Researching Fictional Entanglements of Religion and a Dystopian Urban Imagination

— Daria Pezzoli-Olgiati

A press photograph portrays a woman wearing an old-fashioned white bonnet and a red mantle, her mouth covered by a cloth of the same colour. Her clothing is a reference to the popular dystopian narrative by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) that has become a global narrative thanks to numerous media adaptations, and particularly the successful Hulu TV series released from 2017 onwards. The woman in the photograph takes part in a demonstration in front of the Supreme Court building in Washington D.C. in June 2022. She is holding a cardboard with the inscription “THIS IS NOT FICTION” in her hands. It links the dystopian society of the The Handmaid’s Tale with what happens today in the USA.

Demonstrator dressed as a handmaid in front of the Supreme Court building in Washington DC. Source: Evelyn Hochstein, Reuters (accessed on 15.05.2024).

On 24 June 2022 the Supreme Court overturned the right to abortion introduced in 1973, based on the Fourteenth Amendment, the constitutional principle that guarantees the fundamental rights of citizens and individual life at the federal level, delegating the decision to the different states of the union. Since then, we follow debates, controversies and consequences of this decision on a daily basis in newspapers and (web)media. Few topics are as controversial as the question of how to deal with unborn life. In view of the increasing divisions in politics and society – not only in the USA –, the fronts between pro-choice and pro-life groups have hardened in recent years. Various interest groups within civil society have become politically active and thus increasingly visible. During the weeks in which the Supreme Court debated the law, demonstrations by supporters in favour and against abortion took place outside its headquarters in Washington D.C.

In this controversy, religion plays a central role. The pros and contras in the debates in the USA and elsewhere are linked to concepts of nature, life and gender that have been moulded over centuries in religious beliefs and practices and are entangled with theological reflections from different traditions and communities. The protection of unborn life as an absolute, fundamental value that deontologically prohibits abortion, independently from the circumstances of a pregnancy, is an argument that is often religiously legitimated. Yet, religion can play a central role also on the side of pro-choice positions: The autonomy of the individual and specifically of women can be based on re-readings of religious traditions and texts that lead to teleologically justified weighing of colliding interests. Accordingly, pro and contra positions do not correlate directly with religious or non-religious worldviews but are often controversially debated within a particular religious tradition. Religious and ideological, existential and political convictions and practices are closely interwoven.

The woman clothed as a handmaid in front of the Supreme Court building condenses those entanglements between politics and religion in a striking way. The reference to the dystopic society of Gilead is effective and immediate, since the novel, its adaption, and the TV series are being received by audiences all over the world. Though, the reference is ambiguous. On the one hand, the woman in red and white reminds the passers-by and the media audiences of what happens to women in totalitarian regimes. The fictional handmaids are enslaved surrogate mothers in the theocratic state of Gilead. Since human reproduction is almost impossible in a post-apocalyptic environment, women who are still fertile are trained to bear children for the men of the Gileadean upper class. The handmaids are kept in the families of the commanders and raped once a month in a religious ceremony. If they do not bear children within a certain period of time, they are sent to camps in the contaminated colonies, where they are exploited as worthless labour force until they die of exhaustion. However, it is precisely in Gilead’s terrible living conditions that the handmaids open up a space for resilience and resistance – which finally undermine the cruel theocratic dictatorship. The protagonist of the novel, Offred (which means “of Fred” and refers to her owner, Fred Waterford), explores the smallest opportunities to resist the power of the master of the house. Her personal vision and interpretation of religion allow her to develop an inner space of resilience and to maintain her identity as an autonomous human being. The TV series emphasises this story line and transforms the elusive Offred, alias June, into a freedom fighter who takes on every conceivable form of suffering for the cause of resistance and liberation.

