources have suggested that formerly African-American women form part or all of the complement of the Marthas.

The Republic also has a brutal policy towards women, which forms much of the novel's central theme. In Gilead women are forbidden to read, and are segregated into an elaborate caste system in which their sexual activities are strictly controlled and regulated so as to serve the procreative agendas of the government.


The Republic of Gilead is ruled through biblical propaganda and rigid enforcement of social roles. Most citizens have been stripped of their freedoms. All religions, except the official state religion, have been suppressed. Political and religious dissidents, abortionists, and homosexuals are executed and hanged at "The Wall" for public display. The government has proclaimed martial law due to the destabilizing effect of "hordes of guerrillas" roaming the countryside, although the actual threat from the "guerillas" may be greatly exaggerated.

In Gilead, many people are infertile for reasons explored only in the coda to the story. It is possibly due to the nuclear disaster which has made parts of the country unhabitable. Fertile women, called "Handmaids," are forced to engage in sexual reproduction with, and for the benefit of, high-status men and their wives. Although men may also be infertile, it is fundamental to the Gileadan power structure that they be beyond reproach. According to the state, the problem is not with the men, it is "always" with the women. Handmaids who cannot conceive after their third placement are deemed barren, and sent to the dreaded colonies with all the other "Unwomen" - resulting in many genuinely-fertile Handmaids seeking to impregnate themselves using alternative methods, such as illicit sex with a fertile male.

ubjugation of women

In Gilead, women are stripped of their independence. They are no longer allowed to hold property, arrange their own affairs, make reproductive choices, read, wear make-up, or choose their clothes. Women are segregated into categories, and dressed according to their social functions. Seven legitimate categories (Wives, Daughters, Widows, Aunts, Marthas, Handmaids, and Econowives), and two illegitimate functional categories (Unwomen and Jezebels), are mentioned in the novel.

Categories of Women in Gilead

# White women seem to be the default in the Gilead society. In the novel, the two main non-white ethnic groups mentioned are African Americans and Jewish Americans. Both are quickly shuttled away per the fundamentalist Gileadan interpretations of the Bible. The value of reproduction of white women in America is privileged over that of others. This is an underpinning assumption of the book.
# Wives are the top social level of women. Married to the high-status Commanders and others who are the ruling circle of the new military dictatorship, they are often infertile for unknown reasons, possibly related to an unexplored ecological disaster or effects of a bioweapon. "Wives" always wear blue dresses. After the death of her husband, a "Wife" becomes a "Widow", and must dress in black. It is implicitly suggested in the novel that "Widows" are also being sent to the colonies.
# Daughters are the natural or adopted children of "Wives", and, though this is not mentioned, perhaps also of "Econowives". They wear white until marriage (at 14). The narrator's daughter has been adopted by one of the infertile "Wives".
# Aunts train and monitor the "Handmaids". In return they receive — relatively speaking — a substantial degree of personal . It is a central organisational element of Gilead that women be employed in the social repression of other women. "Aunts" dress in brown. They are the only women allowed to read or write.
# Handmaids are fertile women whose social function is to bear children for the "Wives". Handmaids are subjected to a monthly reproductive ritual derived from the biblical story of Rachel and Leah's reproductive competition ("Genesis" 29:31–35; 30:1–24). Handmaids dress in a red habit with a white head-dress which obscures their peripheral vision. The "Aunt" system produces "Handmaids", by reeducating fertile women who have broken Gileadean gender laws, usually either by engaging in non-marital sex or by being lesbians. Owing to the demands of "Wives" for fertile "Handmaids", Gilead gradually increased the number of gender-crimes. The "Aunt" system, however, seeks to promote and legitimise the role of the "Handmaid" by deemphasizing any association with gender-criminality.
# Marthas are older, infertile women whose compliant nature and domestic skills recommend them to a life of domestic servitude in the houses of the elite. There has been conjecture that "Marthas" may be African Americans (based on the chapter "Shopping"), reflecting a long tradition of the American elite using black slaves and domestic workers as house servants. However, since black people (referred to in the novel as the "Children of Ham") are described as having been relocated into bantustans, this is unlikely. "Marthas" dress in green smocks. The title of "Martha" is based on the Gileadite reading of the incident recounted in Luke 10:38-42, where Jesus visits Mary, sister of Lazarus, and Martha; Mary listens to Jesus while Martha is preoccupied "by all the preparations that had to be made."
# Econowives are women married to lower-ranking men. "Econowives" are expected to perform all the female functions: domestic duties, companionship, child-bearing. The 'Econowife' dress is multicoloured: red, blue and green to reflect their multiple roles. It is believed by Aunt Lydia that one day, no-one will have to be an Econowife, suggesting that they are just temporary measures within Gilead.

