• A scene from the Handmaid's Tale. (SBS )Source: SBS
If you think the Republic of Gilead is a work of fiction, think again.
Nicola Heath

17 Apr 2018 - 10:35 AM  UPDATED 16 May 2019 - 10:08 AM

It’s easy to see the Republic of Gilead – a society highly segregated according to sex and class, where women’s rights are severely curtailed and same-sex relationships are punishable by death – as a dark fantasy.

But Gilead, the autocratic, theocratic dystopia conceived by Margaret Atwood in her novel The Handmaid’s Tale and recently dramatised in an acclaimed television series, has many real-world precursors. “When it first came out it was viewed as being far-fetched,” Atwood told the Guardian in a 2017 interview. “However, when I wrote it I was making sure I wasn’t putting anything into it that human beings had not already done somewhere at some time.”

Despite the progress that has been made in recent years to improve the lives of women around the world, vigilance is still required in the defence of women’s rights. Here are five countries where, like Gilead, women’s liberty and autonomy are under siege.

United States

Abortion has long been a hotly contested issue in America, but one that many considered settled with the Supreme Court ruling of Roe v Wade in 1973, which effectively legalised abortion in the country.

More than four decades later, Roe v Wade still stands, but reproductive rights in the US is on shaky ground thanks to a sustained anti-abortion campaign by conservative activists. In May, Georgia’s governor became the fourth state leader this year (the others are from Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio) to sign a ‘heartbeat bill’ that would ban abortions from six weeks. In Alabama, legislators are attempting to take it one step further and effectively ban abortions altogether except in cases where a woman’s life is at risk. While a woman would not necessarily face jail for having an abortion under these laws, her doctors would.

Abortion access is becoming increasingly limited in other states. In Mississippi and Louisiana, for example, abortion after 15 weeks is now illegal, while Missouri has placed onerous restrictions on clinics and doctors who perform the procedure.


Yemen is one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. The 2018 WEF Global Gender Gap Index, an annual report that measures gender parity across education, health, economic participation and political empowerment, ranks the Middle Eastern nation dead last on its list – 149th out of 149 countries.

In Yemen, a traditionally patriarchal society that offers women limited rights under its laws, child marriage is both legal and common – one survey found that 32 per cent of women aged between 20 and 24 were married before they were 15. It’s a practice that has been exacerbated by a civil war that has besieged the country since 2015, and the subsequent humanitarian crisis that has followed. The UNHCR reports that many parents marry off their daughters in the belief that they will be safer with their husbands’ families, or because they simply lack the resources to care for them.

Women in Yemen must also contend with female genital mutilation, a practice carried out on up to 19 per cent of women and girls aged between 15 and 49. FGM was officially outlawed in 2001 but continues to be carried out – often unsafely – in families’ homes.

Saudi Arabia

In 2011, activist Manal al-Sharif was arrested for driving her car in Saudi Arabia, which at the time was the only country in the world that did not permit women to drive. Her protest made international headlines and turned the spotlight on gender inequality in Saudi Arabia, a society that is both heavily male-dominated and highly gender-segregated.

Al-Sharif’s activism paid off: in June 2018, Saudi women were for the first time permitted to obtain a driver’s licence and drive a car under new laws announced by King Salman in 2017. Other reforms announced include lifting a ban on girls playing sports in public schools and allowing women entry to the country’s national stadium.

While it appears progress is being made, these reforms distract from the fact that Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system remains intact. Under these laws, a woman’s travel, education, employment, medical treatment and marriage are controlled by a male guardian, usually her husband or another relative. Women who defy their male guardians – even those that report abuse – may end up in Dar Al Reaya, a much-feared female prison system where inmates are reportedly subjected to beatings and torture.

As a result, hundreds of women have fled the country in recent years, as many as 80 seeking asylum in Australia. A report by ABC’s Four Corners in 2019 revealed the stories of some of these women. “My life in Saudi Arabia was like a slave since I was a little girl. I couldn’t do anything without the permission from my male guardian. My father was an abusive man,” said one.

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Violence against LGBTIQ+ people is common In Nigeria, where homosexuality is outlawed under the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, or SSMPA, a law signed in 2014 by former president Goodluck Jonathan. According to Human Rights Watch, SSMPA “has become a tool being used by some police officers and members of the public to legitimize multiple human rights violations perpetrated against LGBT people. Such violations include torture, sexual violence, arbitrary detention, violations of due process rights, and extortion.”

The maximum penalty for same-sex sexual activity is 14 years’ imprisonment. In some states of the mostly Muslim-north, the offence of ‘sodomy’ is punishable by up to 100 lashes or death by stoning.

El Salvador

In El Salvador in 2007, Carmen Guadalupe Vasquez, pregnant after she had been raped by her employer, suffered a miscarriage. The 18-year-old sought medical attention at a hospital when she experienced heavy bleeding after losing the baby. She was handcuffed to the bed, charged with aggravated murder and sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment.

In El Salvador, abortion is in all cases illegal. A law passed in 1998 removed exceptions including rape, incest and when a mother’s life is at risk. Prohibition of abortion is aggressively enforced; women have been jailed for up to 40 years for allegedly seeking abortions. The Center for Reproductive Rights reports that between 2000 and 2011, 129 women were charged with procuring an abortion; half were referred to authorities by medical professionals after seeking treatment due to miscarriage or other obstetric emergencies.

There is hope, however. Vasquez was pardoned in January 2015 and released from jail. In another high-profile case, Maria Teresa Rivera was arrested in 2011 after suffering a miscarriage and ultimately sentenced to 40 years in prison for aggravated murder. In 2016, she was released from jail after serving five years of her sentence only after an international campaign succeeded in having her conviction overturned. In 2017, she successfully sought asylum in Sweden. In El Salvador, she told reporters, “I was known as the baby-killer. No one would give me a job.”

Activists are currently pushing for changes to legislation that will see terminations made available in cases where the life of a mother is in danger or a minor has been raped. Eighteen El Salvadorian women remain imprisoned for pregnancy-related crimes.

Nicola Heath is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @nicoheath

SBS will air the double-episode season premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale at 8.30pm Thursday 6 June, with episodes 1-3 available on SBS On Demand. New episodes will then air weekly on SBS, moving to the 9:30pm time slot from Thursday 20th June. All episodes will be available to stream weekly on SBS On Demand.

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