Shielded from the customs, tradition and heavy policing of Iranian society, a house in 1990s Tehran offers a safe place for the secret sexual world of a group of progressive thinking, extroverted women. A young Marjane Satrapi, author of Persepolis, serves samovar tea in her grandmother’s house to her mother, her aunt and their muddle of female friends. Satrapi’s understanding of their colourful tales on sex and love spill out across the pages of her beautifully illustrated graphic novel Embroideries, allowing us to become voyeurs into the lives of women whose sexual stories are rarely told.
In a male free segment of society, (in other words, after the men have been banished to their bedrooms) the women gather round to devote themselves to hours of therapeutic gossip, as Marjane’s grandmother states “To speak behind others backs is the ventilator of the heart.” Whilst this secret world is free from the physical presence of men, their conversations are riddled with them. After the tea is served, tales of masculine pride, patriarchal rules, cheating and lying husbands, and traditionalist sexual values punctuate the conversation of the group as the women express explicit distain for Iran’s suffocating tradition and the double standards of men and women in their fast pace stream of secrets of heart breaking and rule breaking.
Grandmother opens the discussion with a tale of tradition and masculine pride that dates back to her teenage years, yet as the conversations unfold, it is clear that these issues still plague the more recent relationships. Grandmother tells the story of Nahid, a childhood friend who lost her virginity to her lover right before her arranged marriage. The sexual tradition in Iran was for women to remain ‘pure’ for their husbands on their marriage night. Grandmother describes the challenge of deceiving the new husband into thinking Nahid was a virgin- a tale involving a razor and a damaged testicle, and in turn damaged male pride.
The desire for virgins is a recurring theme throughout the stories. One speaks of being promised to an elderly man at the age of 14, and fleeing on her wedding night, recoiling from his wrinkled body. Another, of getting engaged to a rich Iranian stranger based in Europe, who she does not meet until after their wedding day. The stranger turns out to be gay, wanting to marry a young girl to protect his status.
These traditional expectations are stretched out into the stories of the younger women, yet an alternative to faking virginity as displayed in Nahid’s story is updated with the use of ‘embroidery’, reinterpreting the established symbol of the traditional idea of womanhood and domesticity. Instead of embroidering a fabric, embroidery is instead a reference for sewing up the vagina to replicate a ‘little girls.’ The idea of embroidery is seen to shock European women, as displayed in a hilariously awkward interaction in the book. Yet Satrapi suggests, for many of the women who lived under traditional societies, it was the only way to exercise some form of sexual freedom, allowing them to have sex before marriage and enjoy the same sexual experiences as men.
The patriarchal traditional idea of no sex before marriage in Middle Eastern society is however questioned by Marjane’s progressive and non-conforming aunt. Pictured as an older woman, voluptuous in a low cut, skin tight dress, with flowing dark hair and a beauty spot, the Aunt bluntly cuts through the group chatter about embroidery and the deception of men to protect their pride demanding the following…
“And why is it women who have to be virgins? Why suffer torment to satisfy assholes? Because the man who demands ‘virginity’ from a woman is nothing but an asshole!!!”
Her statement is met by many opinions, but non as progressive and far from tradition as hers. In the realities of 1990s Tehran, it was largely damaging and hugely dangerous to exercise sexual choices out of the realms of the social codes which dictated society. Embroideries is a book that brings alternate ideas into sexual politics, and gives light to those stories that are so rarely told.
By Laura Durechova