Monday, 10 May 2010

An Indian Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale (Everyman's Library)
When we picture Margaret Atwood’s dystopian fiction ‘A Handmaid’s Tale,’ a vision of a baby farm materializes. But how far is fiction from reality? Inside India’s international baby farm, an image of 50 expecting mothers catering for a foreign market is readily apparent. Since 2003, 167 surrogate mothers have successfully given birth to 216 babies at the Akanksha Infertility Clinic in Gujurat, run by Dr Nayana Patel and her husband, Hitesh. However, we have to question the moral ethics- after all ‘A Handmaid’s Tale’ is not a utopian novel.

In 2002, the Indian Parliament passed a law declaring that “surrogacy is legal in India.” And already by some estimates, Indian surrogacy is a £290m-a-year business, so how are these women not being commodified for the purposes of their wombs? Akanksha Infertility Clinic claim that they “are not in the business of ‘renting wombs,’” as they allegedly ensure that the surrogate mother’s needs are all met during the nine months of their pregnancy. Yet, the 50 pregnant women at the clinic are mainly of lower caste and from impoverished nearby villages. Is this just another example of western foreigners exploiting the world’s poorest women?

The reasons behind making a decision to be a surrogate mother range from acute poverty, to wanting a healthier existence for their families. It raises various other debates regarding developing countries; are the west truly helping the poverty-stricken by paying money towards these endeavours or just continually driving exploitation of the East such as the child labour issue. Even more so, how much are these struggling women able to make an educated decision with the lack of choices presented to them?

In February of this year, an article in the Indian Express reveals that some of the ‘professional’ surrogates are paid between one and two lakh (between £1400 and £3000) but with clinics being paid triple that amount, it seems unfair that the women receive the bare minimum. A woman featured on that article says that “‘we earn anywhere between four to five thousand in 20 days’ time. Where will we earn money so quickly without doing anything immoral,’’ queries Geeta (name changed), one of the would-be surrogate mothers.

Atwood’s novel presents a similar narrative, the protagonist character Offred is one of a class of individuals kept as a concubine ("handmaid") for reproductive purposes by the ruling class. The complex laws play a key role in imposing social control within the new society and serve to distinguish people by sex, occupation, and caste. Are we recreating this dystopia within our modern-day society?

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