Joanna Sieracka, Construction of national identity in PERSEPOLIS
Still “under Western eyes”? Construction of national identity in “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi
Placed within feminist discourses, “Persepolis,” an autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, is often regarded as a voice of silenced Iranian women. According to Lopamudra Basu, the author of essay “Crossing Cultures/Crossing Genres: The Re-invention of the Graphic Memoir in 'Persepolis and Persepolis 2',” “Satrapi's unique contribution through her graphic memoir is to deconstruct the binaristic model by which the world is increasingly codified, the modern West and the backward East, particularly as these spaces structure and impact the lives of women." Reasoning such a view by referring to the practice of the gaze, traditionally directed by “Western” feminists towards “Third World” women and claiming that the author of “Persepolis” subverts this practice, “proceeding instead to direct this gaze at the hegemonic west and the liberated western feminist as well,” she concludes: "Satrapi's memoir refuses to be 'under western eyes,' it refuses the familiar mode of being read as a text about Iranian women's travails under the dreadful Islamic regime." The main aim of this essay is to question Basu's statement by tracing ways in which Marji, the main character, is situated in terms of nationality. Nonetheless, I am not going to provide full argumentation against Basu's claims, but rather focus on several themes from "Persepolis" to argue that they are not presented in as deconstructionist, non-essentialist and non-homogenising way as Basu suggests. Besides, my focus on themes reflects the structure of the book.
I am focusing on the ways in which Marji's identity in terms of nationality is shaped not only because it is relevant to the aim of questioning Basu's statements; not only because of my assumption that "the public realm cannot be fully understood in the absence of the private sphere, and similarly, the meaning of the original contract is misinterpreted without both, mutually dependent halves of the story." What is the most important, "Persepolis" embodies this concept; as an an autobiography it is open with a short description of history of Iran, which suggests constant intertwinement and interdependence between national and personal. Indeed, this issue seems to be the main theme of the book, since Satrapi presents herself as a political (which also means national) being from her early childhood, the one, whose „early sense of self does not coincide with any seperation of public and private components of identity.” Furthermore, "being born at a tumultous time of Iranian history, even her private dreams and reveries as a child are imbued with a sense of political participation in the public sphere." Wartime, in which the story is set, typically legitmised in the language of nationalisms, takes over both public and private spheres, which results in excessive nationalisation of the personal. Consequently, nationality, as ax of identity, becomes extraordinarily powerful. Finally, Iranian nationalist ideology is presented as extremely oppressive and claiming rights even to woman's body.
Being gendered, based on fixed images of femininity and masculinity and, as Aarmo puts it, „specific heterosexual gender relations,” nationalism is highly exclusive. "A nation is often referred to in female terms and when threatened likened to a female body that needs protection from intruders," and consequently, "the male is symbolized by the soldier, who is willing to die for the nation," whereas female, "who reproduces nation, biologically, culturally and symbolically," is seen as the nation's (or rather its male representatives') possession. Such images are basis of collective national memory, providing framework to both collective and individual identities. Iranian nationalist ideology links memory to collective trauma, expressed in many official mourning practices. Since women are „(…) celebrated as mothers and carriers of the cultural tradition, and men as protectors and providers for the family and the nation,” women are particularly supposed to mourn the national male martyrs.
Satrapi, after one of the funniest part of the book, describing her "initiation" of official mourning rituals, writes: "After a little while, no one took the torture sessions seriously anymore, as for me, I immediately started making fun of them. (…) Every situation offered an opportunity for laughs: like when we had to knit winter hoods for the soldiers… (…) … or when we had to decorate the classroom for the anniversary of the revolution…" By joking and laughing at official mourning rituals, Marji and her female friends develop counter-memory; by rejecting mourning and cult of martyrs, they struggle for agency, resist oppressive fundamental nationalism and refuse to reduce themselves to „markers of authentic cultural and ethnic [and in this case especially national] identity.”
