What does the dystopian series ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and Italy have in common? They might seem like two different realities, but they share an urgent issue: The improvement of women’s rights.

Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was the stand-out protagonist of the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards. This streaming series won 8 awards, including the most prestigious: “Best Drama”.  The story of Offred and her fellow handmaids resonated with audiences and critics, who felt the characters, through a fictionalised future, were representing something disturbingly real: the enduring issue of gender gap and the sexual discrimination present in our current cultures. The comparison between “The Handmaids Tale” and current events is particularly strong in Italy, where ongoing struggles over abortion and violence against women seem to mirror the series dark vision of the future

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ set in the dystopian universe of Gilead, but it is not far from Italy’s reality where discrimination against women continues to occur everyday at work, at home, at the hospital and in the media services.

Italy has been struggling with many themes presented in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, for instance in the practice of abortion. Forbidden and punished with death in the fictional Gilead, in Italy abortion has been legal since 1978. However the Europan Council stated in 2016 that this Italian legalization does not mean that abortions can be accessed as a woman’s genuine right. This is despite the long struggle of the feminist movements against political parties such as Radicali (‘Radicals’) and ‘Christian Democracy’ – the leading ultra-Catholic party of the time.

Even though the Italian abortion law remains active, in recent years it has been used to counter abortions occurring in practice. While it might seem a paradox, it is a highly concerning use of the law which is forcing many women to go abroad or to turn to private clinics in order to have an abortion. Why? According to women’s movements, the answer has moral shades: Doctors working for the public healthcare facilities have the right to declare themselves a “conscientious objector” on the basis of their faith, which allows them to legally refuse to practice an abortion. The influence of religion on Doctors in this way is alarming, as Doctors should be practitioners of science – not faith – when applying medicine or surgery to patients.

According to Italian government figures, the number of conscientious objectors to abortions increased by 12% during 2016.  Southern Italy is home to the highest number of registered objectors, particularly in Sicily where the percentage of objecting Doctors is 87.60%. The Italian law allows this choice and, despite the request by many women’s movements to reform the law regulating the abortion, the government does not intend to make this medical surgery more accessible. Conscientious objection has already caused tragic consequences in a Sicilian hospital last year as the refusal of a doctor to provide an abortion caused the death of a woman.

What these practices indicate is that Italy is still “a predominantly Catholic country”: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ shows the rise to the power of a fundamentalist Christian movement who confined women to traditional patriarchal roles. Similarly, the women’s associations agree in saying that Italy is still influenced by the Vatican State and its pro-life movements who find political support in the Italian parliament for their fight against reformed abortion laws.

Violence against women, and social stigma against victims, is also a major issue in Italy as it was in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. In the series, a particular scene portrays victim-blaming actions after one of the handmaids discloses her rape. Instead of blaming the rapist and condemning this brutal act, characters blame the victim, making references to how she was dressed or whether she was drunk.

In Italy sexual assaults and harassments are ordinary news: According to the Ministry of Interior data, in the first 7 months of 2017 there were 2,333 charges of sexual assaults. In addition to these statistics is a lack of solidarity towards the victims, especially towards the youngest ones. It is on social media that men, but also women, post comments stating that victims of rape were “looking for trouble”.  Piero Grasso, the President of the Senate, has strongly argued that fighting the violence against women must be responsibility of both men and women. He also apologised for some mainstream media which dealt with sexual assaults with no care at all for the victims, and instead suggesting the assaults effectively occurred due to the fact that the women were fully consenting.

Some women are afraid to denounce sexual harassment, especially if this happens at workplace, as they are afraid of not being believed and possibly losing their job. More directly: it is not an issue of being fearful, but rather the practical awareness of what they are about to suffer after the denouncement which stops them from going to the police.

Laura Boldrini, the president of the House of Deputies, condemned the influence of faith in abortion, the social judgements faced by victims of violence and the increasing violence against women, as alarming signs for Italian culture.  She calls for filling this cultural gap through education – both at domestic and public level – to firmly teach that sexual harassment has no excuses- that a “no” as an answer in any circumstances must be respected. That a woman’s right to say “my body, my decision” is not just a slogan, but a sacred rule.

The character Offred said at the end of an episode: “They shouldn’t have given us a uniform, if they didn’t want to make us an army”.  Italian women’s movements, jointly with political institutions, believe Italian society needs to be united and urge for an improvement of women’s rights – the risk of not doing so is turning fictional Gilead into a grim reality.

Giulia Masciavè

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