Persepolis' Identity Essay

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Reflective Statement: How was your understanding of cultural and contextual considerations of the work developed through the Interactive Oral?

The interactive oral allowed me to view Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel, Persepolis as more than an interesting story. Before reading the text, my political understanding of the region was limited, yet class discussion allowed me to make stronger connections between the sometimes, incorrect Western perceptions of Iran and the reality of the situation which extends certain social and political freedoms to the general population.

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The interactive oral revealed that during the 1970s, there was social discontent as the economy of Iran was unstable. The fluctuation in Western oil consumption resulted in the recession of the Iranian economy as the biggest source of Iranians’ income was from petroleum revenues. Furthermore, at the same time, socio-political oppression by the regime of Shah Pahlavi was increased. This led to a consequence of protests and demonstrations against the Shah. Political demonstrations were often met with severe censorship, torture, or harassment. As I was biased by the Western report on Iran, I had never considered that the people had fought back against the government. After the discussion, I was able to see Satrapi’s intention was to show that Iranians had not always been oppressed and that they had lived similar lives to ours.

During the class exploration, we discussed Islamic fundamentalism, the impact of religion and politics, and the reasons for the Iranian revolution. The Iranian revolution was related to the political situation in Iran. People were dissatisfied with the Shah’s regime and his reckless westernization. This led me to realize that the graphic novel, Persepolis is greatly influenced by the social, cultural, and political events that took place in the late 1970s.

Moreover, the interactive oral focused on the concept of cultural identity. As an Asian student living in a Western country, the ongoing demonstration of the fight for cultural identity was something that I immediately identified with. The interactive oral highlighted the stripping away of culture that left everybody faceless, forced to hold similar values and attitudes. This enabled me to deepen my understanding that Iranians were prepared to fight for their identities as well as the right to education as individuals. The exaggeration and the grotesqueness of Satrapi’s characterization foreshadow the repressive environment that surrounds her but also demonstrates that Iranians have their own identities. Due to the interactive oral, I not only consolidated my understanding of the Iranian culture but was also able to review my preconceptions.

Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis deals with complex issues surrounding identity and culture. Through the graphic novel, the author depicts her childhood and development to adulthood. Her life is revealed against the backdrop of extreme political upheaval as she struggles to understand who she is and what it means to be Iranian. The first-person perspective initially foregrounds naivety regarding the events, and this is reflected in the simplicity of the illustrations. As the narrative progresses and Marji views herself through the eyes of other cultures, the visuals remain simple but the commentary on identity becomes more complex. The simple visuals are reinforced through the clothing worn by Marji and the women who surround her. The clothing becomes a motif that reveals the broader idea that Iranian identity is complex and rich. Through references to the West, the author contends that people in Western countries view Iranians as two-dimensional fundamental Islamists. As Satrapi gives the everyday Iranian a voice in the graphic novel, she challenges Western perspectives and depicts Iranians as a diverse group of people.

The title of “The Veil” announces that the orientating chapter will foreground the changes that were occurring in Iran. Despite the title implying the importance of the veil in the lives of the women, Satrapi challenges this through her simple illustrations. The orientation is set in the school where students are mandated to wear the veil. Despite the simple visual, the facial expressions are shown to be different. Moreover, beneath the veil, lie different hair styles and behaviors. This invites the readers to see that the veil is merely superficial as their identity is expressed by their different aspects rather than clothing. This idea is reinforced when the main character, Marji says “I 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”. (Satrapi, 6) The image accompanying the protagonist’s struggle with oppression shows the desire to be free. In the image, Marji is bisected. On one side, the Iranian child is covered in traditional Iranian clothing with Iranian script behind her. Beneath the veil, lie the beautiful swirls and decorations associated with Iranian culture. The author’s symbolism invites the reader to see that the clothing is superficial and has not removed the identity associated with culture. This idea is furthered when “everywhere in the streets there were demonstrations for and against the veil” (Satrapi, 5) The older more traditional women seem to be more supportive of the veil while the younger women dressed in Western attire are against it. Satrapi strengthens this idea by having the two groups of women chanting “the veil! The veil!” and “Freedom! Freedom!” (Satrapi, 5) The contrast on the streets parallels the contrast in the visual of Marji. This suggests to the reader that fundamentalism, associated with wearing the veil, was not adopted by the whole population. The young women are articulate and passionate about not wearing the veil. They are prepared to fight and protest to make their point. Even if religious beliefs are strict, women express their own identity and political opinions.

