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The Veil (as told by the girl who bought a copy of The Complete Persepolis for $15 on

hwink's picture
          Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novels, now compiled as The Complete Persepolis, set out to do a couple of things. One was to tell her own story. The other was to humanize Iranians for the Western world. “I had to find a way to write a story about this place which could be appealing for people,” Satrapi says, speaking compellingly on her frustration at the lack of understanding  she encountered in France of what it meant to be Iranian. Satrapi accomplishes this goal remarkably well. Persepolis has  enjoyed immense success in the Western world, where the coming of age story of a young Iranian girl is ostensibly an incredibly alien one. But Satrapi’s story, as it turns out, is pretty marketable, becoming a best-seller and being made into a movie. Young Marjane must be sympathetic to many, for Persepolis to have been so successful. She is, for instance, highly sympathetic to me-- a Westerner, a white teen-aged American girl who identifies as a feminist.

          For Satrapi, the veil is not particularly important. Speaking in an NPR interview in December of 2007, she says that to her, the veil “has never been the real issue, you know. The real issue, you know, that is for me is the human rights, it's the freedom of expression.” Yet, the very first chapter of Persepolis is entitled “The Veil.” The reality is, on some level, “the veil” has become the symbol of conversation surrounding women in Iran, women in the Middle East, women who are Muslims. Satrapi has to talk about the veil because Persepolis is for us, us Westerners who are the intended audience for the narrative that Satrapi gives us, those of us who care to read the story of a young girl growing up in Iran. It’s what we want to know. It is what we demand to be told about, so it’s the story that she tells us first.

          Satrapi’s treatment of the veil in Persepolis seems to pretty neatly align with most of my notions of what the veil means. She confirms some of my ideas about the veil immediately, in the first panels (page 3). The girls’ expressions range from neutrality to discomfort, negativity, or distress. The removal of individuality is highlighted by the second panel, where she says that she is “sitting on the far left so you don’t see [her]”-- something that the reader could not have noticed without being informed, due to the lack of visual distinction between the girls. This emphasizes their sameness tied to their manner of dress, most notably, the veil. As a Western woman who values individuality, this is immediately off-putting; framed like this, the rejection of the veil comes naturally to one who holds individual expression as synonymous with freedom. The obligatory nature of the veiling is equally upsetting,  the limitation of choice reads from my perspective as, by definition, anti-freedom. In fact, this is exactly the way that Satrapi presents the debate over the veil as she observed it (page 5). Then, of course, there is the fact that compulsory veiling targets women, and makes statements about women’s bodies, which raises all sorts of red flags as to being oppressive and anti-feminist.

          But what of the larger conversation occurring surrounding the veil? In Manouba University in Tunisia, female students go on a hunger strike to preserve their right to wear the niqab. One female protester says, “we are ready to sacrifice our lives for this cause. This is our right...” (Africa News Service). Protesters also gather in front of the French Embassy in Tunis, with one of the protesters quotes as saying, “Just like we are respecting people’s freedom, they should also respect us and our choices” (Africa News Service).  As Quebec contemplated banning the niqab, many groups got together to protest the notion. “Standing up for women’s rights is admirable. ‘Rescuing’ women is paternalistic and insulting” they claimed (Lim). Others suggested that the proposed ban was reflective not of a desire to “rescue” women nor stand up for their rights, but rather was about “Islamophobia, xenophobia, and racism,” comparing it to the “minaret ban in Switzerland or the burqa ban in France” (Lim). There is complication here, perhaps best summed up by the tension between the competing realities-- many women are compelled to wear a veil, whether it be a burka, a hijab, or a niqab, and many choose to be veiled in one of veiling’s many forms. To ban veiling compromises the women who choose the veil, and to make it mandatory in objectionable for the women who would choose to it.

           But it’s more nuanced than that. “A covered or veiled woman summons more complex associations, given that female emancipation in the West focused on bodily autonomy and was mirrored in fashion trends,” and as such it is natural for a Western feminist such as myself to read oppression into the images of women covering themselves, either with a full body covering, a full face covering, or a veil that covers the hair (Kingston). When “the road to female freedom [is] measured in media reports in terms of women’s access to lipstick and beauty salons,” however, we may sense that there is something missing from our definition of female emancipation and our position on veiling (Kingston). First off, the reasoning behind attempts to erase veiling may not be so noble as wanting to advance women’s freedoms, as hinted at in the discourse surrounding Quebec’s potential banning of the veil. Kingston sardonically observes that the burka has “acquired near magical powers in its ability to turn right-wing politicians into situational feminists,” again touching on the troubles of dealing with an issue that intersects with problems of gender, race, and culture. And those women who fight to wear the hijab or burka defy stereotypes in more ways than one, firstly vocalizing their agency in choosing to wear their veil and secondly asserting their will loudly and actively in a way that openly flouts the image of an obedient woman merely bowing to the male voices of her culture.

