One of the themes that Satrapi returns to throughout Persepolis is the role of women within the regime. In a nation paranoid over being perceived as ‘feminine’, Satrapi witnesses a country experiencing “ a terror over losing proper gender (‘no longer being a real or proper man’ or ‘no longer being a real and proper woman’), it seems crucial to retain a theoretical apparatus that will account for how sexuality is regulated through the policing and the shaming of gender” (Butler, 620), and gender shaming is used to repress and cause guilt for women rather than the men. Satrapi details an incident in which she is singled out and shouted at through a loudspeaker in the street, “The lady in the blue coat!!! Stop running! Hey – blue coat! Stop running!” (303) not only is she singled out for her appearance and announced in front of the whole street, her description is reduced simply to “blue coat”. Her outfit and actions are criticised rather than the blame resting with the soldiers watching her- “When you run, your behind makes movements that are…how do you say…obscene!” (303) – so that the process of naming her as obscene traps her and publicly humiliates her in that role, using “statements that, in the uttering, also perform a certain action and exercise a binding power” (Butler, 611). To shame women who walk alone in the street creates an atmosphere of fear and guilt which essentially achieves a step backwards for the country in women’s liberation, constructing and persuading its people to conform to non-threatening behavioural patterns.
Simone de Beauvoir is a role model and influence for Marjane in Persepolis, though she finds the texts more difficult to understand than her mother, this again being symbolic of feminism in Iran regressing. Marjane struggles to engage as a young teenager with the forward-thinking gender observations in de Beauvoir’s work; “As an Iranian woman, before learning to urinate like a man, I needed to learn to become a liberated and emancipated woman,” (177) showing the extent to which a modern Iranian women struggle to bring modern feminisms into their lives. As the regime first comes into Satrapi’s consciousness as a child, she instantly appreciates the repercussions for her own life; “Misery! At the age that Marie Curie first went to France to study, I’ll probably have ten children…” (73) there is a recognition here of the power of language and the enforcement of law, as they can trap a generation of young women into the domestic sphere. The use of Marie Curie is of course a poignant example, as the Iranian teenage girls under the regime are forever removed from the world of science, discovery, and progress.
Butler states that performative language is only “a reiterated acting that ispower in its persistence and instability. This is less an ‘act’, than a nexus of power and discourse that repeats or mimes the discursive gestures of power.” (611) the example of this that Butler gives is the citation of law by a judge – that power comes from the use and reference to the particular law that is being applied. In the situations that arise from the use of language as performative power, the laws that are cited are both those of the country and religious laws that are cited not only by judges, but by any person wishing to take on authority. This is particularly relevant in Satrapi’s text in the section where she is detained by “Guardians of the Revolution, the women’s branch. This group had been added in 1982, to arrest women who were improperly veiled,” (132) The women in the drawings are represented as ignorant in their prejudices “It was obvious that she had no idea what punk was” (133), suggesting that the women of the revolution are attempting to possess the performative power that the language of law and religion allows the men. In this social context, in which those with even the vaguest knowledge of the holy law can get others arrested, potentially executed, these judgemental women are in possession of an entirely different kind of power.
This part of the text reminds the reader very strikingly of the role of fundamentalist women in the regime; they are led to feel more powerful, as power can be gained through deference to husbands and religious leaders, yet these women who patrol the streets arresting younger girls are essentially only tools. Simone de Beauvoir described religion as “much less an instrument of constraint than an instrument of deception,” (119) when it comes to women, and this idea seems to come through very strongly in the text. The women’s ignorance of the West described by Satrapi makes their criticism come across as blind and unjust, suggesting that it is almost a betrayal of their sex. Crucially, they have taken this position as willing volunteers, both out of malice and out of a deception by fundamentalist leaders. As women trapped in a situation where religion is the only form of power, they find “holiness in renouncing the flesh, in playing the martyr, in crushing every living impulse around her” (de Beauvoir, 120), following themes of women sacrificing themselves for the family unit, which in this case is represented by the religious order. The regime has given them a new existence, deceiving them that “the binding power of words is derived from the force of will” (Butler, 611), and yet “it is through the citation of the law that the figure of the judge’s ‘will’ is produced” (Butler, 611). The power is not actual, but brought through the repetition of half-understood dogma.
de Beauvoir, Simone. “The Second Sex.” Modern Criticism and Theory. Ed. David Lodge and Nigel Wood. Harlow: Pearson Education, 1988. Print.
Butler, Judith. “Bodies that Matter.” Modern Criticism and Theory. Ed. David Lodge and Nigel Wood. Harlow: Pearson Education, 1988. Print.
Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis. London: Vintage, 2008. Print.