Nonetheless, despite their attempts to remain untouched by nationalist ideology, they are directly touched by war and its repercussions; despite their rejection of ways in which national trauma is expressed, they are traumatised as well and must find their own counter-ways to overcome it. Turning down official collective memory creates need to evoke other memory; refusal to participate in official mourning practices creates need to commemorate other heroes. In search of them, Marji turns to her family, main unit shaping her counter-identity and being a bearer of counter-memory. She is eager to listen to stories of heroic deeds of her family's members, giving her sense of belonging and participating in collective, which in a way is still national. Martyrdom of Marji's grandpa, great-uncle and uncle Anoosh is even a source of strong patriotic feelings (having discovered her father's lack of hope for Iranian victory, she is very angry: "It's the pist! My dad is a defeatist. He's no patriot…," listening to Iranian national anthem she is so moved that she cries, overhearing racist remarks about herself, she blows up: „I'm Iranian and proud of it!”). Process of story-telling, equated with remembering, makes her a bearer of thus created counter-identity. Uncle Anoosh says, "I tell you all this because it's important that you know. Our family memory must not be lost. Even if it's not easy for you, even if you don't understand it all." Thus, Marji becomes a bearer of counter, but still collective identity. Traditional gendered nationalist pattern remains unchanged.
It is clear that even though Satrapi presents alternative ways of building national identities, they are still based on the same gendered images. Such homogeneity has also further repercussions. After her comeback to Iran, Marji, unable to share collective trauma and mourning, goes through nervous breakdown and tries to commit suicide. Crushed by omnipresence of death and martydrom, “surrounded by the victims of a war [she] had fled,” she cannot find any way to readjust. Since it is absurd to compare her Viennese trauma with that crucial to both “official” collective memory and family counter-memory, it is also impossible to express her traumatic Viennese experience using the language of Iranian national/family mourning. Consequently, her trauma remains unspoken. Only seemingly “(…) the private sphere of the family home remains a space of free speech, inquiry, and questioning of events outside,” in fact, this freedom of speech is seriously limited and counter-memory turns out to be as much exclusive as the “official” national one. Thus, once again Satrapi's deconstruction of homogenised image of "Third World" nationalism proves to be far from complete.
Calling the first chapter of her autobiography “The Veil” and dealing with the issue of veiling at the very beginning of the book, Satrapi suggests great importance of covering practices both for her identity and Iranian nationalist discourses. As Cynthia Enlow argues, significance of veil as a guarantee of women's “outward attire and sexual purity,” results from some nationalist male-dominant presumptions, namely: seeing women as: “1) the community's – or the nation's – most valuable 'possessions;' 2) the principal 'vehicles' for transmitting the whole nation's values from one generation to the next; 3) 'bearers' of the community's future generations – crudely, nationalist wombs; 4) the members of the community most 'vulnerable' to defilement and exploitation by oppressive alien rulers; (…) 5) most susceptible to 'assimilation' and co-option by insidious outsiders.”
Consequently, “in Western eyes,” veiling is often a symbol of “Eastern” backwardness and women's oppression. This image is based on harmful cultural and gender essentialism, assumption that “<women> have a coherent group identity within the different cultures discussed, prior to their entry into social relations.” In such essentialising discourses covering practices are seen as inherent component of “Third World” nationalism, with the aim at silencing women, denying them active participation in public life, agency and rights to their bodies, which, being veiled, are treated as belonging to the nation. As Mohanty argues, “To assume that the mere practice of veiling women in a number of Muslim countries indicates the universal oppression of women through sexual segregation not only is analytically reductive, but also proves quite useless when it comes to the elaboration of oppositional political strategy.” When emphasising harmfulness of such a view on veiling practises, it is useful to take over the idea of epistemic violence, used by Ayotte and Husain in their work "Securing Afghan Women: Neocolonialism, Epistemic violence and the Rhetoric of the Veil." They claim that “representations of the women (…) as gendered slaves in need of 'saving' by the West constitute epistemic violence, the construction of a violent knowledge of the third-world Other that erases women as subjects in interational relations.”
