‘Persepolis’ – Women under the male gaze: Can gender constructs ever be escaped?


Greetings fellow ComixBawse!

The graphic novel, Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi tells the autobiographical story of an Iranian woman growing up during revolutionary Iran. Iran during this time held strict moral and behavioral codes that restricted the actions of both sexes, especially women. Women were told how to dress and how to behave in and out of the presence of men. Women were taught that their bodies were far too titillating and arousing and needed to be covered in order to prevent men from leering at them. Women who enjoyed sexual pleasure before marriage were regarded as loose whores. Women were taught that the very laws made to restrict their everyday lives should be upheld. Females who realized the power of their own intelligence were often ignored and ostracized from their peers. Marjane is a remarkable character because even from a restless young age she challenges gender roles by rejecting dress codes by being outspoken about her contempt for them and by satisfying her sexual urges with several men. On the other hand, she realizes that conformity ensures safety and peace of mind and as a result she adheres to the dress code in her home country and later finds herself in a marriage that validates her womanhood. Overall, Marjane remains in a never-ending battle between the woman she wants to be and the woman she feels she should be and this is significant because it makes readers question whether or not gender constructs can be escaped.

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Courtesy of Pantheon Books

Dress Codes for Women in Revolutionary Iran: Being Covered is Freedom

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Image 1. Introduction of The Veil [Courtesy of Pantheon Books]

Satrapi opens the novel with the chapter entitled, “The Veil.” In this chapter, Satrapi details the introduction of the veil during the late 20th century and notes that wearing the veil at school became mandatory in the year 1980 (3). The veil is the most notable piece of dress in Iran during this time (see Image 1). At ten years old Marjane already begins to reject this dress code. Marjane among other girls “didn’t really like the veil, especially since [they] didn’t understand why [they] had to wear them (Satrapi 3).” Due to a lack of understanding of this law, Marjane was not afraid to show her displeasure with the wearing of the veil. She is pictured with other girls wrapping them around each other’s necks, throwing them on the ground, and even using them as jump ropes in the playground (see Image 2).

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Image 2. Displeasure with The Veil [Courtesy of Pantheon Books]

Although, these acts look rather harmless they showed a fierce level of disrespect towards these new established laws. Marjane’s mother engaged in anti-veil protests in which her and other women who refused to wear the veil chanted for their own personal “freedom (Satrapi 5).” Marjane notes that she was proud of her mother for fighting for what she believed in despite the fact that her mother lived in fear for a time after doing so (Satrapi 5). Marjane’s reaction to her mother’s protest highlights her attempt to challenge gender roles. Early on she recognizes that the veil diminishes her personal freedom. More importantly, men are not asked to cover their hair. This contrast between the treatment of men versus the treatment of women emphasizes the inferiority of women in this culture. Women are taught that they have to protect themselves against the unwelcome gaze of men; it is not men who are taught to control their own sexual urges.

In the chapter, “The Convocation” Marjane, now an adult continues her schooling and is met with new challenges in regards to her style of dress. Marjane explains, “wearing the veil was a real science” and that when worn properly “not a hair shows in [the] profile (Satrapi 293).” It was required that women be covered from head to toe; however, Marjane points out that even adorned in full length clothing one could still make out a woman’s body shape and the hairstyle she donned underneath (Satrapi 294) (see Image 3).

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Image 3. Body Shapes and Hairstyles [Courtesy of Pantheon Books]

Since clothing naturally clings to the body, it is obvious that this is the reason that men still ogled women at their leisure. It is evident that this dress code does not prevent a man’s desire for women. After a meeting is called in her school she bravely stands up for her position on the veil. She argues, “why is it that I, as a woman am expected to feel nothing when watching these men with their clothes sculpted on but they can get excited by two inches less of my head-scarf (Satrapi 297)?” Her speech is extremely bold for this time and for her outspoken ways she was threatened with expulsion and told that she was “lost” by the male head of her school (Satrapi 298). Why is she lost? She is lost because she is a woman that chose to speak the truth to her peers. It becomes clear that power and control earns more respect than obvious facts.

Although Marjane is clear about her hatred for the veil and restrictive dress codes she never actually takes it off in her home country. This is very significant because it contrasts greatly with her strong personal views. For example, she returns home to Tehran after living in Vienna (where she could wear her hair in any style she chose to) she again puts on her veil in which she realizes that her individual and social liberties have been stripped away (Satrapi 245) (see Image 4).