We discover the Gileadean theocracy in the city where the protagonist lives. It is a former university city with a large campus. June grew up in this urban context and graduated in a discipline related to books and literature, all of them items forbidden in Gilead, as is any kind of education for women. The former city was a place of diversity, controversies, problems, and scholarly research and the crisis the city had to afford was debated within a democratic system. A small group of religious fundamentalists linked to media transformed it into a cruel totalitarian theocracy.

When Canadian author Margaret Atwood published The Handmai’s Tale in 1985, the novel was praised for its outstanding literary quality and the sharpness of the social analysis it contains. The dystopian tale was considered as a deep, almost prophetic analysis of highly complex contemporary social systems: under the pressure of a dramatic environmental catastrophe, the dictatorial regime of Gilead desperately tries to bring the world on track by means of total control of bodies. In Gilead, the social order is enforced with a clear definition, separation and hierarchization according to a patriarchal, heterosexual understanding. The dictatorial state is theocratically legitimized. Gilead’s religion, a strange combination of aspects of fundamentalist traditions, is staged in choreographed, extremely violent ceremonies. Margaret Atwood repeatedly emphasizes that her terrifying vision of a dystopian religious dictatorship is not fictional: all the practices of violence in Gilead regulating the hierarchies between gender and social classes are historically documented. According to the writer, the artistic achievement lies not in the invention, but merely in the literary transformation of practices that rooted in the history of religion: while historical events inspire the novel, dystopian fiction serves as a horizon for the interpretation of current political decisions. Overall, The Handmaid’s Tale as a narrative exploits the tension between the horrors of a dystopian society and the disruptive force of utopia. To destroy the theocratic state from within, urban culture needs to be restored. The power of reading and writing, the access to libraries, archives and material sources, and to historical memory and reconstruction are explored and revisited in a gender perspective.

The press photograph of the demonstrator dressed as a handmaid in front of the Supreme Court in Washington in 2022, the crowds of protesting women dressed in the same way in Buenos Aires in 2018 or all over Israel in 2023 as well as in many other places condense the complex relationship between fiction and reality and thus concretize the relevance of the interaction between religion, politics, gender and media. With an iconic disguise, the demonstrators evoke the threat to democracy, the potential transition to theocratic governments and the will to resist. In this interaction of narrative and lifeworld, of fiction and realpolitik, the ambivalent role of religion is strongly emphasized: religion can lead to theocracies or commit to resistance and the preservation of democracy and urban culture.

The narrative entangles historical urban elements with fictional visions of cities for, during and after Gilead. In this urban context, it offers a kaleidoscope of religious worldviews and practices from all over the history of religion with a specific focus on traditions linked to the Bible. This fictional religion is multi-faceted. It is an instrument for totalitarianism and violent practices of annihilation of human beings and for forced reproduction. At the same time, religion is a resource fostering individual identity and resilience. Religion is used to legitimate a binary, extreme gender divide and hierarchisation and, at the same time, it allows actions against it. Religion permeates all dimensions of society and is identified with the regime who controls the reading of the sacred book. Yet religion is also an individual resource that reminds the resilient protagonist that she is still an autonomously thinking human being. Individual, political, medial and scholarly approaches are entangled in real and fictional cities.

This blog is inspired by two articles:

Fritz, Natalie and Daria Pezzoli-Olgiati, 2024, “ ‘Are There Any Questions?’ Fiction, Religion and Politics in The Handmaid’s Tale”. In: Journal for Religion, Film and Media 10, 1, DOI: 10.25364/05.10:2024.1.1,

Daria Pezzoli-Olgiati, 2024, “Religion in der Religionswissenschaft. Bedeutungen, Chancen und Grenzen eines mehrschichtigen Konzeptes”, In: Religion, Wirtschaft, Politik interdisziplinär, edited by Jens Köhrsen and Antonius Liedhegener, Zürich: Pano/Baden-Baden: Nomos, 37–69 (forthcoming)

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
urbrel (July 3, 2024). Researching Fictional Entanglements of Religion and a Dystopian Urban Imagination. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved July 18, 2024 from

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