The division of labour between women engenders resentment between categories. "Marthas", "Wives" and "Econowives" perceive "Handmaids" as sluttish, although "Econowives" also resent "Handmaids"' freedom from domestic work.

ocially unacceptable categories of women in Gilead

Outside of acceptable society exist two further classes of women.

# Jezebels. Informally, the desires of Commanders for mistresses — as in the pre-Gileadean — has resulted in an illegal and collective form of prostitution available only to Commanders. The women who populate this system are informally known as "Jezebels". This category of women may include lesbians, but also highly-educated and independent women who were unable to adjust to newly-imposed rules for female behavior. These women are housed in the remains of a hotel from former times, and are used by Commanders to entertain foreign dignitaries. Jezebels dress in the remnants of sexualized costumes from "the time before": cheerleaders' costumes, school uniforms, and Playboy Bunny costumes.
# Unwomen are sterile women, widows, feminists, lesbians, and political dissidents confined to the Colonies (both areas of agricultural production, and sites of deadly pollution). "Unwomen" as a category embraces all women (and some men) unable to fit within the Republic of Gilead's gender categories. Unlike members of society who transgress and break fundamental rules (who are murderously punished), "unwomen" are categorically incapable of social integration as their society rejects them utterly. Males who engage in homosexuality (or related acts) are either executed, or declared "unwomen" and sent to the colonies to die a slow death. All "unwomen", male or female, wear grey dresses.

"The Ceremony"

In Gilead, sex for pleasure is degrading to women. Men are seen as constantly desiring sexual pleasure, but obliged to abstain for religio-social reasons. The social regulation is enforced as a law with corporal punishment inflicted by Aunts for lesser offences, and capital punishment inflicted by a group of Handmaids for greater offences ("particicution").

"The Ceremony" is a sanctioned sexual act for the purposes of reproduction with two women present. This unites Wives, Aunts, Marthas and Handmaids in an urgent reproductive mission. Sex acts which defile the Ceremony (sex for pleasure involving Handmaids, homosexuality) are punished severely with death. It is uncertain what sexual relations exist between men and Wives, but the example of Commander Fred indicates a high degree of personal and sexual alienation in marriage. The sexual position of Econowives is also uncertain — but they are viewed with disdain by the reproductive alliance of Wives, Aunts, Marthas and Handmaids.

The Ceremony reenacts in rather literal fashion the biblical passage where Jacob's infertile wife Rachel says to him "Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees" ("Genesis" 29:31–35; 30:1–24). The Gileadan variation on the passage has the Handmaid lying supine upon the Wife during the sex act itself.

The novel's narrator, the Handmaid Offred, describes the ceremony: :My red skirt is hitched up to my waist though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he's doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for.

Once a Handmaid is pregnant, she is venerated by her peers and by the Wives. When her baby is born, it is given to the Wife of her Commander, and she is reassigned to another household. The reward of the Handmaid for giving birth is that she will now never be sent to the Colonies, even if she does not conceive again.

ocial regulation of human sexuality

The Gileadian elite has a definite analysis of the failure of society in "the former times"; women were too available to men. Men's ready sexual access to women led to violence and abuse. Gilead's solution is to limit men's access to women until they have proved themselves within social-ideological terms.

umptuary laws

The sumptuary laws of Gilead are quite complex. All lower status individuals are regulated by sumptuary dress laws. Women, in particular, are divided into the castes by their dress. Men too are regulated, but equipped with powerful military or paramilitary uniforms: constrained but also empowered. Only rare civilians (increasingly persecuted) and Commanders seem to be free of sumptuary restrictions. This freedom itself is indicative of power.

Additionally, those punished with death are dressed for the occasion: priests in long, forbidding robes and Doctors in consulting gowns.

Through its sumptuary law, Gilead is a society of appearance.

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