In this life you’ll meet a lot of jerks. If they hurt you, tell yourself that it’s their own stupidity that makes them act that way. That will keep you from responding to their meanness. There’s nothing worse in this world than bitterness and revenge. Hold your head up and stay true to yourself.
Those are the wise words that a young girl — about to set off for a new life alone in a foreign country — hears from her loving grandmother and takes to heart.
Persepolis — in both its book and film incarnation — is just a cartoon. Yet it is one of the most fascinating, powerful, and moving narrative works I’ve ever read.
Its simplicity is its beauty. The book opens with a ten year old girl who had been attending a secular school that changed — from one year to the next — to a gender-segregated school where the girls are required to cover their heads with scarves. It’s hard to imagine what that would be like, but a picture is worth a thousand words, and if you know anything about kids, then you understand immediately from this:
The story illustrates two different parallel lines of evolution: the life of main character Marjane, growing and learning like a normal kid, and story of the political and cultural situation in Persia, otherwise known as Iran. As unfamiliar as the situation will be to most westerners (dramatic loss of freedom, political demonstrations that turn deadly, imprisonment, torture, and execution of friends and family members for political reasons, bombs and missiles falling on their neighborhood, their small daily rebellions against the Islamic authorities, etc.), the reader (or viewer) can nonetheless relate because Marjane and her family react in a way that makes sense, and that anyone can understand; their affection and their concerns seem very real. In the early part of the story — while Marjane’s parents are participating in the revolution and corresponding upheaval — Marjane and her little friends naturally are playing games based on what they see around them. As the story progresses, we see her comprehension of the situation start from a child’s level and grow from there.
As a young teen, Marjane is too outspoken to remain safely in the Islamic state of Iran, so her parents send her to Europe. At this point, the author has done such an effective job of bringing her terrifying wartime experience to life that the reader — who likely would relate more easily to the relatively sheltered European kids — can sense how foreign the place seems to her and can understand her feelings of isolation at being surrounded by people whose lives and backgrounds are so completely different from her own.
Many of Marjane’s experiences and adventures might just as easily have happened to a male character born into a similar family. (Note that she was born into a relatively well off and highly educated family, so she didn’t have to deal with sexist restrictions and religious indoctrination from her parents — the family made her education a priority.) A boy in this situation would have had more worry about in terms of being sent to his death in the bloodbath that was the Iran/Iraq war. But a person of either gender would have a similar level of danger of being imprisoned and executed for political activism, or even of being randomly captured by an Islamic patrol and punished by whipping. The author illustrates this (along with showing what being terrified for one’s own survival can do) when the main character sees a patrol arrive, and in order to avoid being arrested for wearing bright red lipstick she deflects the officers’ attention towards a different target by pretending that a random bystander made a lewd remark to her.
Yet, even though a male character might have had some parallel adventures, this is very much a woman’s story throughout, in terms of the particular restrictions she has to face as well as in terms of her personal relationships and interactions. For example, upon returning to Iran after her years passed in Europe, she can’t relate to her girlfriends anymore because their interests have turned entirely towards fashion and glamor. As Marjane realizes that her friends’ efforts to do themselves up in western styles is a type of rebellion on their part (against the Islamic theocracy), I see a standard conflict that feminists everywhere face: different choices represent freedom for different women.
Additionally, there’s no male parallel for the story of being the person inside the chador (like a burqa, but not quite). We see the physical inconvenience of having to remain covered as well as psychological effects as it separates men from women as different types of beings. Particularly striking is the way that the more the main character is required to cover up, the more the morality police feel justified in increasing the restrictions further. At one point when Marjane is late for an appointment she gets stopped for running because it supposedly makes her butt move in an indecent manner. It’s clear that there is no perfect modesty level for women such that there’s no danger of accidentally tempting men. Modesty is relative, and human arousal doesn’t just fade away in the absence of one particular cue or another. The story illustrates this when a Kuwaiti immigrant mistakes Marjane for a prostitute (even though she’s fully shrouded from head to toe) merely because she’s drinking a coke and walking down the street unaccompanied. (Here she also points out that women in Iran have relatively more freedom than women in the Arab states.)
I would recommend both the book and the film version of Persepolis. Both cover the same story, but they give slightly different details, giving some episodes a slightly different flavor. The book exists in English, and if the film has not yet been released in the U.S. and/or other anglophone countries, I assume it will be soon. The book gives more detail on many points, but the film’s added visual effects and music give a new dimension to the atmosphere of the story.