The Veil (as told by the girl who bought a copy of The Complete Persepolis for $15 on Amazon.com)
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. <http://www.literalmagazine.com/es/archive-L13satrapi.php?section=hive>.
"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!" Racialious.com, 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.