Does Satrapi deconstruct this neocolonial, homogenised/homogenising and selectively labeled/labeling image of veiling? To answer this question, I will focus on the second cartoon in the first chapter, depicting four alike-looking, clearly unhappy girls wearing veils. The caption says: "(…)From left to right: Golnaz, Mahshid, Narine, Minna." Can giving names to the girls be equated with giving them voice, agency, saving them from anonymyty? Although Satrapi notices that veil is simultaneously a tool that provides Iranian women with (limited) agency (e.g. not wearing veil, they would not be able to leave their houses; thanks to it Marji can go to school and university; finally properly wrapped, Marji can present her project to the mayor), she does not allow the possibility that wearing a veil itself may result from one's personal (and political) choice and be a sign of agency. According to her, those, who do not rise against veils, must be victims of the supresssive nationalist fundamentalist ideology, lack agency, be manipulated and conformed to the core. Those, who have names, must be unhappy in their veils. By presenting such a view, Satrapi perhaps slightly limits extent of cultural/gender essentialising (probably there is something like “Iranian woman,” but some range of heterogeneity is allowed; all Iranian women are oppressed, but some of them are not brain-washed and silenced enough not to be able to struggle against it), but keeps on “selective labeling” (veil always means imposition and oppression).
Hence, it is clear that Satrapi does not deconstruct this neocolonial representation of Iranian/”Third World” women, but repeats it, exceeding it only by showing women's rejection of veiling. This struggle is conceptualised as significant component of Marji's (and other women presented by her) counter-identity. However, it is always based on yearning for what is “Western.” Thirteen year-old Marji, eager to reject veil, wears as many marks of “Westerness” as possible (denim jacket, sneakers, Michael Jackson button, tight jeans) not only in order to be “hip” but also as a sign of protest. Disappointed with her parents' choice to visit Turkey, Marji says: “Bah… Turkey's for the birds. Only uncool people go to Turkey. If you're taking a trip, why not go to Europe or the United States?!…” After her return to Iran, having met her old friends, dreaming of nightclubs and looking “like the heroines of American TV series,” she says: “I learned that making themselves up and wanting to follow Western ways was an act of resistance on their part.” This list of turning to “Westerness” as a way to shape one's counter-identity, maintain agency and resist oppressive nationalist practices is not exhaustive. Indeed, by overlooking “non-Western” ways of resistance, Satrapi confirms the essentialised distinctions between “West” and “Third World,” which questions Basu's statement: „Satrapi's reworking of autobiography as graphic memoir disrupts the categorization of Iranian female identity as one in direct opposition to modern western female identity, positing one as complete suppression by religious authority and the other as the apotheosis of freedom and individualism.”
Although Satrapi does not paint a rosy picture of “West” and sometimes has ironic attitude towards uncritical yearning for what is “Western,” she still falls into the trap of harmful, essentialised dychotomy “'West equals progress” and “Third World equals backwardness.” Despite the fact that the latter is presented as shaped by the state and nationalist ideology (e.g. "Our revolution set us back fifty years;" „double life” of many Iranian citizens: „The more time passed, the more I became conscious of the contrast between the official representation of my country and the real life of the people, the one that went on behind the walls” meaning that their „backwardness” is only a disguise), it is undeniable that it influences the collective, and, consequently, also individual ways of thinking. When Marji's friend argues that „not even letting [a woman] say one word” is not Iranian peculiarity, Satrapi partly disagrees: „(…) all the laws are on their side!” What is more, her father points at another, highly essentialising and selectively-labeling factor contributing to Iranian backwardness: „We Iranians, we're crushed not only by the government but by the weight of our traditions!”
Although not explicit in the book, it is beyond any doubt that acknowledgement of binaries progressive/backward singificantly contributes to shaping identities. I strongly believe that it is based on harmful post-Enlightenment belief in progress and linear historical development, according to which at the same time, in the same place, we have to do with phenoma being at different stages of historical development; belief, which is Satrapi's non-explicit starting point.
Since axes of identity are not isolated but inter-dependent and nationalism is highly gendered, it is beyond any doubt that Marji's nationality influences her identity as a woman, and, what follows, her relationships, "by definition" based on gender distinctions. In other words, Marji's position in terms of national identity plays an important role in the relations with her partners. Another reason for my focus on the ways in which her Viennese relationship with Markus and Iranian relationship with Reza are shown, is asymmetry between them, often seen as a successful try to deconstruct dychotomy "modern West" versus "backward Third World" and argue that liberalism and gender equality are not typical "Western" values.
