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Persepolis | Themes

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Rebellion and Independence

Marjane has been a rebel ever since she was a little girl. At age six she wants to be a prophet even though her declaration angers or puzzles the adults around her. As she gets older she rebels against her parents, who tell her she can't go to public protests, and then against her teachers, who make her take part in repeated mourning ceremonies for the martyrs. She fights against the increasingly strict dress code, the ban on Western culture, and pretty much everything the Islamic Republic tells her to do. She pushes back to make a point about things she thinks aren't right, such as policing a person's beliefs or private activities.

Marjane comes from a long line of rebels on both sides of her family. Her Uncle Fereydoon was part of the group that declared the Iranian province of Azerbaijan an independent nation, and her Uncle Anoosh spoke out against the former Iranian government. Her maternal grandfather was a former prince who dedicated his life to defending innocent people. Her grandmother and parents have all rebelled against the former and current regimes in their own ways—from reading illicit philosophy texts to protesting against the government in public to sharing their ideals with Marjane. They nurture her rebellious spirit so she will ask questions and form her own opinions instead of blindly following the messages of the state.

The rebellious characters in Persepolis seek freedom: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom to live one's life the way one chooses. Marjane rebels because she wants to be in control of her own life. Even when she's young she fights to make her own decisions, and by the time she's 12 she decides she's ready to be an adult. At 14 she is confident she doesn't need her parents anymore, and she moves to Austria sure that she will be able to take care of herself. It isn't until she's living in a boarding house that Marjane understands the downside of being fully autonomous. She can make her own decisions now, but she also has to cook and clean for herself and navigate her way through a strange land full of unfamiliar customs. She also learns being independent doesn't necessarily mean one has total freedom. As a boarder in other people's homes, Marjane must follow their rules and do what they say as long as she wants a place to live. She must abide by the rules set by her school and by society in general. Even after achieving her independence, Marjane remains a rebel—ready to protest against rules or situations she finds unjust.

Culture Clash

"As a family we were very modern and avant-garde," Satrapi says at the beginning of Persepolis. Though they are proud Iranians, the Satrapis embrace Western clothing, music, books, and other aspects of popular culture, as well as Western philosophy. Throughout her life Marjane identifies as Iranian and feels a deep connection with Iran because she was raised there, but she also finds herself drawn to the West. During her early teenage years she's stuck somewhere between the two, wearing her hijab while sporting a jean jacket and Nike shoes. This combination of cultures is easy for her, as she is in charge of deciding which parts of Western culture she wants to adopt.

Things change when she moves to Vienna, Austria, at 14. Now Marjane is immersed in Western culture, and she wasn't prepared for how different nearly everything would be once she left Iran. Her Iranian values, such as reserving sexual contact until marriage, staying away from drugs, and respecting one's parents, are all called into question. Adhering to her former way of life makes her feel like an outcast; however, giving up her beliefs just to fit in makes her feel like a traitor to her family and her country. She tries to find a balance between the two cultures but eventually ends up losing herself in drugs and boys.

Marjane is relieved to return to Iran with its familiar culture and friendly faces. But the West has changed her more than she realized. Living among other teenagers in Vienna shifted her beliefs about premarital sex, a topic that is still taboo with many Iranian teenagers, including her childhood friends. Marjane has inadvertently absorbed Western culture, which makes her return to Iran feel like a visit to a foreign country. She again has to learn to assimilate, and again she isn't fully able to shift her views. At the end of the book she leaves Iran for good in search of the freedom afforded to her in the West. This time she knows it's not about changing herself to fit in, but about finding the place and the people who are the right fit for her.

Family

Though Satrapi introduces various friends and acquaintances throughout Persepolis, it is her parents, grandmother, and extended relatives who make the greatest impact on her life. These are the people she trusts and the individuals she misses the most when she leaves Iran. The family bond between Taji, Ebi, Grandmother, and Marjane is particularly strong. "In my culture, parents were sacred," Marjane writes after watching Julie completely ignore her mother. Marjane has the utmost respect for her parents and perhaps even more for her grandmother, who holds her to a higher standard than anyone else. The shame Marjane feels after telling Grandmother about her false accusation against an innocent man is worse than anything she experienced before, including being homeless in Austria. Ebi and Taji also challenge their daughter as a means of helping her grow—Ebi gives her books to read so she can be better educated about the war and Iran's place in the world, while Taji pushes Marjane to focus on her education instead of fooling around and having fun. Family is Marjane's support system in Persepolis, but it also pushes her to become a better person.

