It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking in black-and-white terms about foreign countries. America is a free country, so we assume that all these repressive dictatorships must be like America in Opposite World, restricting every freedom they can get their hands on. But it's not that simple. We don't want to take away from the fact that a lot of these places are hellish nightmares, but some of them actually have (or had) policies even more progressive than those in the West. For example ...

Weed Is Totally Legal in North Korea

5 Shockingly Progressive Policies from Insane Dictatorships
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When your stoner friends complain about how tyrannical the government is for refusing to legalize marijuana, you may be tempted to point out that there are a lot of people in the world living under horrendous regimes so strict that questioning the government can get you executed by flamethrower. That's not a joke; that's something they actually do in North Korea. But then your friends might rightly point out that even in North Korea, weed is totally fine.

In a country where "human rights" is considered a strange foreign concept that goes against the spirit of the prosperity of Best Korea, getting hit by a flamethrower isn't the only way to get blazed. While most of the rest of the world is still wringing its hands over whether to make marijuana legal, the DPRK is ahead of the game, in that they never made it illegal to begin with: The North Korean government doesn't consider marijuana a drug and has never regulated its use. You might think this is because the country does not give an actual crap about the well-being of its people, so it doesn't regulate drugs whatsoever, but you'd be wrong: The government is extremely harsh on users of hard drugs like meth, for example.

5 Shockingly Progressive Policies from Insane Dictatorships
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Reminder: This is a country that really has its shit together when it comes to the phrase "extremely harsh."

But weed is no more scarce or taboo than tobacco in North Korea -- in fact, the local name for it is "ip tambae," meaning "leaf tobacco." Growing hemp is also completely fine, with marijuana plants being cultivated along railroad tracks all over the country due to their extractable oils, which are used for industrial purposes, and their deep roots, which help hold the tracks.

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Meaning North Korea probably had the happiest hobo population in the world before they were all inevitably executed.

What about that super impressive military force that they like to remind us has its guns pointed at the USA, just itching for an excuse to strike? Apparently, smoking weed is a super popular pastime among the ranks of the North Korean military. It kind of blows away that frightening image of North Korean soldiers marching toward America when you picture them enveloped in a haze of suspiciously pungent smoke and laughing at their own uniforms.

The Nazis Were Aggressively Pro-Animal Rights

5 Shockingly Progressive Policies from Insane Dictatorships
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A high regard for the sanctity of life probably isn't the first thing you think about when it comes to Nazi Germany. It's safe to say that a regime that deliberately murdered over 13 million people probably didn't put compassion near the top of its list of priorities. If the Nazis treated people like that, how do you think they treated animals?

5 Shockingly Progressive Policies from Insane Dictatorships
Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F051673-0059/CC-BY-SA

Clearly well enough to escape history's most deserving mauling opportunity.

The answer is "astonishingly well."

Nazi Germany had some of the strictest animal protection laws of its time for a group of people you probably assumed drowned cats for sport. In fact, one of the first things the Nazi party did when they got into power was pass a set of laws tightly regulating how animals are slaughtered for food and outright banning any form of cruel animal experimentation, such as vivisection. In fact, many of the animal protection laws that are still on the books in Germany today were originally put in place by Hermann Goering, Hitler's BFF and second in command.

5 Shockingly Progressive Policies from Insane Dictatorships
Lazy_Lightning, via Wikimedia

The hierarchy governing racial superiority among cats thankfully vanished into history.

While you'd probably assume that any law the Nazis passed was designed in some way to spite the Jews (and you'd be partly right -- Jewish kosher butchering was cited as part of their reasoning), the animal protection laws applied to everybody, even the very rich, and Hitler (a devout vegetarian) was fucking serious about it. Even hunting had to be carried out as morally as possible -- hunting on horseback and using hounds were both banned due to being considered unethical and a means of causing unnecessary suffering for the game. Never having hunted without these perks, the aristocracy became furious, but that didn't stop the Nazis from prohibiting them, a ban that remains in action today. Oh, and a biologist was once punished for not giving enough anesthesia to worms during an experiment.

5 Shockingly Progressive Policies from Insane Dictatorships
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"You monster! This is literally the worse atrocity ever committed by a German!"

There are a few theories about how the Nazis reconciled their animal protection policies with the fact that they were, you know, Nazis. Psychological studies of war criminals revealed that many of them were environmentalists to the point where they placed the lives of animals above the lives of humans (or at least certain races of humans). It kind of sheds a new light on the situation when you think of the Nazis as the extreme version of that hippie Facebook friend who keeps posting pictures of their cats and lamenting about how humans are shit.

Rwanda Is the World Leader in Gender Equality

5 Shockingly Progressive Policies from Insane Dictatorships
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If you know anything about Rwanda, the word "genocide" will likely turn up in your description, as well as a rant about how you need to put a vowel between the letters "R" and "W." But mostly the genocide thing. Back in the 1990s, Rwanda was one of the most violent places on Earth, and for the past couple of decades it's been ruled by a dictator, Paul Kagame, who has a funny way of making his political rivals disappear, while keeping a tight clamp on freedom of speech among his citizens. That's disappointing, because in terms of women's rights, Rwanda kind of shits on the rest of the world.

Rwanda's got so much gender equality, it's breaking (its own) world records for the highest proportion of women in office. In 2013, women won 64 percent of the seats in Rwanda's parliament. And they did so thanks to a voter turnout that would make Thomas Jefferson green with envy.

