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Meanings of the Veil: Representations of Veiling in Persepolis

mpottash's picture

Meanings of the Veil: Representations of Veiling inPersepolis


In 1980, theleaders of the Islamic Revolution in Iran made it mandatory for Iranian womento wear a veil, or a hijab (Satrapi 3). For many, the veil carries multiple connotations and meanings.  The veil could represent repression,religious fundamentalism, or an adherence to the law of Islam, among many otherthings.  Authors of both literatureand critical studies reflect different views of the veil.  The graphic novel Persepolis, byMarjane Satrapi, tells the autobiographical story of living under therepressive Iranian government.  Oneof the methods of repression that plays a prominent role in the novel is thehijab.  In the book The VeilUnveiled: The Hijab in Modern Culture, Faegheh Shirazi writes about thehijab from a critical point of view, emphasizing the many dimensions andmeanings that the veil can acquire in modern society.  In Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism,Omid Safi, while not focusing on the veil, stresses the need to stand upagainst repressive Islamic thought and ideas in Muslim societies.  While these two authors represent justa sampling of critical theory regarding the hijab and repression in Muslimsociety, they present ideas that can be traced in Satrapi’s novel.  For Satrapi, the veil representsrebellion, and often aids her in this rebellion.  At times, even while wearing the veil, she rebels againstother societal restrictions.  Atother times, she rebels against the veil and the ideology that itrepresents.  The veil takes ondifferent meanings through the roles that it plays in Satrapi’s rebellion.

            Shiraziwrites about the multiple meanings that the veil has accrued in modernsociety.  She argues that the veil“[has] ideological proportions that [continue] to permeate every aspect of ourdaily lives” (Shirazi 2).  Formany, the hijab is part of Islamic ideology, but it has also come to take onfurther meanings, which differ for different people and in differentsituations.  Shirazi writes thatthe veil’s “symbolic significance is being constantly defined and redefined”(7).  Throughout the book, Shirazidiscusses the veil’s multiple meanings in the media, advertising, film, andpolitics.  Again, the veil is notjust a part of religious ideology, but something that has come to be a part ofeveryday life.  Shirazi furtherwrites that “the garment becomes a force in and of itself” (8).  The hijab becomes a forces by acquiringmultiple meanings and roles in society.           

Safi’s bookpresents a collection of essays that address the place of Islam in today’ssociety.  In his introduction, Safistresses the need for Muslims to be “progressive Muslims.”  For him, this means “openly andpurposely resisting, challenging, and overthrowing structures of tyranny andinjustice in [Muslim] societies” (Safi 2).  Safi acknowledges the fact that often Islamic societies areunjust and repressive, and thus he says that Muslims need to work against thisrepression.  To do this, he writesthat Muslims must “issue an active and dynamic challenge to those who holdexclusivist, violent, misogynist interpretations” (6).  Being a progressive Muslim involves anactive attempt to override injustice. Neither Safi nor the authors in the compilation focus or elaborate uponthe veil, a surprising fact given commonly held perceptions of the hijab asfundamentally repressive; he does, however, as is evident in the book’s title,acknowledge the necessity of gender justice to the idea of beingprogressive.  He says that justicefor Muslim women is essential, arguing that “the Muslim community as a wholecannot achieve justice unless it is guaranteed for Muslim women”(10).  However, Safi explains that genderjustice for him does not apply only to women, but also to males, who are oftendehumanized by Islam (11).

            InPersepolis, we see the ways in which the hijab can encompass multiplemeanings, as well as an interpretation of what it means to be a progressiveMuslim.  Many times throughout thebook, Satrapi rebels against societal restrictions without rebelling againstthe veil itself.  In one instance,Satrapi wears a denim jacket, Nikes and a Michael Jackson button, items thatare forbidden by the government (Satrapi 131).  As Satrapi describes her outfit, she ends by saying that she“of course” wore her headscarf. The fact that Satrapi writes “of course” indicates the way in which theveil has become a part of her life. However, even within the confines of the veil, Satrapi rebels againstcertain restrictions of Iranian society and expresses her individuality.  Here, as Shirazi discusses, Satrapidefines the meaning of the veil for herself be refusing to let it be aconfining garment, and instead treating is as simply something with which shehas to live.  The veil can even beseen as necessary, as without the veil, Satrapi would not be allowed out inpublic to express her individuality. While Satrapi does get caught for her “punk” attire, she is ultimatelyreleased, an outcome that can perhaps be attributed to her wearing the veil inthe first place.  On anotheroccasion, Satrapi verbally rebels in school while wearing the veil.  She accuses the teacher of lying to theclass by saying that there are no political prisoners (144).  In this instance, as well, Satrapirebels against general political restrictions of society, but not against theveil itself.  She also rebels whilestill wearing the veil, illustrating the ever-present restrictions that theveil represents.  In this case, ifshe were not wearing the veil, she would not be allowed in school, and thuswould not be able to rebel in this way. The form of the graphic novel is helpful in this scene, as we can seeSatrapi, and all of her classmates, uniformly veiled and confined in the veil.  As a result of this image ofuniformity, the veil takes on a further meaning of repression.  In discussing the role of the veil inSatrapi’s rebellion, we must acknowledge that by wearing the veil, Satrapiremains within the confines of certain restrictions and shows that she is notcompletely rejecting Islam; thus, wearing the veil protects her and allows herto rebel, again making the veil a necessity.  In all of these instances, Satrapi acts as what Safi calls aprogressive Muslim by openly and actively resisting the confines and injusticesunder which she lives.  Byrebelling within the confines of the veil, she is, as Shirazi says, definingand interpreting the veil for herself, by not allowing it to completely repressher.