Basu, writing about reality presented by Satrapi: "Gender inequality is still a reality in the post feminist west and this is revealed in the multiple ways that Markus exploits Marji (…)," definitely sticks to the simpliest solution. In my opinion ways in which Marji is exploited (demanding remittances sent by her parents, expecting her to visit disreputable clubs to buy drugs, Markus's initial pride of her becoming a drug dealer) reveal acting out by her roles seen as active, "matey," sometimes even masculine. Their relationship, although undoubtedly exploitative, is actually based on principles of gender equality. Markus does not acknowledge Marji's inferior status as a woman, but as a foreigner beyond borders of her country, lacking in support (except of financial) and protection from her family. I strongly believe that in this case the latter, although inseperably connected with the category of gender, is the most powerful ax of Marji's identity and main reason for power inequality between her and Markus and exploitative character of their relationship.
Iranian relationship with Reza, contrasted by Basu with Marji's Austrian affair is shown as an incarnation of principles of gender equality and a perfect example of partnership. Such important criteria as Marji's and Reza's extraordinarily liberal upbringing and privileged position within Iranian society are barely taken into account, whereas I perceive them as significantly shaping their relationship. Furthermore, Marji's direct experience of "West," "Western" relationship, successful overcoming of nervous breakdown and not only presence, but also protection and support from her family contribute to form her subjectivity, raise self-consciousness and agency. All these factors, as well as her in-betweenness, status of "Westerner in Iran" influence her position and make her relationship with Reza significantly different from the previous one. List of these "pecularities" is so long, that its character can easily be perceived as very particular and definitely not representative of "Iranian marriages" in general. In fact, its uniqueness is suggested in "Persepolis" by providing much more examples of "Iranian" gender inequalities and mistreatment of women. Thus, reading this relationship as an exception confirming the rule is justified and Basu's interpretation of "Persepolis" as deconstructivist and de-homogenising once again seems to be mistaken.
Any readings of “Persepolis” as “a voice of silenced Iranian women” cannot be justified, not only because of risk of gender/cultural essentialism involved and moral consequences of speaking “on behalf of” others, which could be equated with denying them agency, but also because of Marji's privileged position. Significance of very particular character of her identity, built by privileged class position, liberal upbringing, pro-communist environment she is brought up in, good education, living in “West,” experience of “Western” education and many other factors, is not to be overestimated. Being a woman from “Third World” does not necessarily ensure subverting the gaze.
Although she attempts to de-homogenise images of “West” and “Third World,” she still presents them in essentialised, based on belief in linear historical progress and binaries progressiveness/backwardness way. The representations of Iran and Iranian women are filled with cultural and gender essentialism and selective labeling. Iranian women, invariably appear as victims of oppressive nationalist regime and although Satrapi allows some ways of women's resistance, struggle for agency and developing some counter-identities, they are still limited, based on yearning for “progressive West” and do not go beyond dominant nationalised models of femininity. Impossibility of alternative is symbolised by Marji's final departure from Iran and her words: “…not having been able to build anything in my own country, I prepared to leave it once again.”
 Marjane Satrapi (2008): "Persepolis. The Story of a Childhood and The Story of a Return." London: Vintage Books.
 Lopamudra Basu (2007) "Crossing Cultures/Crossing Genres: The Re-invention of the Graphic Memoir in 'Persepolis and Persepolis 2'." In: Nebula, 9.
 Ibidem, 9.
 This terminology was introduced by Chandra Talpade Mohanty in her article from 1986. "Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses" is a critique of hegemonic "Western" feminism portraying "Third World" women as a homogeneous category and situating them as victims of some institutions and systems. Aiming at representing the oppressions of "Third World" women, "Western" feminism unconsciously supports its own privileged, exploitative and normative position.
Basu uses Mohanty's idea, as well as the concept of the gaze, as a theoretical basis of her argumentation.
 Lopamudra Basu (2007) "Crossing Cultures/Crossing Genres… ," 9.
 Carole Pateman (1988) "Polity Press." Cambridge and Stanford Press, 4.
 Lopamudra Basu (2007) "Crossing Cultures/Crossing Genres… ," 6.
 Ibidem, 6.
 E.g. veiling practises, raping virgins before execution.
Basu claims that Satrapi deconstructs this image; I will try to argue that the extent of this deconstruction is very limited.