Satrapi’s choices in the section, “Kim Wilde” represent the fact that she has the same preference as Western teenagers. In this section, the black market which trades in Western products is introduced to the reader. Marji, like any other girl in the world, has a desire to adorn herself. She wears Nike shoes, tight jeans, and denim jackets. Her attire is completely Western in style. However, as she is not allowed to have access to the Western culture under the fundamentalist law, the irony is clearly shown when she sings “We’re the kids in America”. (Satrapi, 132) However, the lyrics of the song she murmurs are completely different from the reality of Iran. This is described through the conversation of Marji and the guardians of the revolution. Marji is insulted by them just because of her clothing and they dismiss it as a symbol of decadence. (Satrapi, 133) This conversation forces the readers to realize that Iranian women are not permitted to have preferences under the pretext of religion. Moreover, this is evident when Marji says “I put my 1983 Nikes on and my denim jacket with the Michael Jackson button, and of course, my headscarf.” (Satrapi, 131) Even if Western attire is not allowed, due to the existence of the black market, it seems like she has a choice of what to wear for her shoes or jackets. However, by saying “Of course, my headscarf”, this forces the readers to see that the headscarf is a representation of the façade of the political oppression that restricts her life. Due to the severity of the law, entertainment or simple clothing that is considered universally enjoyable is not accepted. However, the main character challenges this concept by continually wearing Western attire and this represents the way youth and individuals with hope and new ideals overcome these limitations by wearing what they want to wear.

The section called “The socks” in part 2 uses nondescript items of clothing to act as symbols for something more important. The image of Marji in a pair of red socks shows the absurdity of the situation. Marji experienced staying in the Committee room for an entire day because she was wearing red socks. (Satrapi, 304) In the illustration, Satrapi uses 5 lines that emit from the socks to suggest that socks are too obvious and offensive. The socks are representative of the outspoken Iranian youth. The next three images juxtapose the main character’s fears and desires. The thought processes that she goes through as she walks in the street suggest that she is conscious of every move she makes. She questions herself. “Are my trousers long enough? Is my veil in place? Can my make-up be seen? Are they going to whip me?” (Satrapi, 304) Her train of thought reflects the fears of every Iranian who struggled with the smallest act of subversion. The character looks concerned as she considers the rules that she may be breaking. In contrast, in the next frame, the same woman walks away as if she is turning her back on the rules. These two contrasting images are representative of the two distinct character types. One group is prepared to follow the restrictive laws while there will always be another group who fights for the freedoms that they had in the previous system of rule. Yet, the dialogue is much more reflective. Marji is representative of every Iranian woman fighting for change. When she states “Where is my freedom of thought? Where is my freedom of speech? What’s going on in the political prisons?” (Satrapi, 304), the readers can realize that the repressive regime forces people to think about trivialities. The more important questions are those which are far-reaching. The regime can never take away a person’s critical thinking. In this situation, the author has used clothing to explicitly suggest that people in this section, particularly the young Iranians were the victims of the calculated attacks by the guards. This idea is also evident when Marji’s class is not allowed to draw nudes anymore due to the change of the fundamentalist law. Thus, when drawing female figures, the image of a nude art model at the bottom of page 301 is portrayed as being wrapped with a long black veil. The longest veil ever described in this graphic novel represents the absurdity of the Islamic fundamentalist law and the limitations of education. Due to the change of the law that women are not permitted to expose their body parts, the drawing class did not progress as the purpose of the class could not be fulfilled.

In “Persepolis”, the main character, Marji, although having an acceptance of the veil represents the way youth and individuals with hope and new ideals overcome these limitations. Through the motif of clothing, Satrapi enforces the notion that Iranian women are under strict fundamentalist rules, yet they employ critical thinking and rebel against the guardians in uniforms. This wearing of Western attire symbolizes the fight against authority and cruelty. However, religion holds an important place in society and has become strict and regulated. The severity of the fundamentalist law is opposed to the enjoyment of youth, social life, learning, and education, which is considered a human right in other countries. Revolution and the Shah’s regime affected Iranian lives and took away the universal experience to which all should have access. Yet, this graphic novel is complex because it does not only present negative aspects of Iran but suggests hope for the future for Iranians. Women who are repressed show their rebellion by their sometimes, secretive selection of clothing. Satrapi suggests that there is always some way, even if a very small way to fight against an oppressive regime.


  1. Satrapi, Marjane. Mark Haddon, translator. Persepolis. London, Vintage Books, 2008
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