Marjane Satrapi and Feminist Orientalism

In 2003, Marjane Satrapi published her memoir in the form of a graphic novel titled Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. A year later she published the sequel, Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return. The two books consist of Satrapi’s experiences throughout her childhood in Iran and young adulthood in Austria. She wrote her personal narrative with the purpose of shedding light on the people and culture of Iran and as a way of challenging the Occident/Orient binary. I read both of Satrapi’s novels in middle school and for the purpose of studying Orientalism, I found a helpful article that analyzes Satrapi’s work thoroughly on this subject area. Diego Maggi, a doctoral student from Georgetown University wrote a journal article, “Orientalism, Gender, and Nation Defied by an Iranian Woman” that discusses Satrapi’s personal narrative and how it displays conflicting coexistence between the West and East.

Maggi’s article mentions the works of Edward Said on Orientalism, but he also adds that there are various critiques on it and one of them is that Orientalism is intersected by other aspects that complicate the Orient’s reality and tensions between the East and West. One of those aspects is gender, and more specifically the aspect of feminism which was said to have been scarcely discussed by Said. Many authors had critiques on Said’s theory, but Roksana Bahramitash established that there is feminist Orientalism and Orientalist feminism. The former is exercised as a way of enforcing the idea of Muslim women as victims and cements a colonial lens on women in the East by assuming superiority to Western feminism. The latter refers to a way of advocating and supporting women’s rights in the East.

Satrapi’s memoir is found to be complex because in the book she tends to follow European and North American culture and feminism. This leads Maggi to pose three crucial questions that he discusses in his analysis. Essentially, Maggi explicates that despite Satrapi’s fondness for Western philosophers and rejection of customs of Islamic women, Satrapi does not reject her nationality and culture. Satrapi rejects aspects of the Middle East that limit her as a woman. In fact, Satrapi’s memoir represents a strong sense of nationality that’s highlighted when she moves to Vienna for her studies and actively has to battle Orientalism and binaries related to civilization/barbarism.

In the introduction of the book, Satrapi explains perfectly why she’s telling her story and blatantly opposes Orientalism to be used as a lens to understand her life.

…this old and great civilization has been discussed mostly in connection with
fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism. As an Iranian who has lived more than
half of my life in Iran, I know that this image is far from the truth. This is why
writing Persepolis was so important to me. I believe that an entire nation should
not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists. I also don’t want those
Iranians who lost their lives in prisons defending freedom, who died in the war
against Iraq, who suffered under various repressive regimes, or who were forced
to leave their families and flee their homeland to be forgotten.

(Marjane Satrapi, 2003, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood)

I highly recommend Marjane Satrapi’s memoir and Diego Maggi’s article as a tool to expand the impact of the books. Despite the political and cultural complexities, it’s a good read that puts you in the shoes of a young girl in Iran in search of individuality. It is a personal story that touches on a broad subject like Orientalism and can aid a Westerner’s better understanding of life in the East.

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