Satrapi on the Arbiters of Moral Purity in the Ayatollah’s Iran

Marjane Satrapi’s excellent film “Persepolis,” the true story of a girl’s coming of age in 1970’s and 1980’s Iran, examines the misogyny and general brutality of the 1979 Iranian revolution and Khomeini’s regime. Originally a cartoon book, like Art Speigelman’s Maus series, the film, also a cartoon, effectively employs the form to understate and highlight the tragic.

Of course, we know about the debasement and oppression of women under radical Islamist regimes. But at times we hear the same from secularists about the treatment of women in other religious traditions, such as Orthodox Judaism and devout Christianity.

While there may be some similiarities (no sanctioned use of birth control in some Orthodox and Catholic circles, for instance) there are differences. Satrapi’s story dramatizes the unique viciousness visited on women (also on men, of course) by a society under Islamic dictatorship. Hearing about the fates of millions somehow fails to hit home in the way seeing some of these scenes, personal as they are, do. The viciousness of those punishing other people’s alleged sexual crimes makes me wonder how much of this fanaticism is fueled by frustrated sexual desire. I believe the Freudian perspective here would be that in a repressive culture, sexuality becomes perverse.

Early in the film, Satrapi’s family members see the revolution as an exciting turn. In particular, her beloved uncle, a Communist, sees it as “rule by the people.” The incarceration and execution of this beloved uncle soon follows, and fanaticism that spreads like gangrene.

Shopping, Marjane and her mother encounter a man who rebukes her mother for allowing some of her hair to be visible: “A decent woman shields herself from men’s eyes.” When her mother offers some protest the man barks, “I screw women like you and throw them in the trash.” This true vignette could be viewed as a microcosm of the revolution. Like most self-appointed arbiters of “decency” in others, the man’s vicious abuse betrays a personal cruelty, crudeness, and sickness far in excess of anything he protests (which in this case is nothing remotely sinful or immoral at all). In scenes like this one, the film shows us a society whose excessive policing and efforts to repress others express deep self-hatred and shame.

In another scene, the family’s cleaning woman weeps to Satrapi’s mother, “I can’t believe in anything anymore.” Her 15-year-old son’s school gave him a plastic key and told him it was the key to heaven, with money and women, and that he should carry it into battle against the Iraqis. In this way, tens of thousands of poor teenage boys were “martyred” in the Iran/Iraq War.

In a scene toward the end of the film, some of the Ayatollah’s police see Satrapi and her boyfriend holding hands in their car, and arrest the young couple. Her parents have to come and give the police money; otherwise the “offenders” would be “whipped.” Again, we have a portrait of a society unable to confront its own dysfunction projecting self-loathing onto its citizens.

This entry was written by and posted on January 16, 2008 at 2:45 pm and filed under Blog.