Beyond the veil by Teresa Macrì

First of all it is necessary to discredit two stereotypes that still determine the western image of the female universe inhabited by Marjane Satrapi. The first, and most banal, is the total and instrumental use of the veil. It is a kind of automatic identity applied to all female Muslims, a superficial cliché that removes any consideration of the real meaning of an item of clothing that has almost become a symbol of persecution. The second, and more problematical, is the reduction of the woman’s role within modern Iranian society. Marjane Satrapi, in the wake of the more famous Samira Makhmalbaf, as represented by the Western media, might appear like a two rarities. The complexity of reality actually requires a revision of what is a heritage of a badly informed and reduced awareness of Islamic societies. Sooner or later it will be necessary to remove that blindness which still persists and by which one’s eyes are opened in other directions, that “imaginary construction”, intuitively known by Edward W. Said, by which the world is encompassed erroneously and with prejudice.  

The debate over the use of the chador (in Arabic countries the hijab and in Afghanistan the burqua) tends to have a limiting effect on the more urgent problems in societies that are as complex and dramatic as their history. Very often Muslim sociologists and writers, above all Fatema Mernissi and Leila Amhed, have raised the question placing the phenomenology of the veil in the context of a memory, of a tradition and a reserve that does not sit well in the refractory mentality of the West. Indeed, Amhed translates the obstinate condemnation of the use of the veil with the following words: “The idea of the oppression of women in colonised societies or those beyond the bounds of the civilised West is used rhetorically by colonialism to make its programme of dismantling the culture of subject peoples morally justifiable… Colonialist anti-Islamic feminism asserted, in substance, that Islam was, by its own immutable nature oppressive towards women and that the backwardness of Islamic societies was due basically to these customs symbolised by the veil and segregationˡ”. Completely dystrophic instead is the orientation in which cultural and productive experiences, the female and the Muslim world are seen. The fact that Marjane Satrapi is a comic strip writer certainly does not constitute an anomaly. Feminine representation has a rather deep existence that diversifies in the cinematographic hemisphere where the various exponents such as Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, Forugh Farokhzad, Tamineh Dilani and Puran Derakhshandeh have anticipated the international visibility that the younger Samira Makhmalbaf knew how to obtain in recent years when confronted with the increasing interest in Iranian cinema. It is here that the intensity of film and visionary photography of Abbas Kiarostami have attracted attention.

Satrapi, then, is a part of that cultural upheaval, crossing geographical boundaries, in which a different way of acting stands out. Although taking concrete form in a narration that is sarcastic and at the same time tender, Satrapi reviews history. The things that “crushed” her during the years of the Khomeini revolution, what accompanied her in her wandering journey of exile through a dilated Europe. Azerbaijani, Turkmenian, Muslim, Zoroastrian, a fragmented identity however that represents itself by means of the screen and the memory, through a pungent irony and spasmodic melancholy. Nevertheless within an aesthetic representation that carries forward the same intense conscience of Iranian artists who, being increasingly determined and numerous, re-open a bizarre horizon. A wave of fable telling Sheherazades that, in stronger terms than those of the already very famous Shirin Neshat, whose artistic imagination has always rustled among the scrolls of the exiled, have had the strength and persistence to impose poetry and imagination within an Iranian society that is certainly not easy. Above all the young Shadi Ghandarian, Ghazel, Malekeh Nayiny: a new generation of salacious artists who impose formal renewal and at the same time attention on problems of identity, reforming an imaginary universe, aimed at modernity. A common and fascinating thread links this newest wave of “heroines” of the visual tale: the self-representation of Self. There is no longer a sense of representation or pandering to others: both the morose Orientalist view that for centuries has held her confined within voluptuous harems, scantily dressed and lascivious, complying a with typically European taste and a masculine view that has deviated its sentiments. These young “daughters of Allah” as sarcastically defined by the disruptive work of Shirin Neshat, appear pugnacious and cutting. They tell of their infinite and common experiences, they find identity again in their new certainties. Marjane Satrapi plays on the idea of childhood and creates an absolute subjective mnemonic recollection that brings out that still mutable but brilliant self of childhood. Marji, the sweet child wrapped in her chador, absorbs those incongruities of her time. She comes up against a reality that does not convince her. Sneering and taunting she continually questions herself. She crosses Persepolis with that sense of incredulity and at the same time of mockery. The knowledge of the reality seems derisive, unsustainable, just as it becomes to her later in the course of time. Forced into exile in Europe, separated from her parents the places, warmth and the smells of her childhood. There is a bizarre fascination in her comic strips that is mixed with a subtle sense of loss and an intense desire to recover. A kind of settling of accounts with herself and her history. She leaves us, the readers, irremediably on the borderline: that of the possible and the impossible. That which amazes or annihilates.

1  Leila Amhed, Women and gender in Islam Historical roots of a modern debate, Yale University    

    Press, New Haven and London , 1992


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