          But here, another complication. Is even this subversion not telling the whole story? Christina Michelmore, a Middle Eastern historian, is quoted in Kingston’s article as saying that “For many Americans, cultural restraints on individual behaviour automatically look like oppression. I think that's a very American look at the world. For lots of cultures, communal standards aren't seen as inhibiting individual freedoms." Is even the dichotomy of choice vs. lack of choice erasure of an entire mindset that does not see such distinctions as relevant? It is a very foreign idea indeed.

          From an inquiry that began, for me, out of what was a fairly easy, simple narrative, the question of veiling has become a great deal more tangled than I thought it would. In the world of Satrapi’s Persepolis, my initial thoughts on the veil seemed pretty reasonable. And, with Satrapi behind me, I felt much more comfortable stating opinions about topics which, as a woman who is not inside any community that encourages veiling, I could not feel comfortable from my position as outsider having any positions that did not feel as though they had the weight of experienced people behind them. The conclusion that I was prepared to draw from this paper, before it ever even began, was that the most important factor in the issue of veiling was choice. To impose veiling on an unwilling population is wrong, to ban veiling is wrong. As black and white as the illustrations of Persepolis. I can’t believe nobody thought of it before me! I must be some kind of genius or something. Problem solved. However even that value seems to be more subjective than I could ever have imagined. I don’t know where I sit now. The cultural relativity required to accept all positions is uncomfortable, and frankly, feels out of reach to me, at least for the moment. While consensus is a long way off, if at all possible, I do believe that conversations need to happen first, conversations between women who’d never chose the veil and women who do and women for whom choice is not the imperative value. In the end, Satrapi’s goal still stands. Humanization through storytelling will bring the world closer to justice, wherever justice may lie.

Satrapi, Marjane. "Persepolis: A State of Mind." Speech. Inprint Brown Reading Series. Literal Magazine - Latin American Voices. Web. 1 Feb. 2012. <>.

"Story of Growing Up in Revolutionary Iran." Morning Edition 25 Dec. 2007. Gale Opposing Viewpoints In Context. Web. 3 Feb. 2012.

"Students Wearing Niqab in Manouba University to Begin Hunger Strike." Africa News Service 18 Jan. 2012. Gale Opposing Viewpoints In Context. Web. 3 Feb. 2012.

"Quebec Should Not Ban the Niqab" by Thea Lim. Canada. Margaret Haerens, Ed. Opposing Viewpoints® Series. Greenhaven Press, 2011. Thea Lim, "Quebec Niqab Ban: No/Non to Bill 94!", April 7, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

"Salafists Protest in Front of French Embassy in Tunis." Africa News Service 23 Jan. 2012. Gale Opposing Viewpoints In Context. Web. 2 Feb. 2012.

Kingston, Anne. "Who are we to judge? Extreme modesty, or freedom gone wild? Why the debate over the veil is much more complicated than you think." Maclean's 23 Jan. 2012: 50+. Gale Opposing Viewpoints In Context. Web. 1 Feb. 2012.


Anne Dalke's picture

Doing justice?

what interests me most here is the intellectual move you make, in the course of creating this web event, from a place of certainty--"the most important factor in the issue of veiling is choice"--to one of not being sure "where you sit" or what you think, w/ "cultural relativity" feeling out of reach...

What seems most important to me, in this trajectory, is your increasing recognition of the importance of cultural difference, of the ways in which context affects what we might call feminist action. I'm not sure I follow you in your final call to "consensus"--not sure you've begun to show me why that might be a goal (must all women think alike, whatever their situation? must all feminists?). Why, indeed, must "women who’d never chose the veil," "women who do and women for whom choice is not the imperative value" even engage in conversation? In order to convert others to their own points of view? To what end? How is justice served if all agree?

Storytelling may well "humanize," as you claim, but the varieties of being human that stories showcase may well not be compatible with one another....

For example, a lot of very interesting work has been done on the intersection of nationalism and feminism. Spivak's essay, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" looks --in a different context-- @ the phenomenon you describe, in which "right-wing politicians" are turned "into situational feminists." The British justified their intervention in India, in part, by their professed need to protect the rights of native women there (from suttee, as well as other atrocities); in that national stand-off, as well as many others, the traditional lives of women became symbols of an indigenous national culture, which --according to the colonizers--justified intervention, but --according to the natives-- needed to be preserved against the colonizers. How to adjudicate such a stand-off? Such contrary notions of what constitutes "justice"?