Engage: Margaret Atwood’s Handmaids adopted as powerful symbols of abortion restriction

Five women in red robes, their heads hooded, veils over their faces, silently watched as parliamentarians on the Isle of Man gathered on a grassy hillside last July.

They had come, unannounced and shrouded in mystery, to demonstrate against the island’s current abortion laws on Tynwald day – the Manx national day.

Costumes from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, have become widely used by pro-choice campaigners as a symbolic rallying cry against restrictive abortion legislation across the world.

“We wanted to show graphically how it feels to not be able to control your own reproductive destiny,” Milly, a founding member of the IOM Handmaids said.

“It was an incredibly emotional and powerful feeling. People melted out of the way. Everybody turned to stare and look, take photographs, whisper and wonder what it was.”

Maintaining their silence, the women handed out slips of paper with quotes from the novel and others on reproductive freedom to people who approached.

The response, Milly said, was mostly positive, while others who were not familiar with the symbolism were perplexed.

She explained: “The imagery of having a veil over our face, not revealing our identity, is to represent not who we are as individuals but what we show for all the women on the Isle of Man that have their choices taken away from them by being forced to either have a child they don’t want, or to try and find money to go across to the UK and pay for it privately.”

Sarah, who had an abortion in Manchester after falling pregnant on the island, witnessed their silent display.

She said: “I was so, so moved and so proud, I thought it was a phenomenal statement to make, every aspect of it … adopting the costumes and the imagery, the silence they maintained, it just spoke volumes, it was an amazing, amazing demonstration.”

The group of local anti-abortion protesters have harnessed equally dramatic, but very different, imagery to aid their opposition of the new bill.

They have been congregating outside the parliament building with graphic banners depicting bloodied foetuses and messages reading “Don’t turn the Isle of Man into England”.

They adopted the “historically tested” tactics of Abort67, an anti-abortion group in England, Jules Gomes, a pastor on the island said.

Dr Gomes said he had experienced a striking cognitive dissonance from pedestrians who would avoid him and the other protesters by crossing the road.

He said: “Standing here and watching the reaction of a good number of people has been a classic experiment of cognisant dissonance. Because a number of people cross the road, they avert their gaze, they swear at us, they simply do not want to dialogue and to confront the reality of what is actually happening.”

He said: “Every major social reform was realised because of the graphic images that were shown that triggered off compassion in the hearts of people.

“For example, the great Thomas Clarkson. Nobody was interested in having slavery abolished until Thomas Clarkson showed graphic images of the slaves chained head to foot on the slave ship ‘Brookes’.

“And when people saw the horror of those images, they actually began to change their minds on slavery.”

Passers-by questioned how they were allowed to show such shocking images in public, and one told the group their views were not welcome on the island.

Mr Gomes said he felt that if the Government could use graphic warnings on cigarette packaging, then protesters concerned for the welfare of unborn babies should be able to do the same.

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2018, All Rights Reserved. Picture – Elizabeth Moss star of the screen adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale (c) Channel 4.