Above: Marjane Satrapi. Below: links to secondary readings for our discussions about Persepolis. These are required.
I am also ripping this article, authored by Nesta Ramazani, in its entirety from Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 24.1 (2004) 278-280. Note that it does not discuss the second volume of Persepolis.
Recently there has been a spate of books written by Iranian women living in exile recounting their painful, tortured experiences following the Iranian revolution of 1979. Persepolis and Reading Lolita in Tehran are two such works that have made best-seller lists and been widely acclaimed. Such an accomplishment by two very different Iranian writers is remarkable indeed. What is even more remarkable, however, is that these women have written memoirs at all. For in a culture where a woman’s “modesty” affects not only her own reputation but also that of her extended family, it has long been considered improper for a woman to expose her personal inner life or that of her family to public scrutiny. It is not surprising, therefore, that autobiographical works by Iranian women are rare, that they are a recent phenomenon, and that most such works have been published not in Iran, but in the West.
First published in France, Persepolis has won a number of prestigious awards. It has been translated into Persian, German, Swedish, and English and has sold 150,000 copies. In this charming, humorous memoir, Marjane Satrapi not only narrates, but illustrates in comic-strip form the political turmoil that marked her early years growing up in Iran in the 1970s and 1980s. The child of educated, Westernized Iranians, she depicts, from a child’s eye view and with a biting wit, the confusion and contradictions of life under an authoritarian regime—whether that of the Shah or of the Islamic Republic. Taking pride in the members of her family who were persecuted and imprisoned for their resistance to the Shah’s authoritarian rule and having witnessed her parents’ participation in anti-Shah demonstrations, she rejoices with them at the eventual overthrow of the monarchical regime. But her joy is short-lived, for before long, a new tyranny rears its ugly head—that of the Islamic Republic.
A spunky, spirited girl, Marjane demonstrates a reckless courage in sassing her teacher, wearing Nike shoes, sporting a Michael Jackson badge, and joining like-minded friends in dancing to punk rock. During the Iran-Iraq war, as Iraqi bombs begin to fall on Tehran, as news from the front gets worse and worse, as more and more young men are sent to certain death in minefields holding keys that [End Page 278] will “guarantee” them entrance to heaven, as repression and arrests increase, Satrapi and her family cover their windows with dark curtains and continue to party, to make and drink alcohol, to play chess, to live one life in public and another in private. But when missiles destroy their next-door neighbor’s house, killing Marjane’s childhood friend and her family, Marjane’s parents decide to send her abroad.
Thus, at the age of fourteen she is torn away from her loving parents, her extended family, and all her closest friends. Her parents send her to live in Vienna where she attends a French school. Four years later she returns to Iran, but eventually departs again, to study illustration in Strasbourg, then to take up residence in Paris. There she has written a sequel to this book as well as writing and illustrating children’s books.
Satrapi is proud of her Iranian cultural heritage and decries the fact that in much of the West all Iranians are branded as “fanatics,” “terrorists,” or worse. She hopes her memoir, in its depiction of middle-class Iranians’ struggles against tyranny, will help to counter such stereotypes and prejudices.
Reading Lolita in Tehran also deals with survival under an oppressive regime and recounts women’s methods of resistance to the tyranny of the mullahs’ stifling of individualism and freedom of opinion. Azar Nafisi grew up in Iran but left her homeland in the 1970s, first to go to school in England and Switzerland, then to college in the United States.. She returned to Iran just as the Shah’s regime was collapsing. Like many middle-class Iranians, she had opposed the Shah’s repressive dictatorship with its control of political life, its secret police (SAVAK), its stifling of all opposition, its imprisonment and torture of dissidents, but had never expected an even more repressive regime to take its place.
Returning to Tehran to take up a teaching post even as the monarchy was crumbling, Nafisi saw Islamic fundamentalists slowly but surely taking control of the reins of power. She fumed as progressive forces were suppressed in efforts to purge Iran of “decadent” Western culture. She participated in demonstrations that turned violent and bloody, and watched in disbelief as Revolutionary Guards and police took over the grounds of the University of Tehran, leading to the eventual closing of the university. Faculty and staff were required to continue to be at the university and to offer projects to the Committee on the Cultural Revolution. But when veiling became compulsory and the university insisted that Nafisi wear the veil, she refused to do so and resigned her post. Random arrests and executions followed, then the senseless war with Iraq. Nafisi no longer recognized the country she loved and to which she had longed to return.
