Unvacant Vessels: Women’s Oppression in “Persepolis” and in Recent Nonfiction
The roles of women in Middle Eastern culture have varied throughout the decades, ranging from being delicate creatures in need of protection to becoming blind soldiers suddenly dedicated to a misleading cause. This is most noticeably depicted in the graphic novel Persepolis, in which author Marjane Satrapi illustrates her own memoir while recalling certain events during her childhood. As demonstrated in Persepolis as well as in an article about radical Islam by Rola El-Husseini, called Radical Islam’s War on Women, women in the Middle East are marginalized through policies like being forced to wear the veil, not being allowed to obtain a decent education, and being manipulated into performing acts of terror, all because Islamic extremists and fundamentalists want to use women as vessels for whichever cause or philosophy they deem convenient during that period of time.
First, women in the Middle East are forced to wear the veil to cover themselves while in public. For instance, when Marjane Satrapi was once caught in her adolescence by the Guardians of the Revolution, she explains that the job of this fundamentalist women’s branch was “to arrest women who were improperly veiled” like herself (Satrapi 132). To the Satrapi family as well as some other progressive Iranians, the veil can be seen as a symbol of feminine limitations and restrictions in their country. The veil that is forced upon them is used to constantly remind women that they are not free or equal and that they need to be protected and dependent on men as well as the government, ultimately giving the male-dominant society even more power. In another instance, Marjane’s mother recounts a traumatic event in which two fundamentalist men “said that women like [her] should be pushed up against a wall and fucked and then thrown in the garbage.” (Satrapi 74). This awful experience was prompted by Marjane’s mother not wearing the veil out in public, further implementing the misguided mindsets and the repressive natures of the policies concerning the mandatory veil. Consequently, the fact that Middle Eastern women are forced to wear the veil highlights their representation of being as empty of independence and individuality as much as their veils appear to be empty black voids as well.
Additionally, the education women receive in the Middle East is either extremely biased or exceedingly disparaged. For example, as Marjane states “I love the king. He was chosen by God” to her parents, she explains that she meant that only because it was written in the first page of her schoolbook (Satrapi 49). By indoctrinating young girls in this fashion, Marjane and many others were already conditioned and influenced by the government through their educations. In this case, the propaganda consists of the government desiring support for the current king, and the earlier these methods infiltrate school systems, the more inclined the children are later in life to believe other, future authorities unconditionally as well. Later on in her schooling, Marjane questioned her religion teacher about governmental policies with political prisoners, declaring “how dare you lie to us like that” (Satrapi 144) after justifying it through a personal anecdote about her uncle being an exception to the teacher’s obviously mistaken information. Even though she experienced heavy fundamentalist influence during her childhood education, later she also became more aware of that influence and learned how to resist it and become her own individual self instead as she grew and matured into her teenaged years. However, unlike Marjane, some of the other women around her may not have had the same insight and upbringing as her, and instead fell victim to that same manipulation, becoming pawns of the misguiding government. Accordingly, this lack of access to decent education eventually leads to this unbalanced society in which some women are therefore more susceptible to any lies and manipulation techniques that are used by fundamentalists.
Finally, Islamic fundamentalists also use women as vessels for performing acts of terror. For instance, in a “warped alternative to progressive feminism” (El-Husseini), radical Islamist movements persuade women to view these acts of violence as a twisted form of empowerment. By convincing some women of this, the rise of Western ideals and influence is combatted by organizations such as the Black Widows and other female suicide bomber groups, all of which are just used to utilize as many bodies as possible for radical Islam. Furthermore, as times began to change in the past couple of decades, extremists began to slightly switch their views on gender roles due to “practical terms”, simultaneously letting more traditional feminine values take a “backseat, unveiling a more cynical and utilitarian outlook” in radical Islamic culture (El-Husseini). By manipulating these women into misleadingly serving their religion and culture, fundamentalists have resorted to using them as means of helping achieve destruction, treating them as convenient and advantageous assets instead of actual human beings. Therefore, Islamic extremists use any means necessary to reach their various and violent goals, which now includes the once inconceivable notion of using women to help perform acts of terror.
Both Persepolis and El-Husseini’s article clearly depict the sexism that exists in Middle Eastern society and radical Islamic culture. Whereas Satrapi mainly focuses on the non-violent side of the issue within the pages of Persepolis, El-Husseini highlights these violent aspects of the issue within the contents of his article instead. Essentially, women in the Middle East face various obstacles concerning the veil, education, and terrorism, all while being represented as either fragile objects or as deadly weapons: both of which are unjustly used as seemingly vacant vessels that the radical Islamists utilize to fulfill whichever cause or ideology they desire.
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