            Satrapifurther becomes a progressive Muslim by actively rebelling against the veilitself.  One of these instancesoccurs when Satrapi is in art school. Upon being told that students need to wear longer head scarves, Satrapicomplains that “as a student of art…I need to be able to move freely to be ableto draw” (297).  Satrapi furtherasks, “why is it that I, as a woman, am expected to feel nothing when watchingthese men with their clothes sculpted on but they, as men, can get excited bytwo-inches less of my head scarf?” (297). Here Satrapi comments not only on the restrictiveness of the veil, butalso on a fundamental injustice in Muslim society, the inequality of men andwomen.  In this scene, the veilacquires new personal significance for Satrapi.  The veil comes to represent the repressions that exist inIran – not merely the act of veiling but gender injustices as well - and it isby protesting the veil that Satrapi protests these repressions.  As Shirazi writes, “the garment becomesa force in and of itself” (Shirazi 8). Here, the hijab is the force of Satrapi’s rebellion; rather thanrebelling within the confines of the veil, she uses the veil to propel herrebellion.  In this instance, theschool administrators ask Satrapi to design her own, newer version of the hijab.  While it is true that in this caseSatrapi is still within the confines of the veil, instead of merely acceptingthe veil as she did earlier, she works to change the custom, if only slightly.  By designing a new veil, Satrapi alsoredefines the hijab to suit her needs, as well as the needs of the otherstudents.  Further into the novel,Satrapi finds a group of like-minded liberal friends.  She writes that “our behavior in public and our behavior inprivate were polar opposites” (305). Here again, the form of the graphic novel lends itself to ourunderstanding of Satrapi’s rebellions. The top half of the page shows Satrapi and her friends all wearing veilsand robes; the image highlights their uniformity and anonymity, illustratingthe way in which society restricts individuality and expression.  On the bottom half of the page,however, Satrapi and her friends all wear modern clothes, bearing their arms,legs, and chests.  Thejuxtaposition of these two images reflects the extent of Satrapi’s rebellion.  While in this particular scenario shedoes not rebel in public (as it is dangerous to be in public without the veil),she turns her private rejection of the veil into an act of significance to her,into her own personal act of rebellion. The act of rejecting the veil, as well as the veil itself, takes on itsown meaning by allowing her to express her individuality.

            AfterSatrapi designs a new uniform for her school, she says “this is how I recoveredmy self-esteem and my dignity.  Forthe first time in a long time, I was happy with myself” (298).  Satrapi’s rebellion, acting like aprogressive Muslim, is what allows her to stay true to her identity and keepher pride. By imbedding the veil with her own distinct meanings, Satrapimaintains her individuality.  Persepoliscombats notions of the veil as solely a means of repression.  Through using the veil, both as a toolof rebellion and as the limits of rebellion, Satrapi does not allow the veiland the repressive society under which she lives to take away her dignity.  As Shirazi emphasizes, the veil takeson many dimensions for Satrapi, and it is the multitude of these dimensionsthat allows her to grow and become an individual.



Safi, Omid, ed.Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism. Oxford: OneworldPublications, 2003.


Satratpi, Marjane. The Complete Persepolis. Paris,L’Association, 2000-2001


Shirazi,Faegheh. The Veil Unveiled: The Hijab in Modern Culture. Florida: UniversityPress of Florida, 2001.



Tan Pah Kaa's picture



Really it's an amazing idea.
Women always look beautiful if they are wearing hijab!

Anne Dalke's picture

Hailing and Recruiting

Your essay, mpottash, is one of quite an assembly we've gathered on veiling this week--see also Veiling in Iran, Veiling in U.S. and another essay on gender segregation in Islamic architecture--all of which look, as you do, @ the complex intersection of the ways in which the practice of hijab can both free and oppress, enable and limit exploration.

Using the work of Shairazi and Safi gives you a rich way into interpreting the paradoxical representations of Satrapi's novel, a historical and political frame for extrapolating the various meanings of a literary text. The one spot where I found myself wanting to "talk back" was just as you moved into your summary.

The notion that Satrapi combats notions of the veil as "solely a means of repression," by embedding it with "her own distinct meanings," those that maintain her "individuality," elides, I think, the very interesting work we did in class over the past few weeks around the matters of "interpellation" and "hegemony." What would you say if I challenged your opposition of "oppression" and "expressive individuality" by saying that both veiling and unveiling are forms of Althusserian "hailing and recruiting"? Unveiling enables Satrapi to perform her identity as an independent Western woman, veiling her identity as a faithful Muslim woman. Both actions are identical, however, in that they involve her taking on a role, acquiesing in occupying a subject position that recognizes her place in a social system.