Religion

Religion is at the crux of the social and political changes in Iran following the revolution of 1979. The Islamic fundamentalists who filled the void left by the outgoing shah, or sovereign of Iran, instituted Sharia law, or rules outlined in the Islamic holy text the Qur'ān. Sharia law applies to public and private behavior, and it can even be used to punish people for their private beliefs. As a child Marjane was a devout Muslim. She considered God her best friend, and she hoped to someday be the first female prophet. As she got older her beliefs changed. They evolved partly because the new philosophies she studied, such as dialectic materialism (Marxist philosophy that argues that historical events are caused by social forces driven by material needs), conflicted with the very notion of religion. In addition her views about God did not match the strict and repressive rules the Islamic regime enforced in His name. A prime example of this is the death of Marjane's Uncle Anoosh. Marjane is devastated when the Islamic Republic sanctions his execution. God tries to comfort her, but she pushes Him away. The men who killed her uncle purportedly did so to ensure God's laws were upheld. She can't reconcile the God who would approve of her uncle's killing with the God who wants to comfort her for it—and she gives up religion altogether.

It's six years before Marjane reconnects with religion. God comes to her in a dream and tells her the subject of her French baccalaureate test. Marjane asks her mother to pray for her success on the exam. "Each time I asked my mother to pray for me, my wish was granted," Marjane says. It appears God has been watching her this whole time, waiting for the moment she needed help. The more evidence she has of His protection—such as surviving a winter on the streets of Vienna—the more she is willing to welcome Him back into her life. She may have given up on religion, but God never gave up on her.

Marjane has forgiven God by the time she is studying for her university theology exam, but she still doesn't associate herself with the ruling regime's interpretation of Islam. She prays in her own language, not Arabic, and she doesn't believe the veil should be mandatory. "God is always with us, he is in us! Right?" she asks the mullah administering the exam. For Marjane there is a clear distinction between religion, which she finds repressive, and faith in God, which she finds comforting and uplifting. One can exist without the other, and in Marjane's experience they do.

Public versus Private Selves

The Islamic Republic's strict laws about proper dress and behavior cause sudden changes in Marjane's friends, family, and neighbors. Women who once wore miniskirts now cloak themselves in the chador (cloth that covers the head and upper body leaving the face exposed), and children who never showed any religious inclination boast they pray several times a day. For the most part these people haven't actually changed their personalities or beliefs—they're just trying to avoid punishment by obeying the laws. Behind closed doors these same people throw parties, drink alcohol, and question the regime's rules. Marjane soon recognizes the "contrast between the official representation of my country and the real life of the people," and it seems as if everyone is leading a secret life. Devout public exteriors serve as masks for individuals' private selves, and the difference between the two can be disorienting. In "The Socks" Marjane says of herself and her classmates, "Our behavior in public and our behavior in private were polar opposites," which make them feel "schizophrenic." It's hard to know oneself when bouncing between two completely different personalities. Because of this, Marjane struggles with figuring out who she is and who she wants to be.

In Marjane's experience it is incredibly difficult to discern the nature of a person from the public persona alone. This is the case when she reunites with her childhood friends after returning from Austria. On the outside they look like "the heroines of an American TV series," fully made-up with fashionable hairstyles and clothing. Because of their appearance Marjane assumes they hold the same values as she does, so she gets a nasty surprise when one of them calls her a whore after learning she's had more than one lover. "Underneath their outward appearance of being modern women, my friends were real traditionalists," she says. The same thing happens with her art school friends when she mentions she takes birth control pills. Marjane expects people of her generation—especially those who rebel against the Islamic regime through their clothes and makeup—share her progressive views. Learning they don't share her beliefs makes her realize that people's public facade doesn't necessarily have the purpose of avoiding government persecution. Sometimes its purpose is to project an appearance of "coolness" and sophistication.

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