Behind Closed Doors

Comic artist Marjane Satrapi reveals what Iranian women talk about when they're alone.
Comic artist Marjane Satrapi's Embroideries is a bawdy love letter, a work on a smaller, more intimate scope than her previous books, Persepolis and Persepolis 2, which were set against the backdrop of two revolutions -- Iran's Islamic revolution, and the West's sexual one. The first book featured Satrapi's young alter ego grappling with the hypocrisy of a movement that promised freedom but brought oppression. In the second, the teenaged Marjane struggles through ill-fated romances and brutal xenophobia in Europe before she seeks solace in Iran -- but once home, she finds the Islamic Republic's sexual repression intolerable as well. She returns, ultimately, to the West -- an exile who cannot purge her passion, animosity and hopes for her homeland from her artistic imagination.

Embroideries returns to that home, taking place over one long afternoon as Satrapi's women relatives and friends drink tea and talk over a favorite subject -- sex. Embroideries is an X-rated (and actually entertaining) version of The View -- one where grandmothers, mothers, and granddaughters talk about hymen restoration, the virtues of being a mistress, and the questionable aesthetic value of the penis.

In Embroideries, Satrapi documents the ways in which strong-willed women in Iran have fought back -- in secretly gleeful silence or through overt rebellion -- against misogynistic traditions and piggish men. The book is also a celebration of these women's resilience, their tough-mouthed, tender-hearted talk over tea. Satrapi spoke with me on the phone about geriatric sex, the appeal of the ass, and the promise of young women in Iran today.

Noy Thrupkaew: How did Embroideries come about?

Marjane Satrapi: Embroideries is appearing in America after Persepolis 1 and 2, but I made it between those books. Persepolis was a heavy story -- I had to remember unpleasant things, and had in my mind a mission to teach people about my country, because there has been so much misunderstanding. So I really needed a moment of joy, just joy -- and I wrote about this afternoon that I spent with women of different generations. I really loved the stories the women told me. I don't know if they are made up or true. I don't think it matters. They made me laugh so much I just wanted to share them.

It's very interesting how women make use of gender segregation in Iran -- which definitely can have its disadvantages -- to create such a powerful and private space for themselves.

It has always been like that. Even before the Islamic Republic, we were always a very traditional country. When you have such strong traditions, you have very extreme reactions. In such societies, discussion between the women is the space for freedom. These stories don't present a complacent point of view about women, that they are all suffering, oh my god. They're not victims. And I refuse it completely, I hate that image. Even in the worst days under the Islamic Republic, I never saw myself as a victim. We always have the choice to do something else, to make a parallel life.

And part of that parallel life seems to be these talks over tea. No matter where we are in the world, women will get together and talk about sex.

Absolutely. And so do the men. But the women go more into the details. A woman will tell you about every corner, every inch.

Yes, they certainly do in your book, even saying the penis is ugly. What do you think about the penis, as an artist?

It's not so special. Other parts of the body are more interesting to draw. The penis is not photogenic, I would say. [Laughs]

What other parts are more photogenic?

I like very much the breasts, the shoulders, the neck, whatever leads to the head. Actually, a nice ass is beautiful, too, a continuation of the leg. A continuation of the balls is nothing, just a hole. And then that thing hanging. [Laughs]

Did you have opportunities to draw nice asses in school?

Oh yes, there were many asses. Well, not in Iran. When I went to school in France, we could draw nudes. But when you draw, you become like a doctor, these things don't have any sexual connotation anymore. All you think about is a matter of proportion, just a part of the body.

If you have this sort of scientific detachment, how do you draw something erotically?

Actually, I haven't drawn anything erotically, except maybe one image in my most recent book, which will be published in the States in 2006. I am a little bit too shy for this kind of thing. For me, words are just air. I can say dickdickdickdick! But when I draw, it becomes much more real. Telling is nothing. I was brought up by a grandmother for whom these kinds of words were like hello and goodbye. Even though she never read any Freud, everything had a sexual connotation, which is very funny, especially coming from the mouth of an old woman -- it is ten times better. That's why my grandmother is the central character in the book -- she is the most sexual. She was around 78 at the time, and she was the one who laughs the most. I wanted to show how women of all ages are interested in sex. In Europe it is different, people are sexual only until they are 45. After that, talking about the sexuality of older people is almost like committing a sin!

Why do you think that is?

In Western society, people don't want to face the idea of death. Society is very high-tech -- we shouldn't die, but we do it anyway. So we don't want to see the procedure of getting old, dying, and the suffering in between. We put old people in hospices: you go in, then you disappear. I think that's very specific to Western society. All this plastic surgery, everyone wanting to look young, is very sick to me. Not admitting that you're going to get old is not admitting that you are going to die, not admitting that you're just a human being.

