Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel PERSEPOLIS has always been the talk of the readers’ town. The touching memoir of her life has surpassed the graphic representation of the experiences. A woman caught in the web of Islamic values searches for her freedom and finds refuge in the warm memories of childhood. Sonia Roy explores how the world of Islamic women are different from the women of the other corners.
Like most other people I had heard of Persepolis only in random coffee table conversations until my course work on the politics of the veil prompted me to pick up the book as one of the texts in order to explore the historical context of the Hijab, a piece of garment that is currently one of the hotly contested and controversial topics in the twenty-first century. If you are a graphic novel buff then there’s a high chance that you’ve read the book a long time ago; but if you’re like me who took your time in discovering the pleasant surprise that the book is, you’re in for a delight. Persepolis promises to be a fun and engaging read as soon as you begin leafing through its pages.
Marjane Satrapi the author chooses the powerful medium of the graphic novel to tell the story of her growing up years in Iran and takes the reader through a journey to show the phases that she goes through in finding her true self. The cover immediately draws you at the first glance with the image of a contemplating woman and a thought bubble illustrating a childhood memory, giving a sense of nostalgia, a feeling of reminiscence filled with longing.
The black and white colour-coding catches the eye as does the minimalistic design. Besides the cover, the panels contained inside filled with pockets of dialogue and word imagery hook you with such tenacity that you cannot stop reading once you’ve started. The introduction to the book provides a brief sketch of the Iranian civilization from the Second millennium B.C. to the time of the Islamic revolution around 1979. While it does bode well for the uninformed reader to know the historical basics of a nation, the author presents the information as a warning to the readers to not regard Iran as a nation only of fundamentalists and blood thirsty terrorists. Her attempt to challenge and quash this pre-dominant stereotypical concept of Iran shines adequately through her experiences that she vividly illustrates in the panels. Her experience not only provide realistic insight into the actual struggles of the people – first under the shah’s regime and then under the extremist Islamist regime-but also show how they coped with the devastating consequences and protested against the injustice.
We get to know that Marji as a young child was rebellious from the very beginning as her liberal educated family taught her to question, analyse and criticize things as they are- something that most other children weren’t able to do. As a child Marji rebels against the dictatorship, questioning the rules that her schoolbooks propagate, arguing with the teacher on the prominence of the representation of the history of her nation, wearing a Michael Jackson badge and denim jackets, buying tapes of Iron Maiden (a popular western Band during that time) and posters of Kim Wilde. All these little cultural rebellions get her subjected to the censure of the Islamist revolutionaries and her liberalist attempts at emancipation are thwarted, leading to her inevitable transfer to Europe. Not only herself but her parents, grandmother and her beloved uncle Anoosh also rebel against the imposition of the orthodox Islamist rule – each in their own way. Juxtaposed with these rebellions is the slow unfolding of the horrific violence of war and the traumatic experiences of Marji and her family as they lose their loved ones one by one. By the time the reader gets to the second part of the book they almost associate the figure of Marji with rebellion itself, as she struggles to adjust in her new Austrian environment with unknown people, gets confronted with shocking revelations, rejections, heart breaks. Her struggle to come to terms with her Iranian identity and the cultural shock she feels in a foreign land muddles up her understanding of the self for a while and she feels ashamed when she returns to Iran.
The identity question is closely linked up with the veil in Persepolis, especially considering the Iranian point of view. At the beginning we see Marji, seemingly unhappy with the idea of wearing the veil to her school without having a clear idea of it. “I really didn’t know what to think about the veil. Deep down I was very religious but as a family we were very modern and avant-garde” says a young Marji at the beginning of the book. This self-conscious middle grounding of the dialouge around the veil or the hijab informs the larger portion of the story of Persepolis and looms loosely in the background. The fact that the very first chapter of the book is titled “the veil” unloads most of the importance to this particular garment that becomes an influential factor in her formative teenage years.
“The veil” as a separate chapter occurs twice in the book and while the physical veil appears more or less frequently, the figurative oppression it signifies continues to form a presence throughout. The veil becomes a question of qualification for Marji when she endeavours to enter an art school and later it becomes a signifier of moral and religious conduct. However Marji questions this view saying “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 head scarf?
When I was still in school I often wondered why some of the Muslim girls in our glass wore an extra layer of leg covering apart from the usual school socks. Some of them buttoned their shirts right upto their necks. When asked the reason I would be simply told that they were bound to not show any extra skin than what was necessary. Compared to them the boys, be it a Muslim or not, were utterly careless enough to not bother about their generous chest show aided by open shirt buttons. This disparity was bare enough to get me thinking, of how the female body is still seen as something to be ‘covered’, bound and regulated lest they prove fatal to the male species. I had then deep misgivings about the religion itself in general and its treatment of its womenfolk, but over the years experience has taught me that the freedom of the female body is not as fluid as one would like to think it is.
The freedom of expression, of the body and the mind were of utmost importance to the narrator from the very beginning of her life and having learned about the value of one’s own individuality very early on, the narrator leaves no stone unturned to assert herself.
While there were women like Marji who opposed the dictatorial codes; there were also women who happily prescribed to the conservative norms. The seemingly simple debate on the scarf or the headgear was much more complex than what it may seem at first since a lot of women preferred to willingly wear the scarf as a part of their resuscitated identity and religious sanctity. The ability of the hijab to form an ambiguous symbol of oppression and empowerment simultaneously remain one of the main ontological problems even today and remind us that the veil is more often than not a double edged sword. In an August 2016 interview with Emma Watson for Vogue, Satrapi was asked if both the hijhab and Islam are anti-feminist to which she quoted Simon de Beauvoiur “You are not born a woman; you become a woman.” and said “…you are not born a man either—you become a man, as society teaches you how to behave. On one hand, I hate the veil because they force me to put it on my head and I hate it. On the other hand, who am I to say to somebody who wants to put a scarf on her head, “Don’t do it”?
Satrapi chose to keep her comic book in strictly monochromatic tones. The simplistic style of her panels and the saturated black ink helped her to fit all of her words without making it too cluttered. The panels being richly loaded is complemented perfectly with a mellow spatial design- a task that wouldn’t have been possible with a vivid colour-palette. Despite Satrapi’s emphasis on the feminine perspective in her novel, she never for once lets reader feel wearied with her arguments. Her narrative remains peppered with delightful humour and injects a coming of age vibe into the story through the misadventures of Marji as she explores the extensive sea of life one sea wave at a time.
Title Art by Trinamoy Das
Next Post on 21st June