Sexual revolutionaries

"Persepolis" author Marjane Satrapi talks about why Iranians don't think sex is sinful, the hypocrisy of American saber-rattling over Iran, and why George Bush and the mullahs are "the same."

Topics: Iran, Author Interviews, Middle East, Books,

Sexual revolutionaries

Beneath their black robes and mandatory head scarves, the women in Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoirs about Iran after the revolution are worldly even by Western standards. Outdoors in Tehran, where the guardians of the revolution prowl, men and women don’t so much as hold hands. Inside, behind closed doors, they have affairs, marry and divorce, drink and dance, and revel in dirty jokes and sacrilegious samizdat. Their sensuality is a rebellion against the mullahs’ pinched and brutal theocracy, so they take their pleasures seriously.

By inviting outsiders into this intimate world, Satrapi makes contemporary Iran seem both less foreign and more terrifying. In “Persepolis” and “Persepolis 2,” she used deceptively simple comic-book imagery to tell a riveting story about her childhood in Iran, her teenage exile in Europe, and her not-at-all-triumphant return home. (She’s now adapting “Persepolis” into an animated movie for French TV.) The life she draws — with her cosmopolitan, politically engaged parents, her adolescent obsession with punk rock, her search for solace in books and boyfriends — is typical of well-off, precocious city kids everywhere. The familiarity makes readers feel the Satrapi family’s horrified disbelief as fundamentalists obsessed with sex and death take over their country.

To be a secularist in America right now is to feel some faint shadow of that same horror. When I spoke to Satrapi by phone from her home in Paris, I was reluctant to make comparisons between Iran’s tyrannical mullahs and our homegrown Christian theocrats, because I didn’t want to trivialize her country’s exponentially greater suffering. She, however, had no such qualms. “They are the same!” she said in a rush of slightly broken, accented English, launching into a plea for solidarity among all enemies of fundamentalism. “The secular people, we have no country. We the people — all the secular people who are looking for freedom — we have to keep together. We are international, as they” — the fanatics of all religions — “are international.”

Satrapi’s latest, “Embroideries,” is less explicitly political than the Persepolis books. The earlier works combined the public and private, drawing surreal contrasts between the small currents of domestic life and the catastrophes of history. In “Embroideries,” Satrapi confines herself to the dramas that happen inside, telling the romantic (or unromantic) tales of a group of female relatives and friends. Yet in the context of a regime determined to control women’s sexuality, these stories are subversive.

The title itself sounds quaint and homey, but it’s a spiky double-entendre. In a “full embroidery” operation, we learn, a woman’s vagina is sewn to trick her husband into thinking he married a virgin. Satrapi’s book is a mocking rebuke to the cult of chastity, and a statement about the way human passions find their way around the most determined repression.

One thing that comes through in all of your books is that the regime in Iran hasn’t been able to change people’s interior, human lives.

Absolutely. In the first place, when you look at the whole history of Iran, Iran has always been attacked. It has been attacked by the Greeks, by the Romans, by the Chinese. There has always been war, especially when you look at the last 200 years. And I think this creates a behavior that, if you want to survive, the only thing that you can do is to keep your interior life for yourself, because the rest is not up to you. I think this is something that has become part of our genetics.

For instance, when I was a child and I was going to school after the revolution happened, there were whole lessons to brainwash us, and we were supposed to become extremely religious and all of that. The reason that we escaped from that was that the parents, they would say, “Don’t believe whatever they tell you in school. Learn the things that you should know about mathematics or geography. The rest of it is not true.” And they would tell us what was their truth. It’s in this way that we could keep who we were.

Your parents are so extraordinary in these books. Was the freedom they gave you common among educated Iranians?

I had extremely modern-thinking parents, even for Europeans or Westerners in general. They put a lot of faith in me. They trusted me. I was not brought up like a girl. I was the only child. My father taught me how to drive when I was 11 and a half!

They were young in the ’60s and had all these ideas of emancipation and openness and all of that. In Iran, we were almost always under dictatorship, but in my private house where I was living, even if we wanted to buy a sofa, each person had one vote, and my vote counted just as much as my parents’. They had ideas about how a child should be, and they stayed extremely faithful to their ideas.

I don’t know if this is common or not common, but in my [extended] family, most of the parents were very nice and open-minded and easygoing, and my friends’ parents were the same.

I don’t pretend that I am presenting the whole population of Iran. Of course if you come from a poor neighborhood or you come from a very small town in the middle of nowhere, probably your life is not the same. I’m always talking about my own experiences.

