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COLUMN: IMAGINING DYSTOPIA

Updated July 16, 2017

Lately I’ve been watching the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It is one of the foremost examples of dystopian fiction, in which an imagined future is a bleak and unforgiving place thanks to the follies of humankind in the past or the present. The Handmaid’s Tale’s ‘bad place’ (dystopia is the ancient Greek word for anti-utopia) is an America in which totalitarian forces have taken over and turned the former United States into a Christian theocracy where fertile women are imprisoned and turned into sex slaves, or handmaids.

This novel, published in 1985, has become one of the world’s bestselling books, having sold over a million copies and having never gone out of print. Thanks to Donald Trump’s recent election and the release of the excellent television adaptation, another 125,000 copies have been printed and sales have gone up 200%. Readers are finding eerie resonance in the world Atwood predicted 30 years ago, and there’s a little bit of this dystopian nightmare in every country where patriarchy and misogyny exist.

Some of this dystopian thread is finding its way into Pakistani literature, too, for instance, Mohsin Hamid’s recent Exit West, in which the main characters, Saeed and Nadia, escape an Eastern country at war through magical portals to arrive in more peaceful Western countries. According to a recent article in The Atlantic, the novel is an exploration of how humans can survive even when their worlds are falling apart. It also explores a future in which migration is not just commonplace and instantaneous, but the breakdown of society is imminent and unavoidable. Like all good dystopian fiction, the novel holds elements of present reality: the global migrant crisis, country-destroying wars in Syria and Afghanistan and the chaos and upheaval of developing nations.

For the last four years I’ve been working on a dystopian novel with strong feminist themes that was inspired by life for women here in South Asia and other restrictive Muslim and Eastern countries. In it, the numbers of women have dwindled to the point that there are barely any left; men must share wives and an oligarchy uses technology and torture to maintain their authority over the people. Rather than The Handmaid’s Tale, I was heavily influenced (as a writer in general) by George Orwell’s 1984: Britain has become a totalitarian state that uses surveillance, propaganda, brainwashing and torture to control its people. My childhood and adolescence were spent in Gen Ziaul Haq’s Pakistan, where I saw similar methods used to support the general’s dictatorship and push his vision of an ‘Islamic’ regime.

One scene in 1984 has always haunted me: protagonists Winston and Julia are being arrested for their illicit relationship. I’ve never forgotten the image contained in these lines: “One of the men had smashed his fist into Julia’s solar plexus, doubling her up like a pocket ruler. She was thrashing about on the floor, fighting for breath.” It was the first time I’d ever read a fictional account of such merciless violence against a woman. But it evoked the iconic photograph of women protesting in Lahore against Gen Zia’s Hudood Ordinances, where a young woman with dark hair is being beaten by the police and her mouth is open in an agonised cry of shock and pain. The year? 1983, one year before the year I read Orwell’s masterpiece for the first time.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, there’s hope and resistance among the handmaidens against the Sons of Jacob regime, with the handmaids finding secret ways to bend and subvert the system. The protagonist, Offred, also has a few brushes with a resistance movement called Mayday. In my writing, I was inspired by real-life feminist resistance movements against authoritarian theocracies and regimes. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan who publicised the Taliban’s atrocities against Afghan women were particular heroines for me. Similarly, the National Council of Resistance of Iran has a Women’s Committee that works with Iranian women in the diaspora and in Iran to struggle for their rights. The Kurdish women soldiers of the Peshmerga who fight against the militant group known as Islamic State and other extremist groups showed fearlessness to rival that of any male fighter. And who can ignore the one-woman army Malala Yousafzai, who resisted the Taliban as a 13-year-old girl writing a secret diary?

Women’s writing in secret has always been an act of resistance: the classic example for me is Anne Frank, another 13-year-old who kept a secret diary while she and her family hid from the Nazis in Amsterdam during the Second World War. In The Handmaid’s Tale, women are allowed to neither read nor write: it’s much easier to rob them of their rights when they are kept uneducated. Afghanistan under the Taliban regime is full of examples of girls and women resisting by continuing their education in secret, or writing anonymously about their lives under the Taliban in the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.

In a short story I wrote back in 1997, I took on the voice of an Afghan woman lamenting her fate under the Taliban. At least that’s what it seems like, until the end of the story reveals that the conditions the woman speaks about are not Afghanistan, but Pakistan. In 1997, word was only beginning to get out about what was happening to the women of Afghanistan, but it was unthinkable that such conditions would ever come to Pakistan. Fast forward to 2009, when the Taliban overran Swat and a viral video of them whipping a girl prompted the military operation that drove them out again.

This is the writer’s job when she takes on dystopian fiction: to imagine an apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic future in order to wake people up about how it can all go wrong if we don’t heed the warning signs. Indeed, in parts of India and Nepal, wife-sharing amongst brothers is already an established practice and selective sex abortion and female feticide has skewed the male-to-female ratio to create an alarming imbalance. The world is already nightmarish enough for so many of its women that a dystopian feminist writer will unfortunately never be out of ideas, inspiration or material.

The columnist is a writer based in Karachi. She is the author of six books and also writes for The New York Times

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 16th, 2017