“In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”
—The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
As of last Tuesday, the Alabama House passed radical restrictions on a woman’s access to safe, legal abortion in that state. This new legislation prohibits abortion once there is a fetal heartbeat. That means a woman cannot make the choice to be a mother after the first five or six weeks of her pregnancy. In other words, she might not even realize she is pregnant until after it is too late to make a decision.
This disturbs me for several reasons. If you have been paying attention to me at all, you probably have guessed that I am pro-choice and a feminist. So any law that restricts a woman’s personal liberties sends me round the bend. I also resent the hypocrisy. Not to completely generalize, but many anti-choice politicians are also the individuals who oppose government imposition on people’s individual freedoms. Don’t you think the freedom to make choices about your own body is just as important as the freedom to buy a gun? Finally, it pisses me off that so many of these anti-choice politicians block free access to condoms, birth control, and emergency contraceptives. Bottom line: If you want fewer abortions, make it easier to have fewer unwanted pregnancies.
Why am I going off on this political, probably controversial rant? Because I want to live in a society where I don’t have to worry about being restricted and repressed because of my gender. I don’t want to have to make a devastating decision, like the one Marjane Satrapi was forced to make.
In the course of Satrapi’s graphic narratives Persepolis I and Persepolis II, Marji leaves her homeland, Iran, twice.* She loves her home and her family, but she can no longer bear the oppressive regime and the radically conservative views about women, their role, and their sexuality. In order to be who she is–independent, outspoken, stubborn, sexually agentic, a punk music fan–Marjane has to leave Iran permanently. She does not want to be compelled to wear a veil, practice a religion, act submissive, or hide her true self. Even if she is spiritual and understands why some women wear the veil, she resents religion being a government requirement. As Marjane grows as a person, the Iran she knew devolves into nothing but a memory. The new regime is not safe for an Outside Girl.
Forcing a woman to wear a veil, practice a religion, and prohibiting her from choosing her own clothes, makeup and music is different than denying a woman access to a legal abortion. What Satrapi experienced is an example of extreme government intervention into a woman’s life. Marjane’s very behavior is subject to punishment. But we, as a culture, should not get up on our high horse. The U.S. might seem like the land of liberty and individuality, but denying women the right to choose is not that far away from controlling the way they live their lives. Our plight is not as difficult as Marjane’s, but restricting one right makes restricting others easier.
We like to think of ourselves as a progressive culture, as a free country. But we also have debates about women’s rights on a daily basis. I have the emails from Emily’s List and Planned Parenthood to back me up on this. We’re really not so different from many of the cultures that we condemn as backwards or medieval. We might scoff at the way some countries treat their women, but are we really that far away from being like Marji? No one is making me practice Christianity, but the religious beliefs of some lawmakers seriously affect me and women like me.
Before Marjane leaves Iran for the last time, her mother tells her “You are a free woman. The Iran of today is not for you. I forbid you to come back!” Her mother is right. Even though Marjane loves her country and many of Iran’s customs, she cannot fit in. Marjane is a born rebel, an outsider. After all, as Jennifer Worth opines, for Marjane “the margin is clearly not a negative place, but quite the opposite; it is ultimately a place of freedom, where living on her own terms and performing her own journey is finally possible.” She enjoys being different from the crowd and basks in her own distinctive identity. Unfortunately, being an Outside Girl doesn’t just separate her from the crowd. Her otherness puts her in mortal danger. Marjane’s choice to completely be herself results in more than social ostracism; it marks her as a government subversive.
*Please be advised: I think everyone should have the right to do what makes them happy, but no one should force them into anything. I have no intention of insulting Iran or its people. And I do not wish to stereotype Islam or anyone who chooses to wear the Hijab. Just because there are a few extremists in one nation or religion does not mean that we should write off the entire community. I am only reiterating Satrapi’s story and trying to defend women’s rights around the globe.
(Image #1 courtesy of progressillinois.com; #2, #3 and #5 courtesy of blogs.stockton.edu; #4 courtesy of morningsidereview.org)