The Truth Behind the Fiction: 16 Days to End Violence Against Women

Image by UN Women Asia and Pacific

The television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ has gripped viewers and political pundits alike, since its release in April 2017, for its astonishingly realistic parallels between the fictional world of Gilead, and the very real Donald Trump led USA. As the global campaign for 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence draws to a close, Louise Hemfrey reflects on the concerning similarities between the dystopian TV drama and the experiences of women at risk and those who defend them.

I, like many others, was glued to The Handmaid’s Tale; a 10-part series based on the novel by Margaret Atwood starring Elisabeth Moss, and Joseph Fiennes. The drama is centered around life in the dystopian Gilead, a totalitarian theocracy that was formerly part of the United States. Infertility (in women1), an alleged extremist uprising, and an environmental crisis are the primary justifiers for the ruling male elite’s strict social code. Using scriptural precedent the government captures, attempts to brainwash, and then redistributes fertile women en masse into the households of the same ruling elite to serve as Handmaids – essentially sex-slaves and walking wombs. The drama offers a plausible paradigm of a developed democracy slipping to the autocratic right. However, for me, where critics of the show failed was to acknowledge the endemic, institutional, societal, and state-sponsored violence that is perpetuated against women and girls in the real world already.

The egregious harm committed against Moss’ character is in every sense textbook violence against women and girls (VAWG). I say textbook, not to belittle what happens to Offred and her fellow handmaids, but to exemplify the plight of millions of women worldwide who endure such acts on a daily basis simply because they are female. Today, there are 155 countries in the world with legal codes like Gilead’s, which uphold and protect child marriage, marital rape, abduction, disinheritance, and reproductive control. These primitive gendered structures facilitate state-sponsored violence against women and girls. Indeed, it is the state-sanctioned element of the systematic violence witnessed in The Handmaid’s Tale that got me thinking of the parallels in my own field of women’s rights and development.

“Ordinary is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.” – Margaret Atwood

Take freedom of information for a start: like all dictatorships, Gilead relies on systems of regulation to control the population’s knowledge of both their immediate community and the wider world. Forbidding half the population–the female half–from reading is therefore the most obvious way to limit knowledge and power that comes from free access to information. Girls currently make up a majority of the global population of children out of school; in certain societies this is the result of conscious decisions made at the local, institutional and governmental level to limit the knowledge and attainment of the women and girls in their society. If a woman cannot read and write in a society that is highly literate she becomes beholden to others for even the most basic exchanges of information, limiting her freedom, her independence, and her ability to change that situation for other women.

A further misogynistic element is the ideologically motivated use of polygamy. In 58 countries, right now, men having multiple wives (polygyny) is legal, with a further 20 that condone it. One might like to think that these are long-established laws, which in many cases would not reflect actual behaviour; however, Kenya only formalised polygyny in 2014. Such laws enable unequal inheritance laws, thus leading to early and forced marriages, and encouraging the trafficking of women for sexual exploitation. The Western general public and their leaders often frame these as ‘development dilemmas’, but such issues also occur closer to home. For example, in the United States legal practitioners are only belatedly treating the crimes committed against a survivor of child sex-trafficking as seriously as the crime of murder.

“No matter how in love or how in lust the relationship, you are no longer a woman choosing to be with this man, but a woman who does not have the choice to leave this man.” – Jamila Rizvi

Over 76 countries currently have laws that criminalise same-sex relations and identities.  The Handmaid’s Tale refers to members of the LGBT+ community as ‘Gender Traitors’: men are executed without ceremony, with their bodies hung for public display until some foreign state dignitary comes calling. Women, if fertile, will become Handmaidens, and if uncooperative will be forced to undergo ‘corrective surgery’ to ‘cure’ them of their deviant sexuality. In the drama Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) is punished for engaging in a same-sex relationship. Her punishment is female genital mutilation (FGM), a practice used today on 200 million women and girls to control their sexuality and behavior. These women and girls are not fictional characters rebelling against a dystopian state; they are real women and children being subjected to a form of violence that is only now, in this decade, being acknowledged as harmful.

Today, an average of one in three women worldwide will experience violence in their lifetime, and unfortunately depending on where you live, that statistic can become much worse. As these 16 Days of Activism draw to a close I have been revitalised by the profusion of support for the global campaign. However, when reflecting back on the year that has passed, and the many examples of state sanctioned violence and discrimination against women that still persist, we must all ask when will violence against women and girls become the exception rather than the rule.

Louise is a feminist advocate, currently working for a Women’s Rights and Development non-profit. Follow her on Twitter @louisecfhemfrey

Image courtesy of UN Women Asia & The Pacific CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

  1. Only women are tested. All men are assumed fertile by the official authority

About Louise Hemfrey

Louise is a feminist advocate, currently working for a Women's Rights and Development non-profit. She holds an MA Hons in International Relations from the University of St Andrews, and an Interdisciplinary Masters in International Affairs from Institut de hautes études internationales et du développement. In her professional life she works on gender justice, development programming and monitoring and evaluation while in her free time she enjoys debates, theatre, yoga and sleep. For feminist and social consciousness recommendations follow her on twitter.

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