In “Persepolis,” the familiarity of your family life makes it more harrowing and frightening when the revolution and the war with Iraq intrude. It makes you see how normality can be blown wide open.

Exactly, and suddenly it’s completely leaning the other way, and you have to react very fast. Suddenly there’s this really big change and nobody was expecting it. Talking and laughing was the only way to survive. Either we had to laugh or we had to die.

Reading your books, I sometimes think that people are the same everywhere. But even though the women in your stories are very ironic and sophisticated, there is still a big difference between the sexual mores of Iran and the West. How significant is that difference?

The subject of sexuality is, I think, both more and less a taboo in Iran. In the West I have the feeling, living here for a long time, sex is much more related to sin. In Iran, sex is not considered a sin. A woman, even in the Islamic Republic of Iran, if she can prove that her husband cannot do it with her, then she can ask for a divorce. It’s not a sinful thing, the sex act itself.

I’m not talking from the legal point of view. I’m talking about the way the people think about it or talk about it. But then comes the issue of virginity, and virginity for me is really the sign of a patriarchal society. In a patriarchal society in which the father is the chief of the family, he owns the land and he owns the cow and he owns the house and he owns his wife, and so it’s better if she is not secondhand. If you want to buy a pair of shoes, it is better that nobody else has worn them before you — it is something like that.

But at the same time, nobody stops any divorced woman from remarrying. Divorce is not considered something terrible in Iran. In Tehran, actually, one couple out of two gets a divorce.

In Iran, sex is a problem before marriage. After marriage, it’s much less of a problem. Here in the West, I very rarely hear older women, 60 or 65, talking about sex. From the moment they have menopause, sex is over for women. In Iran, I think it goes for a longer time.

America is much more open than Iran, and our public culture is more sexual, but the women in your books strike me as more down to earth about sex and relationships than we are. In the United States right now there’s an absolute panic about divorce, that it’s destroying our culture. And there’s a hysterical romanticization of marriage…

Absolutely, absolutely! They show the belly of pregnant women every second, and write that this actress and that actress is pregnant … they consider that the belly of the woman is just made to make children.

And also they teach in the schools — I know American teenagers — instead of teaching them how to have safe sex, they tell them that they shouldn’t fuck at all! It doesn’t work. People, when they are 17, they are so full of hormones, and the only thing they think about from the morning until the night is sex, sex, sex. Teaching them how to have safe sex is much more logical.

You have gone through a period in the ’60s with sexual liberation and all of that. Now there is this whole thing in America about having to be secure — security makes us very conservative. And there’s a very big coming back of these very moral, religious, heavy things — not having sex before marriage and all of that.

On the contrary, in Iran people are on the way to make a sexual revolution. It’s a little bit later than what has happened in Europe.

I read that Iran has just liberalized its abortion laws.

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Abortion in Iran is not considered a sin. Even when it was not legalized, if a woman says, “I had an abortion,” it’s fine. Nobody will judge her. It’s considered something normal. I have seen so many people having abortions in Iran and they are not suffering, because the society doesn’t make them feel sinful. If you have a child and you abandon your child, then people will say, “What a bitch, why did you do that?” But why make unhappy kids, if you already know you’re going to make them unhappy? Even when you decide you’re going to be an excellent mother, you fuck up your child. So if from the beginning you think that you’re going to be a lousy mother, it’s better not to be one.

In America, the religious right thinks that, through new laws and strictures, they can change the way people behave in their private lives. Everything about your work shows that that’s impossible.

This is impossible! Do they think that children in the high school, because they tell them “Don’t fuck,” that they will stop doing it?

Especially when they couldn’t even stop people in Iran, where you could be arrested or whipped.

Exactly.

At the same time that Iranians have a much more conservative regime and government, I have the feeling that they’re much more liberated. They’re much more liberated talking about abortion, talking about sex, talking about divorce.

When I got divorced it was no big deal. Life moves on. Yeah, I made a marriage and it was not the right one. My grandmother, she got divorced also. Almost everybody in my family has had a divorce. It’s not a big deal. And normally, their second marriage has been much happier. Or if it hasn’t, so you marry six people, seven people! It proves that you’ve lived, that you haven’t been bored your whole life!

You said something interesting before — that fears about security make us conservative. Can you explain the connection?

First, people have stopped talking about pleasure. Eating is a pleasure, but they will tell you if you eat you’re going to get high cholesterol. If you make love, you’re going to get AIDS. If you smoke, you’re going to get cancer. But smoking is a pleasure — I’m a smoker, I can testify. Eating is a pleasure. Making love is a pleasure. OK, it’s a risk sometimes.

