Persepolis is the autobiographical graphic novel written by Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian born, and French. The book shows the early years of her life as the child of politically active Marxist supporters living in Iran during and after the Islamic revolution. The book’s title translates to the city of Persians, she chose the title in honor of one of the cities in which the battles took place. It tells the story of a girl forced to conform to Islamic traditions such as donning a veil even though her family was secular. It presents Satrapi as a protagonist, forced to undergo hardships and violence that was instigated by religious conflict. This conflict was masterminded by mostly the Persian Iran at war with the Arabic Iraqi (Satrapi 18). This paper seeks to explore themes, ideologies and social aspects of culture in the book from Satrapi’s point of view. The thesis for this essay is that although it may appear that Satrapi was in conflict with the veil as a material culture, actually she was in conflict with its representation of repression, strict adherence to the law of Islam and loss of personal identity that drove the need for a revolution from the oppressive regime.
The veil had become a representation of political ideology in Iran at the time. It represented social values and norms. The Islamic revolution leaders had made it compulsory for all women and girls to be veiled in the 1980’s.Even today most Islamic states and cultures dictate that wearing the veil brings honor and respect for the woman in public. Women who were spotted in public places and especially in front of men, unveiled were termed as a disgrace to societal values and were viewed as transgressors of cultural beliefs and were punishable under the law. Satrapi’s parents insisted on her wearing the veil to school to avoid this. During this period all the secular schools were abolished. The law in Iran disregarded the cultural heritage of the people as all women of all cultures were required to wear the veil since it was a show of respect for Islam which was flourishing in Iran at that particular time.
Satrapi uses the veil synonymously throughout the novel and in a prominent way to present the cultural stereotypes in Iran during the revolution. With time, the issue of the veil grew from a mere demonstration of culture into a core part of societal norms. Everyone was wearing a veil; this demonstrated the hegemony of the Iranian religious and political ideology. She did not rebel against wearing the veil even after she wore items forbidden by the government: denim, Nikes and a Michael Jackson button to show her individuality, she still wore the veil and in the novel she uses the words “and of course I put on the veil (Satrapi 23)” This would demonstrate that she had accepted it to be part of who she was. It was a necessity imposed upon them so that they would not be able to survive without. When she was arrested for wearing illegal items she was later released and this could be attributed to the fact that she had her veil on. She felt that the Arabs had forced their Islamic culture on the Persians. This would explain her identity crisis. The veil masked a person’s individuality and it led to everyone at school looking the same as can be shown in her illustration showing her friends at school who looked identical.
During this time when the veil law was implemented other laws followed. These laws were on how women should act in public. They were oppressive and they gave the patriarchs a higher position over women. Women were disregarded by the law and the Islamic leaders ensured they were treated as the weaker, less important gender. At home Satrapi’s mother was confident and strong and she taught her daughter to fight for her rights when her veil was off but the novel shows her weak in surrender mode as she thanks a morality officer for letting her husband go after he was arrested rioting this goes to show that the veil acted as a shield to expression of one’s real opinions (Satrapi 27). That it removal at home gave a sense of empowerment to the women who were not able defend themselves once it was on. The veil was not just a material item but a mode of conduct imposed on the women. The men as shown by her father remained consistent in their opinions and actions. Her father’s character at home did not change when he was in public. He spoke his mind and he was prepared to face the consequences. This could be because he did not have to wear a veil.
The book shows how the ideological differences between the Iranian and Iraqi cultures and religion led to the conflict and death of people in the Islamic revolution. This cultural clash was the key catalyst to the war in the 1980s.The Islamic revolution leaders who came from Iraq tried to force their ideals on the people instead of blending both their cultures. This is what caused the mass rioting and political instability that was instigated by the coup. Even today mast Persians posses’ hatred for Arabs and this hatred can be traced back to that time (Satrapi 32). The book goes to show that even a young empathetic 10 year old girl is aware of her rights and is willing to protect her individuality. She is able to look at a situation assess it and draw her own conclusion as to what should or should not be done.
Satrapi, Marjane. The Compete Persepolis. New York: Pantheon Books, 2007.