“There was a door to which I found no key: There was the veil through which I might not see.”
A poster in my residence hall calling for students to protest against Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, President of Iran, prior to his speech at Columbia University on September 24, 2007, proclaimed: “This is not just an Iranian issue. This is a (among others) women’s rights issue.” Along with civil laws introduced after the 1979 Islamic Revolution that categorize women as “half of men” (in terms of witness testimony, blood money for murder, etc.), one of the contentious women’s rights issues in Iran is the mandatory veil2. Iran is one of the few countries in the world with four distinct seasons. The summers are hot, if not boiling—100ºF in July. You’d be inclined to wear shorts perhaps, but if you are female, that would mean putting yourself at risk of imprisonment, flogging or a fine. Per Article 638 of the Islamic Penal Code of Iran, “Women who appear in public without a proper hijab should be imprisoned from ten days to two months or pay a fine of 50,000 to 500,000 Ryal.” 
In his essay “Behind the Official Story,” James Scott discusses the discrepancy between how people “appear in public” and how they act in private. Of relevance and interest here is the “public performance required of those subject to elaborate and systematic forms of social subordination” (2). Muslim women the world over choose to wear the veil. But when wearing the veil is mandated by law—as in Iran—it becomes unclear whether women wear it out of genuine personal and/or religious motivations, or merely to satisfy a public image required by law, as part of a mandatory “public performance” (2). Early in his essay, Scott distinguishes between the “public transcript” and the “private transcript.” His analysis and examples deal chiefly with the divide between public and private verbal interaction. However, he does note: “A second and vital aspect of the hidden transcript that has not been sufficiently emphasized is that it does not contain only speech acts but a whole range of practices” (14). Scott identifies practices such as “poaching, pilfering, clandestine tax evasion” on part of the dominated ones and “luxury and privilege, surreptitious use of hired thugs, bribery and tampering with land titles” on part of the dominators (14). In “Behind the Official Story,” Scott goes beyond chronicling the difference between what subordinates are able to say in the presence of their dominators (“public transcript”) and what they can only speak of among themselves (“private transcript”) and vice versa; he ultimately calls into question the entire functioning of power structures in society. It is worth examining the “theatrical imperatives that normally prevail in situations of domination” in the case of the veiled versus the unveiled woman. 
In her autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, Marjane Satrapi traces her childhood in post-revolutionary Tehran. The first section, entitled “The Veil,” speaks of “1980: the year it became obligatory to wear the veil at school” (3) 5. Born into a “very modern and avant-garde” (6) family, Satrapi faces an identity crisis caused by the clash between the pro-revolutionary undercurrents at school and opposing opinions at home, until she “really do[es]n’t know what to think about the veil” (6). Satrapi emphasizes the stark contrast between her two identities by using only two colors, black and white, for all of the book’s illustrations. The image on page 6 is especially powerful, split down the middle with a black background on the left and a white background on the right. Yet it is far from symmetrical: on the left Satrapi is unveiled, and on the right she is veiled. Interestingly, the background on the left depicts a ruler, a hammer and cogs, images associated with work and possibly a career. The background on the right, by contrast, depicts quintessential Islamic floral designs. Along with the mandatory veil law came additional limitations on women’s freedom, so the veiled woman was more restricted to the home than her previously unveiled self. Article 1105 of the Civil Code of Iran states: “In relations between husband and wife; the position of the head of the family is the exclusive right of the husband.”  Thus, the dichotomy between the private and public “transcripts” of women can be seen as a parallel to the dichotomy in gender roles brought about by gender-specific laws. Recently, loaded phrases such as “looking beyond the veil,” “behind the veil” and “you can’t judge a woman by her cover” have been used as the clichéd titles of documentaries and feature stories, perhaps because the veil denotes a symbolic barrier between the public, veiled woman and her private, unveiled counterpart. The veil is more than just an article of clothing; it is, in fact, an entire mode of conduct.
