The Handmaid’s Tale: On Self Defense

I confess to binge watching the first two seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale. For all its problems (and there are many many serious ones), it gets one thing right: it lays out why armed struggle as a form of resistance by oppressed people is necessary and legitimate.

Of course there’s a huge problem. The problem is racism. As a Palestinian I watched the show asking myself: if the same characters were dark skinned and dressed in keffiyehs instead of white bonnets, would they still be represented as heroes?

When we watch the main character June (Offred), a white woman suffering gender oppression in a totalitarian world where language has been restructured to vilify dissent (“heresy”), we understand why she stands up, why she fights, why she and other handmaids are willing to commit violence to be free. We see their humanity– their desire to maintain their dignity as human beings and we cheer them on when they fight. And we understand that because they have been stripped of every possible means to defend themselves– not allowed to have weapons, not allowed freedom of movement, not allowed to congregate freely, not allowed to express themselves, not even allowed to read– that they must use whatever is available to them to liberate themselves. They engage in all manner of daily resistance: whether it be non-cooperation, writing down their narratives, organizing with and supporting each other, and yes, fighting by any means necessary and available to them (in some cases with a car to run over a “Guardian,” in another a knife as in the case of Emily’s attack on Aunt Lydia or as a human bomb in the case of Lillie (Ofglen #2)). We don’t question the necessity of these actions because we know these women have to fight when the opportunity and the means present themselves. We marvel at their creativity and celebrate any moments of resistance that move them one step closer to freedom. But, ironically, this history is presented in the context of white nostalgia. Remember, the white women dream, when not too long ago, we were all free? The hypocrisy of these moments is not lost on black and brown people.

Imagine you are black and living in America with its genocidal legacy of slavery, lynching, mass incarceration, Cointelpro –a land where you can still be shot by a police officer, or another citizen for that matter, for nothing more than the color of your skin, or that you are an indigenous person whose land has been repeatedly stolen, a genocide committed against your people, your own children taken from your family and placed in schools where they are not allowed to speak or cultivate their own languages or traditions. Imagine you are living in Puerto Rico and you have had a sterilization program perpetrated against the women in your community as a means of colonial control.

Imagine that you are living in another country and someone invades your land for your resources and starves, rapes, and murders your family to do it (Iraq), or tries to hand pick your president for you after destroying your economy (Venezuela), or cultivates a civil war and devastation because of greed and geopolitical interests that result in the death and displacement of millions (Syria), or that a foreign power is starving your children to death (Yemen). Imagine you live in Palestine, and you are in an open air prison while settlers steal land and water, and one of the strongest militaries in the world bombs you from above for the crime of knowing that you have dignity, knowing that you have worth, knowing that the only way to stop colonial violence is to stop settlers from taking more and more of your land. Imagine that you don’t have weapons, food, electricity, or water—but that you find a way to fight back anyway.

Now imagine that you are living in the country that is primarily responsible for all these atrocities… that you benefit every day, get economic privileges in the form of land, money, oil, food, from the resources, labor, and suffering of others. Imagine that you do nothing– that you are, as June so clearly points out, “asleep.”
Ask yourself this: what will it take for you to wake up? To join the battle for human dignity that is already here, right now?

If you are black or brown and fighting a colonial-settler state like the US or Israel…if you stand up like June, if you plan and act in your own self defense, you won’t be called a hero in the news. Until the fabric of white supremacy is torn asunder, you may very well be called a “terrorist” in a world where language has been restructured to vilify dissent.

Just ask one of the many US held political prisoners about the power of the lens of white supremacy to vilify, torture, incarcerate. Through this lens, bravery, self sacrifice, defense of home, family, and community become crimes rather than acts of human decency.

That is one of the fundamental differences between being white and being black or brown. In The Handmaid’s Tale, when white women fight their oppressors, they are portrayed as heroes, but when black and brown people do the same in the real world, we are alternatively monsters, terrorists, or criminals. Our true stories are rarely told, because our true stories require white folks of conscience to fracture the lens of white supremacy and pick a side– to act. And when the stories of black and brown folks are actually told? It is usually our victimization that gets air time–not the sheer ingenuity to survive against all odds by the limited means available or the willingness to fight and die in defense of family and community.

Our stories of resistance are the ones that are really worth telling. They are the difference between hope and resignation and that difference spans the space between life and death. The world of The Handmaid’s Tale, is not “minutes away” as we so often read in the press– it is already here and has been here for a very, very long time for many of us. If you haven’t noticed, it’s because you haven’t had to.

Lana Habash is a Palestinian physician living in Boston, MA. She can be reached at