TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) – It has become an ominous fixture in the mass anti-government protests that are stirring up Israel: a crowd of women in crimson robes and white caps, heads bowed and hands clasped. They are dressed as characters from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale and TV series of the same name.
The women, who are growing in number as demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies intensify, say they are protesting to stave off what they see as a dark future if the government carries out its plan to overhaul the judiciary.
“This exhibition is a representation of the things we fear,” said Moran Zer Katzenstein, founder of women’s rights group Bonot Alternativa, or Building an Alternative, which is behind the maid protest.
“Women will be the first to be harmed as part of the revamp,” she added.
In a move that has sparked widespread opposition, Netanyahu’s government is pushing to weaken the Supreme Court and limit judicial independence. Steps they say will restore the power of elected lawmakers and make the courts less interventionist. Critics say the move turns Israel’s system of checks and balances on its head and pushes it toward autocracy.
The overhaul has sent tens of thousands of people onto the streets in protest every week.
The women in red robes are unmistakable in the crowd, turning the usual protest scenes into an otherworldly sight.
Before a demonstration, a group of women in costumes rode the train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, transforming the carriages and platform into what could have been a scene from the Hulu series. Another time, they circled a central fountain in the coastal metropolis of Tel Aviv, a place where children in strollers and dogs on leashes usually live. They have also blocked intersections, stayed in character during protests and kept quiet while in formation.
Her gruff demeanor aims to convey the notion that Israel, which presents itself as the Middle East’s lonely democracy, could be turning into a terrifying dystopia in which women are being deprived of their rights.
Atwood’s 1985 novel about a futuristic patriarchal society where robed maids are forced to bear children for leaders has resurfaced as a cultural touchstone in recent years thanks to the popular television series. His themes of female subjugation and male dominance have resonated with women today who see threats in restrictions on abortion rights or, in the case of Israel, the rise of its conservative religious government.
The government, the most right-wing Israeli government of all time, is predominantly male. Only nine out of 64 members of Netanyahu’s coalition are women. Ultra-Orthodox parties, which are key components of the coalition, completely refuse to admit women members.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has said men and women should not be allowed to serve together in military combat units, while his government partners have expressed support for discrimination against LGBTQ people and Palestinian citizens of Israel.
The costume, which epitomizes patriarchy’s threat to women around the world, has been used in protests elsewhere. American women opposing former President Donald Trump’s conservative Supreme Court nominees have donned the garb, as have Iranian women demonstrating in the UK in support of the Iran protests and Polish women demonstrating for upholding the law advocate abortion.
But with the crisis in Israel showing no sign of abating, the Women in Red have become a mainstay of protests across the country, and their numbers are growing. About 1,000 women wore the robes at a recent rally in Tel Aviv.
You will also be noticed. Atwood himself retweeted several posts about the women. And Simcha Rothman, the lawmaker and head of the parliamentary committee spearheading the overhaul, has criticized it, claiming the law changes would only strengthen women’s rights in Israel.
“I am following the protests and demonstrations closely and am happy to provide a response to any concerns regarding the legal plan. What am I not accepting? A scare campaign falsely instigating that Israel will become ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’” he tweeted earlier this month. “The reform will not harm the protection of women.”
Zer Katzenstein, who gave up a career in marketing for international brands to steer the protest, said she would not rely on Rothman, a religious Jew and conservative ideologue, to protect her rights.
The protest is not an exaggeration of where Israel may be headed, as some have claimed, but rather a warning light, she said.
“We don’t think that we (are going to) wake up and realize that we live in Gilead,” she said, referring to the name of the fictional republic in Atwood’s book.
“But we fear that something will develop. First here and then there and another and another,” she added. “Our message is that we’re drawing a red line and we’re not going to let that happen, not even a little bit.”