As discussed earlier, the mandatory veil law was accompanied by other restrictive laws concerning how a woman must act—or, in Scott’s terminology, “perform”—in public. Thus, the differences between a woman when she is veiled and when she is unveiled extend beyond her speech to her behavior, actions and gestures. Persepolis helps us detect such nuances through pointed illustrations. Without her veil, Satrapi’s mother is an outspoken liberal: on page 76, she is pictured with short hair, arched eyebrows, a strong mouth and a fist in the air, along with a speech bubble adamantly declaring: “She (Marjane) should start learning to defend her rights as a woman right now!” Contrast this with the meek depiction of her public self when confronted by the infamous “morality police”: she is veiled and her eyes are visibly wider as she thanks the policeman almost too profusely for letting her husband go without charges: “Thanks, thanks so much!” (109). Instead of being clenched in a fist, her hands are shown raised with palms facing outward in a gesture of surrender. Even within a single image, Satrapi subtly suggests the existence of dichotomies.
Although Satrapi’s mother looks self-assured and confident on p.76, Satrapi divides her face into a white left-half and a black right-half. Are we to understand, then, that even when the woman is unveiled and in private, her public veiled self is present within her? Scott posits that “those obliged by domination to act a mask will eventually find that their faces have grown to fit that mask” (10). It is possible that in this nuanced image, Satrapi is pointing towards the same idea – that Satrapi’s mother cannot shed her public mask completely even in private. In other words, while the material veil may be removed upon entering the house, shedding the non-corporeal veil is not so simple. It may also be worth noting that Satrapi colors the outspoken part of Satrapi’s mother (with the raised fist) black; the use of black may indicate obscurity – emphasizing that this part of Satrapi’s mother must remain private, hidden. Interestingly, the behavior of Satrapi’s father, who is obviously unveiled at all times, is a lot more consistent. He talks back to the same police officer, saying, “I won’t take that from you. For twenty years I’ve worked for this country and you dare to talk to me like that?” (108) and thus risks arrest on grounds of insolence. In this instance, it may be relevant to consider Scott’s “crude and global generalization” that “the greater the disparity in power … the more the public transcript of subordinates will take on a stereotyped, ritualistic cast … the more menacing the power, the thicker the mask” (3). The disparity in power between a policeman and a veiled civilian female is greater than that between a policeman and a civilian male. This is partially due to the vastly different legal systems for females and males. Article 638 of the Islamic Penal Code of Iran (above) dealing with “Offenses Against Public Morals” applies exclusively to women. Thus, this power disparity makes for a greater disparity between a woman’s public and hidden personas than a man’s. Yet, assuming that the mandatory veil law is repressive and requires a “public performance” from women is a dangerous generalization because there are many women in Iran who, regardless of the law, would wear the veil out of personal conviction. The fact that many Muslim women living in countries without such laws choose to wear a veil should give us pause. Scott recognizes this problem when he writes of the danger of assuming that public conduct is, in fact, a performance: What warrant have we to call it a performance at all, thereby impugning its authenticity?
The answer is, surely, that we cannot know how contrived or imposed the performance is unless we can speak, as it were, to the performer offstage, out of this particular power-laden context, or unless the performer suddenly declares openly, on stage, that the performances we have previously observed were just a pose? (4) Since Persepolis is a first-person narrative, we are given insight into Satrapi’s personal views on the veil in particular and the post-revolutionary regime in general. We also see marked differences between how she conducts (or is forced to conduct) herself on the streets of Tehran and how she rebels within the four walls of her room, listening to rock music: “I put my posters up in my room. I put my 1983 Nikes on … and my denim jacket with the Michael Jackson button” (131). The material transformation from the private unveiled to the public veiled self is perhaps best illustrated by the images on page 131. Notice how Satrapi changes from a typical wild teenager playing air guitar in front of an Iron Maiden poster to a slightly mischievous one tying her laces and, finally, to a demure, sedated young woman after she has donned her veil in the last image.
It is worth observing that the quintessentially Western concepts of rock bands and branded shoes are associated with the private self, while the public self reflects Iranian and Islamic culture. This should have great ramifications for our understanding of gender discriminatory laws: there were obviously political as well as religious motives for the Islamic Revolution that overthrew the pro-Western Shah and led to the introduction of the laws in question. Satrapi also reveals how women who do not personally agree with the law subtly express their otherwise hidden views in public: “In no time, the way people dressed became an ideological sign. There were two kinds of women. The Fundamentalist Woman. The Modern Woman. You showed your opposition to the regime by letting a few strands of hair show” (75). These understated acts of defiance allow us to distinguish between performers and those who act out of personal conviction. What, though, is the consequence of the hidden transcript becoming public, even subtly so? Punishment by law aside, the non-conforming woman faces threats and public humiliation if she fails to play the part of the veiled woman adequately.