As for the young people, on news reports, they always talk about the young teenagers who commit crimes. A society that is scared of its adolescents and rejects old people is a society that doesn't want to look at its past and is scared of its future. Every two seconds on TV [you hear that] if you don't have sex five times a week with your husband or boyfriend, you're fucked up. But after a certain age, it becomes perverted? We always have sexual needs. Of course, you can't perform the same when you're 60 or 70, but you're not dead yet.

Is sexuality among older people more accepted in Iran?

In Iran, sex is not considered something bad. A woman can complain if a man doesn't satisfy her. If you read the original version of One Thousand and One Nights, they are fucking everywhere. I mean, you have the robbers and the flying carpet and all of that, but basically, it's full of sex.

People might be surprised to hear that Iran might have more progressive notions about sexuality.

In Iran, you don't need a prescription to get contraceptives. It costs almost nothing. There isn't really this feeling of guilt about the idea of abortion, even though it's not something the law permits you to do. All the friends of my mother have had abortions. Many of my friends have had them.

What do you make of sigheh [a Shi'a "temporary marriage"]?

Well, that means they can marry a woman for one or two hours. If you are a virgin girl, your father has to give you permission. But if you are married and then divorced, you don't need a witness. You can be his wife for one day, or three hours, or a quarter of an hour, depending on what you want to do, of course.

Some critics say it's just prostitution without the economic exchange.

You could say that, but imagine a woman who is divorced or a widow, and she wants to have a sexual affair and doesn't want to feel guilty towards her God -- that makes it possible.

It's interesting how you're reframing it -- most of what I've read about sigheh talks about the benefit for the man.

All these points of view completely forget the pleasure of the woman. If the woman can also have pleasure in the sexual act, it can also be freedom. To be honest, in most of the sigheh cases, it is the man who has the woman. But a sexual thing is made by two people. If it isn't, yes, it could be rape or prostitution. But if you like him, you can also have satisfaction.

It's clear in your work, however, that women's choices and pleasure exist concurrently with societal, economic and governmental control over their sexuality.

Absolutely. The day we can say that we are civilized is the day when women can have the same relationship to their sexuality that men can. If we could share the notion of satisfaction, we could be equal toward the notion of pain as well.

Why is it so important for fundamentalists -- and not just in Iran -- to control women's bodies?

Well, in all societies, the base of fundamentalism comes from a patriarchal schema. When half of a society feels they are better than the other half just because they have penises and balls ... you have big trouble from the second the man says, "I am the man, which means I am the leader of the family and decide everything." Big things start with the small things. If we don't have any equality in the family, how can we have a society of justice?

Your book has universal appeal, but is also very immersed in the context of Iran and gender relations in that country. What would ideal gender relations look like in Iran?

They are already starting to happen. Twenty years ago, the thought of a girl living on her own without her parents, or with her boyfriend, was unimaginable. But now I know people who do it. Two-thirds of Iranian students are women -- that is going to change things. In the past, most women weren't educated, didn't have jobs. You have all these rights, but what happens to you when you have been living with the same guy for fifteen years, and no education, no job? You stay with him even if you don't want to, because you are economically dependent on him. But these days, women have education and jobs. And in 20 years, when the law changes, not only will we have the law but we will be able to use it, because we have everything we will need to do so -- economic independence and education. As for our patriarchal macho society, who brings up the children? The mother. The woman makes her son macho, calls him doudoul tala or "golden penis." If this woman is educated, maybe she will bring up a son who is less macho. For me, the education of women is the key -- sexually, intellectually, professionally.

Persepolis 2 has quite a strong critique of the sexual revolution of the West and the sexual repression in Iran. I noticed that you often draw both Iranian fundamentalists and naked Western people without heads or eyes. Why is that?

Because it's the same kind of intolerance, I think. The debate about the veil -- I am not a religious person, all my life I've been fighting against it. But I can imagine that someone might want to put a veil on. To say that a woman cannot wear it is the same as saying she has to wear it. You cannot just forbid or force someone to do something. From the point of view of some Westerners, the woman who wears a veil isn't worth anything. But to sell orange juice or cars, you have to show a pair of breasts? Isn't that also another kind of veil for women? Isn't nakedness veiling what they really are?

But the women in your book clearly embrace their attractiveness also.

Of course! Me too! God has given me nice breasts for me to show, so I can be attractive. Otherwise, why would God have given them to me? All the men like to watch, and personally, I like to watch men's asses. A well-made ass is always cute to look at, no? God has made it, and God has given me eyes, so I look. [Laughs] It is very good!

I completely agree. Thank you, Marjane. It was a pleasure.

For me, as well. You know, talking about sex and pussy is always a joy for me.
Noy Thrupkaew is an American Prospect senior correspondent.
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