The fact is, the world is very fearful, because we don’t know who the enemy is. The world is at war, but at war against who? Bin Laden turns into Saddam and Saddam turns into someone else. They all the time talk about security. Security, security, security. But when you talk about security, then everything is about being safe. And being safe also means having less freedom.

It makes a society much more conservative, looking for security. If you have freedom, then you have more risks. It goes together. Myself, I prefer to take some risks, and once in a while it’s going to hurt. My grandmother always said the saddest life is to be born a cow and to die a donkey.

What does that mean?

That means you are born stupid, and you’re going to die even more stupid.

In your life you have to experience things; you have to see things. What is the interest of life if you’re always scared and you don’t see anyone and don’t go anywhere? What is the point in living? Just eating and shitting and making money?

The interest of life is somewhere else. The whole world has become more conservative, and at the same time we Iranians, who are supposed to be the most conservative, I think we are less conservative. The young people, they have been brought up by the schools to be extreme fanatics, but they are secular. They are more secular than my generation.

Some conservatives here think that secular young Iranians would be happy if America would come and liberate them. What would you say to them?

Democracy, contrary to what they try to tell us, it’s not a paper that you hang on the wall and then you have a democracy. Democracy is a social evolution. It is something cultural. Iranians, they have become much more secular, and they are ready for democracy, but they have to fight themselves for democracy, and the only thing that other countries can do is to understand their fight and help them in their fight.

They [America] talk about the human rights in Iran … how is it that the United States makes the biggest deals with China, and China is far from respecting human rights? What about Saudi Arabia? If you want to talk about an inquisition, the Iranian regime is far from being an inquisition. We have almost a free press, people leave, women have the right to study, they drive, they work. Saudi Arabia, they don’t have anything like that! Talk about human rights in Saudi Arabia! Why doesn’t anyone go and put a bomb in Saudi Arabia and kill the king?

Do you think it’s ironic that, in the face of American threats, you almost find yourself defending the Iranian regime?

Absolutely, but if we want a democracy, the Iranian people have to do it themselves. The Americans say they want a democracy in Iran, and at the same time, when the Iranians wanted to become democratic in 1953 with [Mohammad] Mosaddeq and to nationalize our oil, the CIA came and made a coup d’état in my country. Why do you want me to believe that they want to come and make a democracy? We have to make our democracy!

There are many things that I wish for in my country — I want my country to be free, I want my country to be democratic, I don’t want any journalists to go to jail because of an article they wrote in my country. But if the United States of America attacked my country, no matter what, I would be against the United States.

Is there anything that outsiders who want to support Iranian liberals can do to help them?

Absolutely! You have the Federation for Human Rights — I work with them — and so many things like that. Internationally, instead of making wars and dropping bombs, instead they can make a much more powerful United Nations. They can make international law. How was it possible that they stopped Milosevic, and they brought him to the court at The Hague? They can do things like that!

For the people who think that America will come and liberate them, I invite them to read the history and see what America has done. I’m not talking about American people. I’m in love with American people. I love going to the United States of America. I’ve been for several book tours; I’ve come for vacation with my husband. For me it’s an amazing country. I love the enthusiasm of Americans … I love the pop art, I love the American cinema, there are so many things that I love about America! I love Coca-Cola, you know?

My criticism is not towards America — it’s towards the American government, which to me are two different things. The America that I know is not represented by George W. Bush.

Do you see similarities between the Christian fundamentalists in our government and the mullahs in Iran?

They’re the same! George Bush and the mullahs of Iran, they use the same words! The mullahs of Iran say we have God on our side; he has God on his side, too. Both of them are convinced that they are going to eradicate evil in the world. But when these words come out of the mouth of a mullah, it’s normal. It’s a shame that the president of the biggest secular democracy in the world talks with the same words as the mullahs. It’s extremely scary.

Do you have any advice for secular Americans who are faced with living in a country that’s increasingly governed by religious fundamentalists?

If I have any advice, it’s that every day that you wake up, don’t say, “This is normal.” Every day, wake up with this idea that you have to defend your freedom. Nobody has the right to take from women the right to abortion, nobody has the right to take from homosexuals the right to be homosexual, nobody has the right to stop people laughing, to stop people thinking, to stop people talking.

If I have one message to give to the secular American people, it’s that the world is not divided into countries. The world is not divided between East and West. You are American, I am Iranian, we don’t know each other, but we talk together and we understand each other perfectly. The difference between you and your government is much bigger than the difference between you and me. And the difference between me and my government is much bigger than the difference between me and you. And our governments are very much the same.

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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