Before the uprising in 1979 that overthrew the Shah, rights for women in Iran had been improving. Education was free for boys and girls, many women attended university and held roles in politics, and they had the right to get divorced and apply for custody of children. The legal age for marriage went from 15 to 18, as highlighted by Evie Magazine.
However, with the rule of Ayatollah Khomeini came increasing restrictions, such as women being made to wear the hijab from the age of 9 while in public. Women who refused risked corporal punishment or imprisonment. Atwood drew inspiration from the situation in Iran when imagining the conservative dress codes of the women in Gilead. As well as having to wear red, the handmaidens are forced to cover their hair indoors with white caps, and white bonnets while outdoors.
Similarly, Iranian women’s rights in the home were heavily restricted during the 1980s, with laws around divorce, inheritance, child custody, and sexual assault redrawn to be heavily in favor of their husbands. Child marriage and polygamy became legal, while access to abortion and contraception has since become heavily restricted in Iran due to the country’s stagnating birth rates — an issue that is the driving force behind the founding of Gilead. The end of Margaret Atwood’s novel also mentions both Iran and Gilead in the endnotes, during a fictitious future conference of historians that takes place in 2195, one that describes the two states as “monotheocracies.”