Political Oppression Of Women Through Religious Exploitation In Persepolis: The Story Of A Childhood By Marjane Satrapi


This research paper deals with political oppression of women through religious exploitation at the hands of state government. The main focus of this study is to highlight the use of religious ideologies as a tool to exercise control in the French-Iranian animated film Persepolis: the story of a childhood. The film is based on an autobiographical graphic novel by a French-Iranian writer Marjane Satrapi. The novel gives voice to the double marginalization of women during the political turmoil in Iran. However, this research paper analyzes the film in order to highlight the exploitation of religious practices for political ends that result in loss of identity in Iranian women. Thus, the aim of the researcher in conducting this research is to expose the oppression and discrimination, as depicted in the film, faced by women in the backdrop of war and Islamic Revolution.

Persepolis tells the story of a smart, independent girl growing up in a secular Iran in the late 1970s. It gives a clear indication of what happened to women in the wake of Islamic revolution and years of war in their homeland through the character of Marji. Marji, an only child, grows up in a progressive family under the heavy influence of her strong mother and grandmother. After the 1979 Revolution, a repressive Islamic regime took over, forcing women to wear veils in public. Marji refuses to give up her sense of self and resisted the oppression in whatever way she could. This includes mouthing off to teachers when forced to recite religious doctrines, wearing nail polish and denim jacket that is forbidden, and putting on Michael Jackson button when anything that is Western is not allowed. The film deals with the religio-political circumstances of Iranian society, articulating Satrapi’s views on post-revolution Iran and Institutionalization of Islam for political agendas.

When Marjane reaches 14 her parents become acutely worried about her safety in the country’s hostile circumstances. She is sent to Austria in order not to get arrested and executed because of her independent mindset. She returns back to Iran after four homesick years in Austria and attends art school at the university. After all these years, Marji is still unable to stop speaking up and out against the injustices and atrocities of the authorities. A particular incident of her rebellious behavior from the film is discussed here. One day the students were called to a lecture entitled “moral and religious conduct” where girls were told to wear even longer scarves, less wide trousers and no makeup so as not to tempt men. This was a direct attack on women’s freedom to dress code. The “moral and religious conduct” was enforced on women through religion.

This paper is intended to look into different incidents in the film that indicate issues of political oppression of women through institutionalization of religion. Moverover, Althusser’s theory of Idelogy and Ideological State Apparatuses is applied in order to reveal the mechanics of such an institutionalization. In making the veil obligatory and by imposing laws that curtail women’s freedom, the totalitarian regime, in the name of Islamic Revolution, represses the sexuality of women and represses their chances for the development of an individual identity. In doing so, the state uses Religion as an Ideological State Apparatus. However, Marjane refuses to conform and stands up to question the administration:

You don’t hesitate to comment on us, but our brothers present here have all shapes and sizes of haircuts and clothes. 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.

Discussion and Analysis

Issues of Religious Exploitation and Oppression of Women

Persepolis deals with the oppression of women at the hands of state government which uses religious ideologies as a tool to exercise control. Students are taught false ideologies in the name of religion. In the film, Marji, her mother, and her grandmother stand up against this oppression to assert themselves as citizens who are worthy of fair treatment in a society that treats women as second-class citizens.

From early childhood Marji is curious and rebellious, yet she is religious and wants to be a prophet. Her mother is adamant about providing Marji with information about her country and the new changes. She is furious about the law that requires women to wear a veil, but men do not have to change their appearances. She is teaching her daughter to form independent thoughts and opinions about her culture and the new political atmosphere of Iran, which helps Marji become a strong, feminist woman.

In 1982, the political oppression becomes much worse. The girls at school are told to wear veils and behave in a decent way. “The Veil stands for freedom. A decent woman shelters herself from men’s eyes. A woman who shows herself will burn in hell. Our soldiers die every day on our borders to save our dear land from indecency.” Such was the ideology that was being inculcated in the minds of public in order to exercise control over them.

The exploitation and oppression does not only happen through political agents but also by men in the society. The new rules and laws give men extra control over women, resulting in double marginalization of women. For example, one day Marji’s mother walks out of a store and is approached by a bearded man who says “your scarf, sister.” Marji turns away. The man gets angry, “you, woman!” he shouts. Marji is enraged at being talked to in such a disrespecting manner. She replies, “Sir, you don’t say “woman”, you say “ma’am”. Show some respect please.” The man humiliates her saying, “Respect you? I screw women like you and dump them in the trash”. This shows that the State has enforced laws for women but not on men. They can publically humiliate a woman even if she is veiled.

