Persepolis: A Graphic Novel with A Heart

By Kirthi Jayakumar

Image: Persepolis

The Complete Persepolis — a collection of parts 1 and 2 (The Story of a Childhood and The Story of a Return) by Marjane Satrapi is presented in the form of a lucid graphic novel with stunning black-and-white illustrations. Simple drawings represent the social ethos in Marjane’s Iran, and her equally gripping writing make for a great read.
What strikes me most in her narrative is that despite her progressive parents and their stunningly liberal upbringing, the impact of social forces on an individual’s life is still felt heavily. And so, even if Marjane has the fortitude to slap a principal for policing her, or even if she stands up to defy social mores that are clamped down on her without her choice figuring in the dialogue somehow, she is still made to bear the impact of everything from forced veiling to notions of honour and what a woman’s dressing styles should be.
What struck me most is that the narrative in both books reflects an interesting exposition on how intersectionality explains peacetime-wartime sexual violence. For instance, in one episode, Marjane takes on her teacher for telling them wrong information about the Shah’s Regime and the Islamic Repubic. The teacher talks about how there are no longer any political prisoners since the Islamic Republic was founded. A young Marjane tells her teacher that she is lying, and that her own uncle was executed under the Islamic Regime. Her classmates applaud as an angry teacher looks on. Her parents receive a call that evening, with a complaint about Marjane’s deed. Her father is instantly proud of his defiant daughter, but her mother is fuming. “Maybe you’d like her to end up like him (her uncle) too? Executed? You know what they do to the young girls they arrest? You know what happened to Niloufar? The girl you met at Khosro’s house? The man who made passports? You know that it’s against the law to kill a virgin… So a guardian of the revolution marries her… and takes her virginity before executing her. Do you understand what that means??? If someone so much as touches a hair on your head, I’ll kill him!” Within a few weeks of this conversation, we see Marjane’s parents making a difficult decision of sending their daughter to live in Vienna.
The conversation offers an insightful explanation of what fuelled sexual violence under the Islamic Republic and during and around the wars in Iran. If you look closely, the wartime attitude towards killing women centered around their treatment in peacetime and the values of shame, honour and purity. To kill a virgin is considered against the law, but to kill a woman that is not a virgin, isn’t. And therefore, to cut short one’s criminal record (Isn’t rape against the law? Isn’t killing against the law?), the forced marriage of the woman is followed by her rape (Of course it’s rape! Marriage doesn’t legitimize sex!), and then, her murder.
In another instance, Marjane is seen questioning the administration of her university about the imposition of rules around women’s clothing and dressing. “You say that our headscarves are short, that our pants are indecent, that we make ourselves up… But as a student of art, a good portion of my time is spent in the studio. I need to be able to move freely to be able to draw, a longer headscarf will make the task even more difficult. As for our trousers, you criticize them for being too wide even tough they effectively hide our shape, knowing that these trousers are in vogue right now, I ask the question: Is religion defending our physical integrity or is it just opposed to fashion? You don’t hesitate to comment on us, but our brothers present here have all shapes and sizes of haircuts and clothes, sometimes they wear clothes so tight that we can see everything. Why is it that I, as a woman, am expected to feel nothing when watching these men with their clothes sculpted on, but they, as men, can get excited by two inches less of my headscarf?” The ensuing result is a compromise where Marjane herself is invited to design a uniform that goes midway — rather than to give them the freedom to discard imposed norms when it comes to their choices in dressing. Interestingly, Marjane explains in another panel, that a woman who is going out of the house dressed per the norm is worried and focused more on whether her hair is seen, her makeup might land her in trouble or if the length of her clothes might attract penalties; as opposed to questioning why her freedoms have been taken away from her — thanks to the immediate threat of sanction and violence on her.
Persepolis is a must-read for a narrative that is seldom heard. We often risk homogenization of the “Middle East” as we know it. Although there are similarities in the way women are perceived and treated, it is important to understand what informs these narratives in order to be inclusive and intersectional in the truest sense of the term.