Laura Sneddon extols this provocative graphic autobiography as an unmissable read for feminists
“You know, the feminists become very angry when I say I am not a feminist. I am a humanist. I believe in human beings” – Marjane Satrapi, 2004
Marjane Satrapi’s autobiography is an intriguing mix of the familiar and the exotic for the Western audience it was intended for. Appealing to non-comic readers as well as those more familiar with the medium, Persepolis defies labelling in much the same way as Satrapi herself; it covers a multitude of hot issues in feminism today, while resolutely filtering the political through the personal – to unexpected ends.
A precocious child, Marjane is raised by Marxist parents who wish for a more liberal Iran for their daughter to grow up in; initially dismissive of the religious leaders, their lives become more difficult as individual and political freedom is curtailed. The young Marjane is content in her religious beliefs at her new non-secular school, having conversations with God as well as with the characters of her favourite comic, Dialectic Materialism. Marjane believes from a young age that she is destined to be a prophet, but as the Revolution gets under way her frequent conversations with God soon cease.
The revolution is brutal, and while the episodic format of the book only allows for snapshots, the dramatic impact is great. Marjane was a mere witness, trying to understand the complexities of the world around her: family members and parents of friends imprisoned, tortured or killed, and the women of the country having their freedoms curtailed. Yet Persepolis is not a religious treatise, and tactfully avoids making any situations black and white, despite the controversial subjects. By using art rather than writing alone, the subject matter is far more open to interpretation by the reader: the black and white of the sharp illustrations result in subtler shades of grey.
The bold drawings lure the reader in from the very first page, where the young Marjane is confronted with her newly mandated veil. A row of young girls sit with their heads covered, each face clearly an individual, before chaos descends on the playground as the girls tear their incomprehensible veils off for play. As Marjane progresses through school, and the political climate continues to become more oppressive, covered clothing becomes an even greater issue. When running for the bus, a teenage Marjane is stopped by outraged men: when running in her completely covered and modest outfit, her behind apparently moves in a most obscene way. Her response is typical of the outspoken young woman: “WELL THEN DON’T LOOK AT MY ASS!”.
Marjane objects to the enforced piety, revelling in her rebellious possessions from her beloved USA: a Kim Wilde album, Michael Jackson pin, and smuggled Iron Maiden posters. It would be easy for the book to slide into the “not like other women” trope, but Satrapi makes it clear that many women in Iran embraced a more conservative lifestyle, just as many embraced a more liberal outlook, long before the revolution. Her argument is not, and should not, be reduced to that of being simply anti-veil, and her portrayal of the women around her helps to break down the stereotype of Iranian women being a passive monolith beneath the heel of oppression.
That is not to say that we should employ cultural relativism and insist none of the issues raised should be questioned; on the contrary, it is of the utmost importance that all women everywhere are given the freedom to choose – a theme that Persepolis repeats when Marjane is sent by her parents to Vienna as a teenager for her own safety. Here Marjane enjoys freedom, develops friendships with European and American girls, experiments with haircuts, and dabbles in style. But ultimately she is left feeling bereft of her culture, and struggles to create a coherent identity in her exile.
Returning after difficult years of unhappiness, a failed relationship, drug dealing and sleeping on the streets, Marjane arrives back in Iran – only to feel as much an outsider in her own culture as she had abroad. Beginning a new relationship, she struggles with the lack of the freedom she was used to in Vienna; unable to even walk with her boyfriend down the street for fear of arrest, the only option is to marry at the age of 21, despite her own desire for independence.
Despite Satrapi subscribing to humanism rather than feminism, if the reader is looking for feminist themes in Persepolis, there is much to find: Marjane’s frustrations at the women being targeted for modesty while the men remain relatively free, the importance of female bonds in family (particularly the relationship with her wonderful grandmother) and friendships, a rushed marriage, and balancing cultural expectations with personal ambitions. One of the key reasons behind the success of the title is that it indicates the universality of experience.
There is a tendency for women in liberal democracies to be rather patronising towards so called “Third World Women” – it is a subconscious superior assumption that these women require the great free women of the West to come to their rescue. Satrapi has peppered her book with instances of women in Iran fighting for their freedom; their own chosen freedom, not that which people in liberal democracies see as the one true way. While it is easy to see through the course of Persepolis how Iranian culture shifts, putting more and more pressure on women, there are subtle rebellions and many incidents that illustrate that Iranian women are far from having no agency of their own. It is, I believe, very important to respect Satrapi’s disassociation from feminism.
Persepolis is an important piece of literature, as well as an enjoyable comic book with fantastic touches of humour. For feminists, Persepolis is an unmissable read, reminding us of the importance of transnational versus international feminism, that becoming feminist does not equal becoming Western, and that liberation should not require the loss of identity, culture, or religion. Satrapi writes as both an insider and an outsider: a unique view of important historical and cultural change.