Soon the war breaks out and the condition worsens. Marji, however, is still a bold and undaunted girl. She wears a denim jacket with the phrase “Punk is not dead” written at the back. She also wears sneakers and a Michael Jackson badge. She goes out to the black market to buy a tape. She is well aware that the state has banned all sorts of entertainment and western products, yet she risks going to a black market against the law. While Marji is in the market there is a raid. All the sellers run away and two women start inquiring Marji. She is threatened to be taken to a jail because of her jacket and sneakers, despite the fact that she is wearing head scarf and full length gown. One of the woman calls her a slut. Marji makes up a story of her mother’s death and a stepmother’s cruelties to escape. Marji realizes how oppressed she is. Her childhood is ruined and her freedom is curtailed just because she is a girl.

In the meanwhile the Iran-Iraq war prevailed. People went to parties at each other’s place in secret. That was the only freedom left for them. They were making wine in the basements, taking alcohol to the parties, playing cards. Women used to dress liberally at these parties. They were playing a dangerous game because raids were common and people were imprisoned for acting against the law. Women were either whipped or fined for their “misconduct”.

A girl named Niloufar is executed because she lives at the house of a man for whom her brother works. Her liberal behavior gets her killed. Marji’s parents get concerned about Marji because they know that she is liberal. She rebukes her teacher in the school for preaching government’s false ideals to the students. Her mother chides her when the principle calls at her house. She gets worried because she knows Marji is out spoken and the government is intolerant towards freedom of expression of a woman. She gets angry and asks “Do you know what they do to young girls? You know what they did to Niloufar? It’s illegal to kill a virgin so a guard married her and took her virginity first. You know what that means? If they touch you I’ll kill them.”

Persepolis has a certain focus on women. It looks at the different roles women play. From the role Marji plays to the role of her grandmother. Whenever a book focuses on the role of women it is engaging the reader in feminist criticism. Stereotypically, women are expected to carry themselves in a certain way, they are not supposed to stand out or speak up about issues. Well this was not the case for Marji and her mom. Marji’s parents demonstrated against the king and Marji begged them to take her with them. Even at a young age, Marji had morals and something to stand up and fight for.

Marji doesn’t care about getting in trouble. She refuses to be like the rest of the women. She won’t let men decide what she can or can’t wear. She stands up against it and is a role model for other women. When Marji was growing up, it was different from some of her peers. Her family was open and talked about certain issues with Marji. For an Iranian mother, Marji’s mom was very permissive, open and liberal. She has raised Marji to be strong and not to rely on others. The issues she had been through in her life, shaped Marji into the woman she has become. An important event in her life is her move to Austria. Her parents decided it would be best for her to leave Iran and go live in Austria because of extremely oppressive condition of Iranian Government and the suppressed place of women in the society.

Marji struggles with the move into Western culture. She felt isolated in the beginning and had no friends. “For a while going to the supermarket was my favorite pastime… I needed to make friends fast.” So she made new friends who were different from her old friends. She told them about Iran and they were fascinated by her “exotic” and “wild” stories. She says “I was the center of attention for the “outsiders”… I was soon part of the gang. Momo introduced me to nonchalance, the concept of forced nihilism, and Vienna’s sub-culture.” But as Marji grows up she realizes that she’s not one of them. She gets rid o her veil as soon as she’s in Vienna. She adopts the European culture and dress code.

Marji undergoes acute identity crisis while in Vienna. She talks to a guy in a club and lies about her identity by saying that her name is Marie and she’s French. Later on she is haunted by her Iranian past and a guilty conscience makes her question her identity. She denied her roots. In her imaginary conversation with her Grandmother she says “Do you think it’s easy being Iranian here? If I say I am, they treat me like a savage. They think we’re all violent, bloodthirsty fanatics.”

Barzegar (2012) points out that a well established stereotype familiar to a Western audience is that of the veiled woman as a sexual and exotic object. The colonial fantasy often centers on females “veiled by the chador” in and depicted as “nondescript, obliterated, silenced”. Although Marji is no longer wearing a veil, she is subjected to discrimination as the “other” in the European eyes. While sitting in a restaurant, Marji overhears a group of girls talking about her. The girls talk about the lie that Marji tells a guy about her nationality being French. The girls laugh and one of them says “Have you seen her? Who would believe she’s French?” Marji gets angry and shouts at them, “Shut up you bitches! Yes I am Iranian and I am proud of it.” She finally reclaims her Iranian identity that she has been denying, “After three years in Austruia, I felt good at last.”