5 Shockingly Progressive Policies from Insane Dictatorships
Rembrandt Peale

Assuming that he could feel anything besides pure swagger under that fur collar.

For a country that was basically synonymous with all the problems that Africa has become known for, it has undergone a pretty incredible transformation. Two decades ago, lawlessness, rape, and murder were endemic, but today you'll find harsh penalties for rape, hotlines for victims, and widespread access to contraception. And businesses are following the example set by Rwanda's female-led parliament, ending years of entrenched discrimination. It's also the cleanest country in Africa. Plastic bags are outright illegal (it's a $150 fine if they catch you), street hawkers aren't allowed, and armies of government-employed cleaners work around the clock to make sure there's no litter messing up the public spaces.

5 Shockingly Progressive Policies from Insane Dictatorships
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In fairness, it's easy to remember to stay tidy when half your trash is the remains of political dissidents.

And in case you assume that this is all just the happy mask they're using to cover up some really shady underground, it turns out that daily life in Rwanda is more or less as peaceful as it appears. Crime is low and police corruption is minimal, which is surprising for a country ruled by a guy who suspiciously gets over 90 percent of the vote each election.

5 Shockingly Progressive Policies from Insane Dictatorships

The Mongols Protected Religious Freedom

5 Shockingly Progressive Policies from Insane Dictatorships
Rashid al-Din, via Wikipedia

Notorious for ruthlessly subjugating the Asian continent, the Mongol Empire practically ruled the world back in the days when horsepower was a literal term and people wiped their asses with banana leaves. And while the Mongols indulged in an unprecedented amount of pillage and rape, they also endorsed some surprisingly modern policies, including religious tolerance.

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Ivan Korzhev/Wiki Commons

"People of all faiths are equally invited to die by my hand."

Genghis Khan adhered to shamanism, but ensured that freedom of religion was protected for all his subjects. Foreign religions were welcomed, even if they contradicted shamanistic spiritual beliefs (to be fair, everything we know about shamanism we learned from Banjo-Kazooie). You see, even though he conquered entire civilizations with brute force, Genghis realized that to stay the ruler of a mighty empire, you have to keep the people happy. We imagine it was no simple feat teaching this concept to a man who impaled people just to say hello, but eventually Genghis came to see that marching into a country and forcing everyone to convert to some weird new religion isn't the best way to maintain power when your subjects outnumber you by the millions.

So the Mongol conquerors not only tolerated foreign religions among the populace, but nurtured them, going so far as to offer tax breaks to Daoist, Buddhist, Islamic, and Christian churches. Not to be outdone, Genghis' heir to the throne, Ogedei Khan, actually commissioned the construction of a bunch of new churches, mosques, and temples. He was thus able to cozy up to religious leaders and, as Dr. Dre would put it, stop shit from popping off. The only exception came under Genghis' grandson Kublai Khan, who singled out Daoists, because they scratched his new Benz or something.

5 Shockingly Progressive Policies from Insane Dictatorships

"In your next lives, come back as someone that can respect a man's S-Class."

Iran Is Super Accepting of Sex Changes

Di Asu In H unt
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Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad once infamously alleged that his country contained exactly zero homosexuals, as if debunking their very existence and demoting them to the realm of unicorns and Bigfoot. It's understandable from his perspective why he'd want to believe that, because if you're gay in Iran, you can get stoned, and definitely not the good kind of stoned.

5 Shockingly Progressive Policies from Insane Dictatorships
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"I should've moved to North Korea."

So if the tendency to rub the wrong kinds of bits together is a crime punishable by death, you can only imagine how they treat transgender people in Iran. And you're probably imagining wrong, because the transgender community has hardly any hassles at all. In fact, unofficial estimates put the number at around 150,000 people, which makes Iran second only to Thailand in terms of the size of their gender-swapping population. In 1987, Ayatollah Khomeini instituted a specific fatwa that not only made gender reassignment surgery legal, but made the government help people pay for it. Not just the surgery, either, but the accompanying hormone treatments as well.

As magnanimous as this sounds for one of the world's harshest theocracies, it can be argued that they're doing it for all the wrong reasons. As we mentioned, the Iranian government doesn't want there to be any gays in their country, so they figure that giving people the freedom to change their sex is a way of solving the problem (because apparently a gay man is just a straight woman on the inside. That must be how it works, right?). Basically, they accept transsexualism through the sheer force of their homophobia.

5 Shockingly Progressive Policies from Insane Dictatorships
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Next up: overcoming homophobia by fear of women's rights.

Sex reassignments must be authorized by a government-certified psychiatrist and sometimes a sexologist -- a profession whose basis may or may not be founded upon books on sex so old, they're written on papyrus. Prospective patients must undergo multiple sessions with up to six different psychiatrists, as well as see a forensic examiner from the governmental medical agency that oversees the surgeries. Upon reassignment, the individual literally becomes a new person -- their old birth certificate is destroyed, and a new identity is issued. Newer laws stipulate increased compensation for the individuals, and there's even a proposition to allow loans for transgender individuals to start their own business ventures. So if you're looking to start up that gourmet cupcake bakery or other small business on the cheap, just go to Iran and get a sex change.

J. is writing a book. You can't read it yet, but you can help start a bidding war. Eric Yosomono dreams of running his own harsh dictatorial society, and you can read about it on

Related Reading: Speaking of oppressive societies, elevate your mood by reading about these Chinese citizens who flout censorship via memes. If you believe that the Middle Ages were all oppression and misery, you should read this article. Want to read about the most hilarious nightmare dictatorship in the world today? This is the link for you.

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