Exactly one hundred years ago, in 1919, women were granted the Vote in the Netherlands. To celebrate this, the local cinema in Groningen decided to show six films which celebrated feminism and female independence. Included in this series was the film Persepolis, based on the autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, and I volunteered to provide the audience with an introduction about the film and the book.
Some time ago I was at a museum with a special exposition on feminism in the Netherlands, to honour all these women who had made the right to vote possible a century ago. While I was walking around, and watched the paintings, the letters, and the caricatures drawn by men, I became frustrated. I started wondering why women have always been regarded as inferior to men, and why we have only had the voice for a hundred years. As a small act of rebellion, I bought a t-shirt saying #feminist, so I could show my support for women all over the world who are still regarded as second-rate and are trying to do something about it.
But this made me wonder about my own life: does buying this t-shirt, and supporting women, make me a feminist? I didn’t have to think long to find out the answer was no, not at all. I actually think the most feminist aspect of me would by my hair, which I wear short instead of long. I am not fighting for women’s rights, because I am lucky enough to live in the Netherlands, a country well known for its progressive view on emancipation. I obtained my Master’s Degrees from the University of Groningen. I work as a teacher, which means I am paid the exact same salary as my male colleagues. I am allowed to vote, and nobody tells me what I can and can’t do. I am allowed to live my life the way I want to, I can wear whatever I want, and therefore I do not feel restricted in any aspect of my life. I live in freedom and can be the person who I want to be. I don’t always feel the need to fight for my rights, for I clearly already have them.
I know I am one of the lucky ones. In some countries, the idea that women are equals to men is not straight-forward at all. This all became painfully clear to me when I read the graphic novel Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood and The Story of a Return by Iranian-born Marjane Satrapi. In this autobiographical novel, she writes about her childhood, and how it made her the person she is now. It was first released in two parts in 2000 and 2004, and turned into a movie in 2007. Marjane Satrapi, now a resident of Paris, was born and raised in Iran, but was sent to Austria as a young girl. Going through these major changes in her life made her realise several things: that one’s environment greatly influences one’s behaviour, that apparent freedom isn’t necessarily always the best option, and, most importantly that one should always be true to oneself.
In short, Marjane Satrapi was a young girl when the Islamic Revolution started. She witnessed first-hand the changes the country went through. Because of her strong opinions, which only became stronger the older she grew, she became a danger to herself (she defied teachers, and openly voiced her opinion) and was sent to Austria, where she would safely grow up. The only thing that her parents hadn’t taken into account, was that she wouldn’t be safe from herself; since she was so used to being told what she could, or, more specifically, couldn’t do, she lost all sense of proportion in a country where nothing was limited. Furthermore, being the only one who had actually witnessed violence and oppression, set her apart from everyone else. It didn’t take long for Marjane to completely lose herself in a country that wasn’t her own, as she denied her heritage and pretended to be French just so she didn’t have to talk about Iran, had a boyfriend who used her in order to get drugs, couldn’t stay in one place for too long, and she even ended up on the streets and nearly died of pneumonia.
After a couple of years, she went back to Iran, where she became severely depressed. It took her some time to get back on her feet, but eventually she went to university and obtained her degree. However, she realised, along with her family members, that she couldn’t live in a country where she couldn’t be herself, and decided to go back to Europe, to France this time, for good. Even though she wasn’t always loyal to Iran, this final departure (including leaving her grandmother behind, whom she would never see again) really moved her, and Persepolis is a loving memory to her native country.
The book, and the film too, which was co-produced by Satrapi herself, is more than a graphic autobiographical novel (this is not an official genre; critics have struggled with defining it), it is also a testament for the country she grew up in, and which has shaped her into the person she is now. The title comes from the Ancient Greek name for Iran, with which Satrapi wanted to draw attention to the fact that Iran has an extremely long history, and is indeed one of the oldest cultures in the world. While the book does not shy away from truly horrific scenes (bombings, martyrs, and terrible politicians), the book is filled with a sense of pride for Iran. She never could have become the person she is now if it wasn’t for her native country.
Satrapi herself considered this book a coming-of-age novel, and I think this sums the entire book up quite nicely. She needed both worlds to find out who she was, namely a strong, independent woman who is not afraid to share her opinion regardless of the danger that could bring her. Even though – returning to the theme of feminism – Marjane Satrapi is not an activist in the purest sense of the word, she does inspire women all over the world with her powerful book, and the message that it is important to believe in yourself, and to stand up for your rights. And that, I think, is the essence of feminism and emancipation.
Have you seen this film, or read the book? What did you think of it? If it were up to you to create a film series celebrating feminism, which films would you include? Do share your ideas in the comments!