Marji experiences so much while her stay in Austria. She experiences failed love affairs and has nowhere to go, spends several nights in the streets and nearly dies due to Bronchitis. Eventually Marji returns to her homeland, Iran. But she realizes that “I was a stranger in Austria and now I am one in my own country.” Marji goes through Diaspora and a lack of belongingness. She continues her education. One significant event occurs when all the students are sitting in a seminar held by four men telling women how to behave. “We simply cannot behave badly… I’d like the young girls here to wear narrow trousers and longer headscarves. They should cover their heir and not use makeup…” Marji stands up and replies, “You talk about our scarves and trousers, you say we shouldn’t use makeup, etc. As an art student I am often in the studio. I need to move freely in order to draw. A longer scarf would hinder me. You say our trousers are too wide even though they hide our shape, since trousers are the fashion right now. Is religion defending our integrity or is it opposed to fashion? You criticize us, yet our brothers here have different haircuts and clothes. Sometimes we can even make out their underwear. Why as a woman should their tight clothes have no effect on me, while a shorter headscarf arouses them?” This dialogue provides a sharp contrast between choices and freedom of women and the freedom of appearance given to men. The state deliberately exploits religious ideologies in order to oppress women.

Things get worse back home. As soon as she arrives in Iran a man instructs her to fix her veil. Once she’s getting late for University so she went running. Two police officers stop her and tell not to run because “your back moves in an obscene way”, Marji yells, “So don’t look at my ass!” and runs.

The oppressive situation of Iran and an unhappy love marriage leading to divorce make her leave Iran again, and for good this time, and go to France. The life of a divorcee in a religiously and politically oppressive Iran is a living hell as confirmed in Marji’s friend’s sister’s case, “As soon as she was divorced every man wanted to sleep with her… Men all think their dick is irresistible for women and that a divorcee won’t refuse since she’s not a virgin.”

The Semiotics of Persepolis: the Story of a Childhood

According to Barthes (1994), semiotics is the study of how people make meaning through both linguistic and non-linguistic ways. It is a philosophical theory concerned with understanding how people use signs and symbols in meaning-making. In Persepolis, Marji has intended the images to amplify the philosophies and ideas that she wanted to convey. Focusing on specific details amplifies the meaning of a symbol. There are numerous symbols that give meaning to the film and articulate the underlying ideas.

In the following picture, all of the girls look similar. The differences between them are very small and subtle. The image portrays the idea of “amplification through simplification” (Fig.1). All of the girls were meant to conform to the same set of standards and with little or no room for deviation. This image is of Marji’s class in the school but it could represent any class of girls in Iran at that time.

The expressions of the girls show their reactions to the veil that imposed on them.

The above image is highly symbolic. Marji is in the center of two oppressive agents imposing political and religious agendas on women. The way the women are bending over her, and their facial expressions and bearing looks abominable. Marji has nowhere to escape. This is the symbolic representation of how oppressed women felt in Iran at that time of political oppression through religious exploitation.

Another important theme in Persepolis is Modernism vs. Fundamentalism. The perceptions of West about the Third World Women being weak and “veiled” and narrow-minded are juxtaposed to the strong, independent and liberal women who stand up against the oppressive laws. Marji’s appearance while in Austria is the modernist image of Iranian women, whereas, an oppressed and veiled Marji symbolically represents women in Iran who are forced by State to cover their head and body.

The inequality of sexes is perpetuated by imposing laws on women regarding decent and controlled public conduct. Men however are not supposed to behave in any away. They are oppressed in political arena but the government does not marginalize them as it does to women. A bearded man with prayer beads string in his hand can disrespect a woman in the street.


Finally Marji left and decided not to return. Having to live during wartime, the impact of a revolution, and watching fellow countrymen die have to change a person. At that time in the film, some women thought it would be easier just to conform to the new leaders and wear the veil, but Marji thought otherwise. “Marji certainly wasn’t a follower. She lived her life the way she wanted to, the way she was raised.”

The purpose of Persepolis is to show Satrapi’s exploration of her own identity, and to give a view of the Iranian people untainted by Western media or political rhetoric, from her parents’ Westernized outlooks to their creation of a strong moral centre within Satrapi. Satrapi articulately works to show her own perception of Iranian women and their subjection to political oppression in the name of religion, and display the idea that people should refrain from defining the identity of a multi-dimensional entity such as a nation by a single institution such as a government. Persepolis educates and endears its Western audience to look at Western women not as a monolith but as individual persons having different histories, cultures, political circumstances and institutional influences.

09 March 2021
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