 Margrete Aarmo (1999) "How homosexuality Became 'Un-African': The Case of Zimbabwe." In Evelyn Blackwood and Saskia Wieringa (eds.) Female Desires: Same Sex Relations and Transgender Practices Across Cultures. New York: Columbia University Press, 256.
 Ibidem, 256.
 Nira Yuval-Davis "Gender and Nation." In Inderpal Grewal & Caren Kaplan (2006) An Introduction to Women's Studies: Gender in a Transnational World. McGraw Hill (2nd ed.), 2.
 Margrete Aarmo (1999) "How homosexuality Became… ," 256.
 My concept of gendered character of national memory is based not only on above theories, but basically on pictures of official ways of expressing and overcoming national trauma drawn by Satrapi. Undoubtedly, they repeat traditional topos: women mourning national male martyrs. To show how fixed and normative patterns of femininity and masculinity it implies, it is useful to give some examples:
After her comeback to Iran, overwhelmed by ubiquitous death and cult of martyrs, Marji says to her father: “This afternoon on TV, I saw mothers who were claiming to be overjoyed and gratified by the deaths of their children.” Pointing at TV, one of the most accessible and influencial medium, as well as using plural (“mothers,” “deaths,” “children”), she suggests omnipresence and powerfulness of this image. Second usage of this representation is even more striking. Marji's reproduction of Michelangelo's “Pieta,” a blatant reference to commonly recognized topos, is an act of general acknowledgement of representation of a mother mourning his son dying for motherland. Double presence of this image in this comic box– drawing and description – as well as its big size indicates its great importance. Furthermore, woman in chador presented in the drawing can symbolise not only essentialised “Iranian mother,” but also (according to Aarmo, who claims that: "A nation is often referred to in female terms and when threatened likened to a female body that needs protection from intruders,") motherland or the whole Iranian nation. The very fact that Marji draws such a picture during strictly ideologically-controlled exams in order to get to the university and succeeds, means that it must be in keeping with “official” national policy of images. Besides, this is not the only appearance of this image in “Persepolis.” It can be found also earlier in the book,  as one of the enormous, overwhelming murals, which suggests that such representation must be deep-rooted in nationalist discourse and consciousness of Iranians.
Describing the practise of mourning the war dead in school, Satrapi conludes: “It wasn't as bad as one might think. We'd seen it before”  and refers to similar rituals but instead of girls or women depicts only men. However, when men are depicted, word “mourning” is not used, but replaced by “hitting yourself” or “flagellating brutally.” Their task is not to mourn war dead, but to suffer directly, which, as Satrapi puts it: “sometimes (…) was considered a macho thing.” The binaries: women are mourners and men are martyrs remain unchanged. Consequently, trauma of men is presented as much more direct and embodied than the women's trauma. Men “hitting” and “flagellating themselves,” with chains or knive, are shown in dynamic positions, with open mouths, blooding, whereas girls beating their breasts are depicted in static positions, and seem to be unmoved by the act of mourning. In Marji's reproduction of “La Pieta” soldier dies for the motherland, while his mother suffers because of his loss. Men suffer for the motherland, whereas women suffer for the men's suffering.
 Marjane Satrapi (2008) "Persepolis… ," 97.
 Rosi Braidotti (2008) “In Spite of the Times: the Postsecular Turn in Feminism.” In Theory Culture and Society 25 (6), 7.
 Marjane Satrapi (2008): "Persepolis…," 83.
 Ibidem, 83.
 Ibidem, 199.
 Ibidem, 60.
 Ibidem, 253.
 Lopamudra Basu (2007) "Crossing Cultures/Crossing Genres… ," 7.
 In fact, chapter titled "The Veil" appears in "Persepolis" twice; once at the beginning of the first part and once in the second part of the book.
 Cynthia Enlow "Nationalism and Masculinity" in Inderpal Grewal & Caren Kaplan (2006) An Introduction to Women's Studies: Gender in a Transnational World. McGraw Hill (2nd ed.), 224.
 Ibidem, 224.
 Uma Narayan (2000) "Essence of Culture and a Sense of History: A Feminist Critique of Cultural Identity" in Uma Narayan and Sandra Harding (eds.) Decentring the Center: Philosophy for a Multicultural, Postcolonial, and Feminist World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 82.
