TEL AVIV, Israel — It has become an ominous feature of the mass anti-government protests rocking Israel: a coil of women in crimson robes and white hats, heads bowed and hands clasped. They are dressed as characters from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” and the television series of the same name.
The women, growing in numbers as protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies intensify, say they are protesting to ward off what they believe will be a bleak future if the government goes ahead with its plan to overhaul the justice system.
“This demonstration is a representation of the things we fear,” said Moran Zer Katzenstein, founder of the women’s rights group Bonot Alternativa, or “building an alternative,” which is behind the Handmaid protest.
“Women will be the first to be hit” under the overhaul, he added.
In a move that has sparked widespread opposition, Netanyahu’s government is pushing to weaken the Supreme Court and limit the independence of the judiciary, steps it says will restore power to elected lawmakers and make courts less intrusive. Critics say the move upends Israel’s system of checks and balances and pushes it toward autocracy.
The overhaul has sent tens of thousands of people into the streets in protest every week.
Unforgettable in the crowd are the women in the red robes, turning otherwise ordinary protest scenes into an eerie spectacle.
Before a demonstration, a group of women drove the train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in costume, transforming the cars and platform into something that could have been a scene from a Hulu series. Another time, they surrounded a central fountain in the seaside metropolis of Tel Aviv, a site usually home to children in strollers and dogs on leashes. They have also blocked intersections, keeping in character during protests, keeping silent as they walk in formation.
Their turbulent appearance is meant to drive home the idea that Israel, which bills itself as the lone Middle Eastern democracy, could turn into a chilling dystopia where women are stripped of their rights.
Atwood’s 1985 novel about a futuristic patriarchal society where clothed maids are forced to bear children for leaders has reemerged in recent years as a cultural touchstone thanks to the hit TV series. The themes of female subjugation and male dominance resonate with women today who see threats in the limits of abortion rights, or in the case of Israel, the rise of its conservative, religious government.
The government, Israel’s most right-wing ever, is overwhelmingly male. Only nine of the 64 members of Netanyahu’s coalition are women. The ultra-Orthodox parties, which are key elements of the coalition, deny the inclusion of female members entirely.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has said men and women should not be allowed to serve together in military combat units, while his ruling partners have voiced support for discrimination against LGBTQ people and Palestinian citizens of Israel.
The costume, which universally embodies the threat to women under patriarchy, has been used in protests elsewhere. American women opposing former President Donald Trump’s conservative Supreme Court nominees have worn the garment, as have Iranian women marching in Britain in support of protests in Iran and Polish women calling for abortion rights to be preserved.
But with the crisis in Israel showing no signs of abating, women in red have become a mainstay of protests across the country and their numbers are growing. About 1,000 women donned the robes at a recent rally in Tel Aviv.
They are also noticed. Atwood herself has retweeted several posts about the women. And Simcha Rothman, the MP and head of the parliamentary committee spearheading the review, criticized them, while claiming the legal changes will only strengthen women’s rights in Israel.
“I am attentive to protests and demonstrations and happy to address any concerns about the legal plan. What am I not accepting? A scare campaign falsely inciting that Israel will become ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’” he tweeted earlier this month. “Reform will not harm women’s protection.”
Zer Katzenstein, who left a career in marketing for international brands to direct 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 charged, but rather a warning light, he said.
“We don’t think we (will) wake up and realize we’re living in Gilead,” she said, referring to the name of the fictional republic in Atwood’s book, where the maids often say “under his eyes” to each other. , a reference that implies someone is always watching them.
“But we fear it will be something that evolves. First here and then there and another and another,” he 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.”