The Republic of Gilead and its Roots in Reality

The following article contains spoilers for the book and first two seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale. It also contains content about violence against women and historical circumstances that may be triggering for some audiences. 

 

Whether it be through the original novel written by Margaret Atwood or the television series produced by Hulu, many are well acquainted with the horrifying world depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale. From the revocation of all basic human rights, to the use of physical mutilation as punishment for minor crimes, the Republic of Gilead creates an atmosphere of terror that reaches through the page (or screen) and leaves the audience clamoring to get back to reality. 

With the end of every episode or chapter comes the flood of relief in remembering that Gilead is only a dystopian setting. However, it’s not as far-fetched as we may convince ourselves. 

In an article she wrote for The Guardian, Atwood stated, “I made a rule for myself: I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist. I did not wish to be accused of dark, twisted inventions, or of misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable behaviour.”

The outrageous laws and customs in Gilead make it difficult to believe that the aspects of this world are rooted in reality. However, pick any moment in the story that leaves you cringing or watching from behind cracks in your fingers, and with a bit of research you can find a moment just like it in history. Some don’t even require research, just a quick think back to as recent as five years ago, or a consideration for other countries’ customs in present day. 

According to the Wiki page for Gilead’s laws, also known as the Laws of God and His Servants on Earth, there are eight primary guidelines, half of which are specific to the oppression of women. Each of these can be connected back to conditions that existed in the past or still exist in the present, no matter how outlandish they may seem.

1. Women cannot exist independently. In the Republic of Gilead, a woman’s legal status is based entirely on their male next-of-kin. They have no legal standing outside of their husbands, upon whom they are forced to rely for everything. 

Until the 1850s, the United States based their laws off of the Blackstone Commentaries, England’s common law. These laws stated that legally, married women held a status similar to that of children. Just like the women in Gilead, they had no choice but to depend on their husbands for everything, seeing as all civil and property rights disappeared when they married. 

2. No access to fair trial. While the Republic of Gilead still holds trials for those accused of breaking the laws, they are typically done in order to determine one’s punishment rather than rule on guilt. During these trials, accused women often have their mouths bound and therefore do not get the chance to advocate for themselves. 

Unfair trials manifest in a variety of ways throughout the world. To this day, in countries including Iran and Pakistan, a woman’s testimony is only considered half as valuable as a man. This means two or more women must testify together in order for a woman’s status as a witness to be valid in civil matters. While this may not be the literal silencing of a woman through gagging, laws like these make it nearly impossible for women to win domestic abuse and sexual assault cases. 

3. Women cannot own property. Some of the first laws enacted in the Republic of Gilead revoked women’s rights to all property, both physical and financial. Women across the country were fired from their jobs and had their bank accounts frozen. Their property was deferred to their husbands or male next-of-kin. 

It wasn’t until 1839 that women were first granted the right to own property in their names in Mississippi, provided that their husbands grant permission. It took until 1900 for all states to grant similar or more extensive property rights to women. Before this, all property was deferred to the husband and women couldn’t even control any earnings they made for themselves. 

4. Women may not read or write. This is one of the most well-known Gileadean laws. In the book and show, the main character, Offred, breaks it frequently by playing Scrabble with Commander Waterford and scratching the iconic “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” into her closet wall. Aside from aunts, who are responsible for overseeing the handmaids, no woman is permitted to read or write. Gilead even went so far as to remove street signs and replace labels with photos in order to prevent women from reading. Breaking this law is punishable by amputation of a finger or even a hand. 

The restriction on reading and writing for women is far less explicit in this world, but still present through the control of censorship and education. Even in today’s world, several countries in Africa and the Middle East make it difficult for young girls to attend school. Girls have faced violence on their way to school, are forbidden from attending schools with boys, and must compete with cultural expectations that do not prioritize education. As a result, many young women grow up unable to read or write. 

5. Abortions are illegal. Of all their laws, the Republic of Gilead is potentially the most stringent about this one. In a world where viable births are rare, one of the worst crimes one can commit is harming a baby or fetus. Even women who had abortions before Gilead’s rise to power were put to death upon the instatement of this law. 

In 1973, Roe v. Wade ruled that access to safe and legal abortions was a constitutional right in the United States. Before this, abortion was considered a criminal offense, and unsafe, illegal abortions accounted for one-sixth of all pregnancy-related deaths in 1965. Abortion is still illegal in several places throughout the world. For example, in El Salvador, women can be sentenced with anywhere from four to 40 years in prison for consenting to an abortion. 

6. Adultery is criminalized. Seeing as this is straight from the Bible’s Ten Commandments, the Republic of New Gilead takes adultery seriously. In the show, Commander Putnam is charged with adultery when he incites sexual favors from his handmaid Janine. As punishment, his left hand is amputated. This is one of the few times a Commander faces repercussions for his actions in the earlier seasons. 

Believe it or not, adultery is still a criminal offense in some areas of the world, including the United States. As of 2019, 18 states including Florida, Alabama, Wisconsin and Oklahoma have laws that make sexual acts outside of marriage illegal. These cases are not brought before court often, but the laws are still in place and an offender can be fined or even face jail time. According to an Insider article written in 2019, other countries such as Saudi Arabia and Nigeria have laws that make certain cases of adultery punishable by death. 

7. “Gender treachery.” Homosexuality, also known as “gender treachery” in the Republic of Gilead, is explored through Emily, or Ofglen, as she’s first introduced to the audience. Before Gilead, Emily was a professor of microbiology. She was also married to her wife, Sylvia, with whom she had a son, Oliver. Emily was separated from her family and forced to become a handmaid because of her gender treachery. During her time as such, she began a relationship with a martha, a female servant for wealthier households. As punishment for the same-sex relations, the martha was hung and Emily had her clitoris surgically removed in an attempt to control her sexuality. 

In the United States, it wasn’t until five years ago on June 26, 2015, that Obergefell v. Hodges deemed gay marriage legal across all 50 states. Before 1963, every state had laws in place that made sexual acts between same-sex couples illegal. The punishments for breaking these laws ranged from fines to a lifetime in prison. With the United States no longer having laws like these, it can be easy to forget that several countries still criminalize members of the LGBTQ+ community. There are 11 countries in which the maximum punishment for same-sex relations is the death penalty. 

Even Emily’s grotesque punishment is rooted in reality. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is the practice of removing the external genitalia in order to suppress sexuality and preserve a woman’s virginity until marriage. It has been documented in 30 countries and is still prevalent in several of those to this day. 

8. The possession of contraceptives is outlawed. This is another law that stems from the low fertility rates of Gilead. Anything that threatens the already low number of viable births has been strictly banned. The punishment for supplying or using condoms and birth control is to be ravaged by dogs. 

There was a period of time in the United States where distributing birth control and other contraceptives was a federal crime. These laws were known as the Comstock Laws, and were initially passed in 1873. Those found guilty of dissemination could be fined or imprisoned. In some states it was even illegal for a mutually consenting couple to use birth control in the privacy of their own home. Offenders could be arrested and sentenced to one year in prison. 

The Laws of God and His Servants on Earth are only the doorway to a world of frightening traditions and customs. No matter how gruesome the depiction may be, though, what makes this more of a horror story than a work of dystopian fiction is that every bit of it is as real as the world we live in today.