 Quoted in: Kevin Ayotte and Mary Husain (2005) "Securing Afghan Women: Neocolonialism, Epistemic violence and the Rhetoric of the Veil." In NWSA Journal, vol. 17 no. 3, 117.
 As the example of epistemic violence, used to legitimise particular ends of neocolonial Western policy, Ayotte and Husain, focused on representations of Afghan women, give what follows: "In claiming to secure Afghan women from the oppression of the Taliban, the United States has reinscribed an ostensibly benevolent paternalism of which we should remain wary. In particular, the image of the Afghan woman shrouded in the burqa has played a leading role in various public arguments seeking to justify U.S. Military intervention in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. This rhetorical construction of Afghan women as objects of knowledge legitimised U.S. Military intervention under the rubrics of 'liberation' at the same time that it masked the root causes of structural violence in Afghanistan." Ibidem, 112.
 I am using the concept of "selective labeling" presented by Uma Narayan in "Essence of Culture and a Sense of History… ."
 Marjane Satrapi (2008) "Persepolis… ," 3.
 In this paragraph I am extending meaning of "veiling" and using it as symbol of oppressiveness of Iranian nationalist practises towards women, which is, as I have argued, exactly how Satrapi conceptualises it.
 Marjane Satrapi (2008) "Persepolis… ," 131.
 Ibidem, 126.
 Ibidem, 261.
 Ibidem, 261.
 Lopamudra Basu (2007) "Crossing Cultures/Crossing Genres… ," 1.
 It results from her direct experience of "Western reality," which is possible only thanks to her privileged class and social position within Iranian society and access to "Western" education. Although her privileged position is acknowledged by Marji at the very beginning of the story, which contributes to de-homogenise image of „Iranian women,” construction of backward "East" and progressive "West" is maintained.
 Marjane Satrapi (2008) "Persepolis… ," 341.
 Ibidem, 306.
 Ibidem, 338.
 Ibidem, 339.
 Ibidem, 341.
 Ibidem, 15.
 Probably as "Third-Worlder in West." This interpretation is suggested by Markus's clear fascination with Marji's racial and ethnic difference, "rebellious side" and "natural nonchalance," [Ibidem, 221] characteristics exoticised as belonging to "the other" and general acknowledgement of her "Third Worldnessness," expressed in many racist attitudes towards her and their inter-racial, and therefore unwelcome, relationship (Markus's mother's, Frau Doctor Heller's, Marji's schoolmates' racist reactions).
 For instance: Reza says: "We are lucky to have parents who accept our relationship. We don't have to see each other in the street like the others! Most families are traditionalists. They are as tyrannical as the state." [Ibidem, 291].
 Marji's specific position as "Westerner in Iran" is clearly appreciated by Reza and may suggest that being attracted by her "otherness," he also slightly exoticises her as "the other."
 I do not claim that Satrapi aims at illustrating „representative Iranian marriage” and I do not demand her do so (usage of expression „representative Iranian marriage” itself probably implies gender and cultural essentialism and unjustified speaking "on behalf of" others); I just want to emphasise that presenting one (very particular and far from „typical”) relationship based on gender equality is not enough to „dispel any facile notions of oppression that stereotypic perceptions of Iran may have generated” as Basu suggest. [Lopamudra Basu (2007) "Crossing Cultures/Crossing Genres… ," 16].
 For instance: when Marji considers divorce, her friend tells her a story of her cousin, who, having divorced, is insulted by men because "From men's point of view, for one thing, their dicks are irresistible, and for another thing, since you are divorced, you're no longer a virgin and you have no reason to refuse them. They have complete confidence!!! Listen, there's nothing surprising about it! Ever since their birth, their mothers have called them <doudoul tala>" [Marjane Satrapi (2008) "Persepolis… ," 334]; Marji's colleague Gila does not let her wife say one word during conversation [Ibidem, 338].
 Speaking "on behalf of" is not necessarily more legitimised than speaking "for." See Ayotte and Husain writing about the position of the speaking subject: (2005) "Securing Afghan Women: Neocolonialism, Epistemic violence and the Rhetoric of the Veil." In NWSA Journal, vol. 17 no. 3, 115-116.
 Marjane Satrapi (2008) "Persepolis… ," 341.