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Genesis 30:1-3 states, ‘And Rachel said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.’ Taking a handmaid or a second wife can be seen throughout many religions. In the Bible, Rachel, the wife of Jacob, gives her handmaid Bilhah to Jacob as she is infertile and wishes to have children by using Bilhah to carry them. In both novels, authors Margaret Atwood and Khaled Hosseini use the theme of this biblical reference throughout their novels to show key elements in the lives of the women they characterize. In both novels, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns,’ Atwood and Hosseini present an oppressive patriarchal society where women face restrictions regarding what they wear and their roles within society, and their value is also judged on whether they can bear children. Both societies, Afghanistan and Gilead, face many issues; they are both war-torn, and their governments are governed by strict religious beliefs. Their extreme religious policies consume the population and have strict policies on how women can behave. Bearing children in these societies is the prime function of women living there. Increasing the population, means their extreme religious regime survives, ensuring the oppression continues for future generations.

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is a dystopian novel set in the new Republic of Gilead, formerly known as The United States of America. The United States government has been taken over by The Sons of Jacob, a strongly religious and patriarchal group. The main character and the narrator of the novel is a woman named Offred. Offred has been forced to be a part of a group of women known as ‘handmaids.’ These women are forced and expected to bear children for higher-class men if they can bear children, as they and their wives are unable to do so. These higher-class men, known as ‘commanders,’ take their handmaids as possessions and even use their names to show which commander each woman belongs to. The name Offred stands for ‘of-Fred,’ making her his possession. Throughout this novel, Atwood explores themes of loss of identity and the loss of women’s reproductive rights. We see throughout how women are subjugated in the patriarchal society that Atwood presents, as well as the many ways that the women in this novel resist and rebel to gain back their individuality and their freedom. Due to many environmental disasters and other factors, many women in Gilead are unable to bear children. According to Amy Mackinnon, ‘After 1966, President Ceausescu of Romania banned birth control and abortion. But it was then expected that women of childbearing age were to have five children. The banning of birth control and abortions led to thousands of children being unwanted and abandoned.’ The fact that in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ bearing a child is so rare that the government has taken extreme measures to ensure that every child that is conceived, no matter if the women want it or not, will be brought into the world. Birth control and abortion in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ are all punishable by death if caught. In the introduction to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ in an interview, Atwood discusses her inspiration for ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ stating, ‘The biblical precedent is the story of Jacob and his two wives, and their two handmaids. One man, four women, twelve sons – but the handmaids could not claim the sons. They belonged to the respective wives.’ Like in her novel, all children birthed by the handmaids are given to the wives. Atwood is trying to tell us that the handmaids are important to Gilead’s society when pregnant, but after they have given birth, the child takes preference, and the handmaid is expected to get pregnant again as soon as they can.

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In ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns,’ Khaled Hosseini shows how two completely different women come together through their hardships. Mariam and Laila both live in Afghanistan; both women are controlled by the same dictatorial husband and face their country being taken over by the infamous Taliban. Hosseini uses foreshadowing and irony to show how women are being suppressed in their male-driven society through disempowerment and violence. An example of this would be the ‘harami’ status placed upon Mariam as a child, which will affect her marriage throughout the novel as she is made to feel useless and powerless.

In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ Atwood presents how clothing is used to distinguish Gilead’s class system by the color the women wear. Handmaids wear all red gowns with a white bonnet on their heads. The bonnet is described in the novel as ‘wings’ which obscure the women’s faces. ‘Everything except the wings around my face is red: the color of blood, which defines us.’ As Offred states, red symbolizes blood, which could represent the menstrual blood needed for conception; red also connotes sexuality. Thus, the red clothing is a symbol of fertility; the handmaid’s purpose is to be a breeder of children, but also an object of perversion in this repressed society. On the other hand, we also see women wear the color blue; Serena Joy, the commander’s wife, enjoys some luxuries because of her position in society as she marries well. But her clothes are still a uniform to tell her class apart from other women in society. Blue also symbolizes other things and has connotations with the Virgin Mary. This is ironic as she is associated with being maternal and caring. The color blue also has connotations with wealth and class. Atwood makes color an immensely powerful symbol as the novel progresses. All these colors are used to show who can bear children and who cannot.

In conclusion, throughout both novels, we see the struggles of women and how they are valued for their ability to bear children. We can compare many of the main characters to each other as they bear similar roles. They all have to dress and act in a way that pleases their male counterparts, and their value is measured by whether they can bear children. Both in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns,’ we see that women are expected to bear children and are punished by society if they cannot. All children born into Gilead are important, whereas sons are preferred in Afghan society. Both Mariam and Offred are used as breeders and both are controlled by a patriarchal society that wants them to behave in a certain way. But it is clear that throughout these novels, women are expected to bear children, whether they wish to or not.

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