When Satrapi steps out into the streets wearing her denim jacket and her Michael Jackson pin, showing a few defiant strands of hair, she is confronted by “The Guardians of the Revolution: The Women’s Branch” (132) who call her a “whore,” among other things (133). It is intriguing how women subject to the same laws choose to enforce them on other women in the same position as themselves. The motivations for such treatment of women by women are puzzling; a possible explanation could be that in the strictest view of Islam, men are not allowed to touch female suspects and, thus, in Iran it is generally female police officers (often casually referred to as the “fashion police”) who deal with women who violate the dress code. A more vociferous show of opposition has more dire consequences, as we see when a group of unveiled women rallying against the regime and the veil law are suppressed by violence: “The scarf or a beating” (76). The result of such suppression is then, of course, a more defined boundary between the hidden and the public transcript, and a thicker public mask: “That was our last demonstration” (76). As readers of Persepolis, we must understand the historical situation—it portrays the immediate aftermath of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The book is based on Satrapi’s own childhood in the early 1980s. The laws in Iran have undergone amendments since then, leading to altered power-dynamics. Under President Mohammad Khatami, who was elected in 1997, enforcement of the veil law was loosened, which led to women wearing shorter coats, looser scarves and more colorful clothing. More importantly, Iranian women today are reentering the job market, the number of Iranian women graduating from college is surpassing the number of men, and women are also participating in the democratic process as elected members of the Islamic Consultative Assembly, Iran’s national legislative body.
As the power balance in any domination paradigm (in this case, the state-citizen paradigm) varies, so too do the nature and extent of a “hidden transcript.” One could say that under more liberal conditions, the veil slips back both literally and figuratively, and that there is now less of a barrier between the public veiled woman and her private unveiled self. However, as Scott points out, “power relations are not, alas, so straightforward” (5), and so to assume a directly proportional relationship between the stringency of laws and the extent of a hidden transcript amounts to oversimplification. While a connection obviously exists, in a scenario where there is such a clear division between choice and compulsion, the dangers of generalization are far too great for us to draw a definitive conclusion. Still, it may be safe to say that since the early 1980s, the black-and-white contrast of Satrapi’s Iran has made way for less stark shades of gray.
1. FitzGerald, Edward. Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Fifth edition. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1889. Quatrain XXXII.
2. “Veil” is a general term and may refer to various veils worn by Muslim and non-Muslim women for different purposes (to obscure, to shield, or for ceremonial purposes). In this essay, I use the word “veil” to refer specifically to the headscarf worn by Muslim women, i.e. the hijab.
3. The Islamic Penal Code of Iran is accessible online from the Mission for Establishment of Human Rights in Iran (MEHR IRAN) at http://mehr.org/Islamic_Penal_Code_of_Iran.pdf.
4. I use “veiled versus unveiled” to refer to the same individual when in public (veiled) versus when she is in private (unveiled).
5. Appendix A contains the images from Persepolis associated with each quotation I use from the book.
6. The Civil Code of Iran is accessible online at http://www.babylon.com/free-dictionaries/THE-CIVIL-CODE-OF-THE-ISLAMIC-REPUBLIC-OF-IRAN/51044.html.
(N.B.: the images are arranged below in the order in which they are referred in this essay.)
Civil Code of Iran < http://www.babylon.com/free-dictionaries/THE-CIVIL-CODE-OF-THE-ISLAMIC-REPUBLIC-OF-IRAN/51044.html
FitzGerald, Edward. Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Fifth edition. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1889.
Islamic Penal Code of Iran <http://mehr.org/Islamic_Penal_Code_of_Iran.pdf&
Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. New York: Random House Publishing Co., 2003.
Scott, James C. “Behind the Official Story.” Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, Yale University Press. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.