Persepolis explores the intersection of religion and modernity, as well as the impact of religious repression on the religious feeling and practices of those who must endure it. At the beginning of the story, when Iran is ruled by the Westernized, American-backed dictator Shah, Marjane defines herself as “deeply religious” even as she and her family think of themselves as also being “very modern and avant-garde.” In fact, her religion at the start seems like a type of freedom. Religion, Islam and Zoroastrianism, and its many stories and traditions allow Marjane an escape not only into fancy and imagined glory—she sees herself as the last prophet—but also into ideas of social equality, aid for the weak, and the end of suffering. In pre-1979 Iran, Marjane does not see religion and modernity as incompatible: in her self-written holy book she adds a commandment that “everybody should have a car.” Indeed, God, who comes into the book as his own character, provides Marjane with much comfort, companionship, and meaning.
But the Revolution, which many Iranians supported because they wanted freedom from the decadent, violently oppressive, and foreign-backed Shah, ended up bringing to power a regime of conservative religious hard-liners who saw modern Western-style culture as incompatible with Islam. This new government—the Islamic Republic of Iran—soon passed laws that rigorously regulated all behavior on strict religious grounds and outlawed consumption of or interaction with essentially anything seen as Western, such as American music or clothing. Much of the graphic novel depicts how the Satrapi family, devoted as it is to Western ideas and practices, must hide these affinities behind closed doors (smuggling in, making, or buying Western luxuries like wine and posters of rock bands), while outwardly professing their devotion to the religious values defined by the rulers of the nation so as not to suffer terrible consequences that could range from beatings to torture to execution.
Further, Persepolis shows how, while Iran ostensibly became more religious under the Islamic Republic, the government’s attempts to force their religious practices onto the populace actually causes Marjane and others to lose their personal religions. After the execution of Anoosh at the hands of the Revolutionaries, Marjane yells at God to leave her, and he disappears as a character from the graphic novel. Under the new regime, she can no longer explore and think about religion on her own terms, and instead religion gets co-opted for nationalistic and political reasons. For instance, Mrs. Nasrine, the family maid, shows Marjane and Marjane’s Mother the plastic key painted gold given to her son by his teachers. The key, given to the poorer boys of Iran, represents their guaranteed entry to heaven if they are to die as soldiers in the Iraq-Iran War. Religion, here, becomes a tool used by the government to not only justify but make schoolboys want to go to a war that is almost certain death for them. Seeing such a usurpation of religion, Mrs. Nasrine expresses that though she has been “faithful to the religion” all her life, she’s not sure she can “believe in anything anymore.” Further, Persepolis depicts the hypocrisy of many of the representatives of the Islamic Republic, who declare their religious allegiance to the laws but also take bribes or overstate their devotion for the chance at extra money or promotion. The state-sanctioned religion makes shows of religion valuable as a means of career advancement, but does not inspire true religious values in many of even its most powerful adherents. Ultimately, the graphic novel portrays the repressive religion imposed by the Islamic Republic as actually standing at odds with the heartfelt religious feeling and belief experienced by an individual.
Religion, Repression, and Modernity ThemeTracker
Religion, Repression, and Modernity Quotes in Persepolis
We found ourselves veiled and separated from our friends.
I really didn’t know what to think about the veil. Deep down I was very religious but as a family we were very modern and avant-garde.
I wanted to be an educated, liberated woman…and so another dream went up in smoke.