The opening chapter of Persepolis describes the implementation of the veil policy in Iran. After the populist 1979 Islamic Revolution, during which the westernized monarch, called the Shah, is overthrown in favor of an Islamic Republic, the new government becomes increasingly religious and oppressive and makes it obligatory for women and girls to wear a veil that covers most of their faces. The girls at Marjane’s school, including her friends, Golnaz, Mahshid, Narine, Minna, do not like the veil, particularly because they do not understand why they must wear it. At the same time at school they play games as if they are revolutionaries: “Execution in the name of freedom!” In the first drawing that opens the book, a group of girls sit in a row with their veils and look unhappy; Marjane sits with them, but she is partially cut by the frame.
Persepolis opens with the implementation of a government policy, that of the wearing of the veil, which on the political level captures the repressiveness of the Islamic Republic and for Marjane in particular encapsulates throughout her childhood a symbolic shrouding of her desires for freedom and self-expression. Only a child, she is thrust into a whirlwind of change that she cannot possible understand, and yet her and her schoolmates attempt to make sense of it: though they react negatively against the veil, they support a grim revolutionary slogan that they must have heard first from adults. Marjane’s positioning half in and half out of in the frame foreshadows how she will, at the end of the book, leave Iran, but also never “escape” the pull of Iran as her homeland.
Before 1979, these girls are all part of a French co-education and non-religious school, which is shut down following the Revolution particularly because bilingual schools are seen as markers of capitalism and decadence. Afterwards, “we found ourselves veiled and separated from our friends,” Marjane describes. On the streets there are demonstrations for and against the veil, of which Marjane’s mother is a part. A German journalist photographs her mother and the photo is placed in many European magazines. Though Marjane is proud of her mother for demonstrating for her beliefs, her mother fears for her life, as she might be recognized on the street as being the woman in the photograph and be in danger; she dyes her hair and wears glasses for a long time in order to protect herself.
Marjane slowly begins to explain the differences in both Iran at large and her personal world pre- and post-1979 Revolution. Co-education and foreign influence becomes disallowed by 1980 as the new regime begins to crack down against what they consider to be non-Islamic elements of society. From the start of the memoir, Marjane expresses how her family contends with the difficulty of having to navigate a fraught landscape where one wants to fight for one’s rights, but one also has to be careful if one also wants to live with whatever freedoms the government does allow. Execution or imprisonment are very real threats, though as a child Marjane sees them as glamorous badges of courage rather than awful.
Marjane speaks to her conflicting feelings about the veil. Though her family is modern, she “was born with religion” and feels deeply religious herself. From a young age she imaginatively perceives herself as “the last prophet”; even though all the other prophets in history are men, she does not let that dissuade her from her conviction of greatness. She writes her own “holy book” with rules that derive from religious sources like the first prophet of Iran, Zarathustra, and also her own experiences; for example, one rule she devises has it that everyone should have a car. Every night she speaks with God, who appears as a character in the book, and confides with her grandmother about her feelings, though her grandmother is the only person she opens up to. Marjane codifies it that no old person will suffer, and when her grandmother asks her how this will be done, she replies: “it will simply be forbidden.”
Marjane’s ambivalences are reflections of the kind of soul-searching that many in Iran must be also experiencing: how to understand one’s own beliefs and behaviors when the government imposes on one so-called correct behavior. Though her family sees being religious while not wearing a veil as being compatible, the government believes the opposite. Marjane’s idea of herself as a prophet suggests the ways in which she is, at such a young age, already steeped in the history of her ancient country—as well as its new, developing history. By mixing up history, religion, and modernity, and reinventing all three towards her aims, she mirrors the regime in a way. Even the language of “it will simply be forbidden” directly mirrors the mentality and language of the regime. And yet her rules involve female empowerment and the elimination of suffering, which of course are the opposite of what the new government will impose.
When Marjane eventually does confide to people in school about her fantasies of prophet-hood, they make fun of her. The teacher gets wind of all this and calls her parents in to the classroom to talk to them about her fantasies. At home her parents question her, though they defended her before her teacher, and she lies to them and says that she wishes to be a doctor. Regardless, she keeps her hopes alive in secret, telling God that she will continue being a prophet but that no one will know: “I wanted to be justice, love and the wrath of God all in one.”
Marjane’s private thoughts enter the public sphere, and quickly she gets into trouble, as will constantly be the case in the book. The regime purports to decree the laws of Islam, but the talk of executions, the demonstrations, and the possible threat to Marjane’s mother’s life, show how religion becomes a force for oppression and danger. However, Marjane illustrates and wishes to implement a different version of religiosity, one that treats people with fairness and love, and which accepts women as equal to men.