Image 4. Wearing the Veil [Courtesy of Pantheon Books]

In Tehran she feels the “repressive air of [her] country” but fixes her veil after being told to do so by a male Iranian airport employee; she does not fight him (Satrapi 246). She does this because she somehow seems to find peace with doing so. In her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” Laura Mulvey explains that women are inherently trapped in their female image as “signifier for the male other (6).” Women in patriarchal societies are subject to the male gaze and are sources for male viewing pleasure and unfortunately Marjane is not exempt from the male gaze. She continues to wear the veil in her country and conform to gender roles because it is simply better than being arrested, raped or killed. Ultimately, she wears the veil because she chooses to survive.

Pre-Marital Sex makes you a Whore. Fear Not, Marriage Can Save You!

While in Vienna, Marjane rejects the moral laws of her home country by engaging in sex with different people; she has a few different boyfriends and she never marries any of them. She met Enrique, her first boyfriend and although she notes, “In [her] country even kissing in public was considered a sexual act,” she still found pleasure in kissing him anyway (Satrapi 212) (see figure 5).

Image 5. Rejecting Sexual Restrictions [Courtesy of Pantheon Books]

It is clear that the West allows Marjane to be her true self and act on her innate human desire to connect with someone on a physical level. She rejects her cultural codes and finds pleasure in doing so. In the West sexual exploration gave both men and women a sense of freedom and allowed them to explore their own sources of pleasure. In Tehran, sexual experimentation by women was condemned. Back in Tehran she details her sexual exploits with her supposedly modern friends and is met with harsh judgment of her character. A friend asks Marjane, “So what’s the difference between you and a whore? (Satrapi 270).” This is a very important scene because her friends were very inquisitive about her sex life and after learning it they were disgusted. Her friends, although too shamed to admit it would liked to have had the same freedoms that Marjane has experienced. Being made to believe that sex tarnishes the female image is highly repressive and has the opposite effect on women’s sexual behavior. The more sexuality is repressed; the urges become greater and they fester until the women are silently frustrated because control over their own bodies has been eliminated.

Image 6. Intimacy Behind Closed Doors [Courtesy of Pantheon Books]

Although Marjane took control of her own sexual pleasure, she still fell victim to gender roles in her home country and this is seen during the courting phase of Marjane and her future husband Reza. Again, her conforming to traditionalist laws is preferable to being deemed a whore or being arrested. She only engages in any displays of affection with Reza behind closed doors because “the outside was dangerous (Satrapi 290) (see Image 6 -above).” She eventually agrees to marry Reza, much to the disappointment of her mother; she follows through with a very traditional Iranian wedding. Soon after she realizes her error and begins to feel trapped. She became a “’married woman’” who “conformed to society (Satrapi 317).” Marjane was forced to accept the role of women in her society. Being married meant that a woman was desirable and wanted; being asked to marry validated one’s womanhood. For a time, conforming made her relationship with Reza easier because she could frequent places with him without fear of being arrested. Marriage allowed Marjane to been seen as a respectable woman and on some level she longed for that because being a non-conformist is exhausting and extremely risky. Marriage allowed her to forget her past sexual adventures and even though she felt trapped by marriage she at least at had her peace of mind.

The traditionalist ideals placed on women in revolutionary Iran were very restrictive to Marjane during her lifetime; however, she found solace, comfort and peace in those restrictions when challenging gender roles became too much to bear. Satrapi shows just how influential gender roles in society are on the ways in which women choose to live their lives. The struggles faced by Satrapi during her lifetime show just how deeply rooted gender roles are in society and once can never fully succeed in escaping them. Gender roles have remained intact for so long because they are continuously perpetuated by both sexes and the fear of being shunned or isolated ultimately outweighs one’s desire to challenge gender constructs.

If you’re interested in reading this comic you can find “The Complete Persepolis” here on Amazon! 



Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen, vol. 16, no. 3, pp. 6-18.

Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis. New York, NY, Pantheon Books, 2003.

Featured Image: Left Panel – Courtesy of Pantheon Books | Right Panel: Marjane Satrapi – Courtesy of I Care If You Listen 

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I'm an avid comic reader and I want to share my analyses of them with the world. I love cats and brownies and I've been told on many occasions that I'm weird-but-in-a-good-way!

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