Unemployed, Nafisi immersed herself in reading and in writing articles and translating poems from English to Persian. She had two children, a daughter and a son. As the initial fervor of the revolution cooled, the government realized it needed the services of its educated elite to teach a growing student body. Several universities including the University of Tehran, invited Nafisi to teach, but she declined to return to her full-time teaching position and only taught a course or two at other universities where classroom discussions of works by Jane Austen and Henry James turned into diatribes against Western “corruption” and sanctimonious extolling of “Islamic” virtue.
In the fall of 1995 Nafisi resigned from her last academic post and started a private reading group in her own home, where she met once a week with a select group of seven female students to discuss the works of Austen, Nabokov, Henry James, Mark Twain, and others. She undertook this task in the full belief in the “magical power of literature” to transform lives and ease the anguish of living under repressive circumstances where every sphere of life was controlled by autocratic rule. In her book Nafisi intertwines the personal lives of the students with those of the fictional characters they were studying. She draws a parallel, for example, between the clerical regime’s chokehold on the lives of her students and Nabokov’s Lolita in which, she says, the tragedy at the heart of the story “is not the rape of a twelve-year-old by a dirty old man but the confiscation of one individual’s life by another”(33).
This is a well-written and engrossing book. However, in her passionate devotion to the authors whose works she teaches, Nafisi devotes an inordinate number of pages to literary analysis of the Western works she and her students studied. This fact has already been criticized by others. I will simply add here that a reader unfamiliar with Persian literature will reach the last page of this book without any inkling that there exist many contemporary works written by Iranian women the reading of which could have been an equally subversive act as reading Nabokov. The likes of Forough Farrokhzad, Simin Behbahani, Shahrnoush Parsipour, and Simin Daneshvar are never mentioned, even in passing. Nafisi thus seems to make the reading of Western literature the necessary requisite for redemption and liberation of the mind.
There is a further irony here. Even as Nafisi taught Jane Austen and other nineteenth-century British and American works of fiction as an “affirmation of life” and a way “to avenge ourselves on those who controlled our lives,” Edward Said, in his Culture and Imperialism, contends that the nineteenth-century English novel unwittingly but systematically helped to gain consent for British imperialist policies, of which Iran had had more than its share—a fact that was, in part, responsible for the virulent anti-Western policies of the Iranian revolutionaries.
While in Iran Nafisi had a mentor, a former university professor, who became her intellectual friend and advisor. She refers to him as her “magician.” At one point he [End Page 279] admonished her to “stop blaming the Islamic Republic for all our problems” (277). I would like here to reiterate that admonition. Nafisi seems to forget that many of the problems her students encountered were products of a deeply traditional, patriarchal society coming abruptly face-to-face with modernity and all that it implies. She tends to overstate the pre-revolutionary status of women as one when women lived “under laws that were among the most progressive in the world regarding women” (27). In fact, family law under the rule of the Shah remained governed by Shari’a (Islamic law), with only slight modifications brought about by the Family Protection Act. Laws governing divorce, alimony, child custody, payment of “blood money,” testimony in a court of law, and other issues were all governed by Shari’a then as they are now, although under the Islamic Republic they have been admittedly carried out in more draconian ways.
Nafisi similarly overlooks the fact that in pre-revolutionary days the women who enjoyed the benefits of pursuing educations and professions were a relatively small number of women, mostly from the elite, upper and middle-classes. One would never guess from reading this book that Iranian women’s educational opportunities have expanded, that they today enjoy an exceptionally high rate of literacy, are the beneficiaries of one of the most successful family planning programs in the world, and constitute sixty-three per cent of university entrants and roughly fifteen per cent of university faculty members. Nor would one guess that Iran has a female vice-president, a female advisor to the president and thirteen female members of parliament, and that women are at the forefront of a nascent, widespread democratic movement in Iran. So little is known in the West about these advances of Iranian women that it is small wonder that Shirin Ebadi’s winning of the Nobel Peace Prize was met by a worldwide “Shirin who?”
Given the stereotyping of Iranian women in the West, especially in the United States, it would have been far more instructive for Western readers if Nafisi had placed her personal story within the much wider and more profound context of the long history of the Iranian people’s struggle for democracy and human rights, a struggle that has reached an unprecedented pitch in face of increasingly repressive governance by the powerful conservative players in Iranian social and political life. As true as Nafisi’s personal story might be, her personal setbacks in no way negate the irreversible progress that the democratic reform movement, led so significantly by women, has made in modern Iranian history.