In her book "Embroideries," Marjane Satrapi talks about the social conventions that women need to follow. Conventions such as how women are not allowed to speak openly about their sexuality or how being a virgin before marriage are necessary for specific cultures, especially in male-dominated countries.
“We good wives; we pay for our own foolishness. We project everything onto our husbands. Men are aware of this, and they exploit it”, says Marjane Satrapi's grandmother in Satrapi’s graphic novel, Embroideries.
The graphic novel is set in a house in Tehran, Iran, in the early 1990s and talks about the different experiences of a woman's sex life, be it a girl losing her virginity or marrying for the third time.
The novel begins with the family's man complimenting his wife for the food and retiring after a luncheon. The women get to cleaning the dishes while a younger Marjane makes samovar tea for everyone. After everyone is done with their work, all the ladies sit together to drink the tea and start what is perceived to be a favourite pastime for ladies, i.e., gossip.
The story focuses mainly on five women. Satrapi's grandmother begins the conversation with the story of her childhood friend Nahid who lost her virginity to her lover just 19 days before she was supposed to marry a stranger and then when she tried to secretly fake her virginity with a razor blade on the night of the marriage, to cut her husband’s testicles instead!
Other women also share their stories, like her aunt, who describes being forced at 13 to marry a man 56 years her senior. She was decked up for her husband to such an extent that on her wedding day, she says she looked 'like a little whore'. That night, she took one look at her husband's wrinkled back and ran, scaling a garden wall in her tiara and veil to getaway.
One woman describes trying to use the white magic to make her lover propose, which did not end well, while another confesses that she has never seen the male reproductive organ even after having four girls. Thus, the conversation continues, and the women share their own stories and their friends' stories, one after the other. The stories shared are all ribald and yet terrifying in a certain way.
During these conversations, the topic of surgeries comes up, and after that, the reader realizes that the book title "Embroideries" actually refers to the surgery that restores a woman's virginity. Through her writing, the author makes the reader feel that they are present and are a part of the conversation.
In the novel, women say that "Women's morals are relaxing!" "Today's girls are no longer virgins before marriage. They do everything like men and get sewn up again to get married! This way, everyone is happy!" To project this idea of a modern woman and the politics of sexuality is quite daring of Satrapi. Even as of now, in modern-day Iran, most material is highly censored.
Satrapi focuses on sexuality and a woman's needs that are not given any preference to in the real world. It is believed that topics such as these can be discussed only amongst women and that too behind closed doors because even in the novel, this conversation takes place only after the men of the house have slept.
Even in India, sexuality-related topics are considered to be something of a secret. Most Indian parents are still not comfortable having "The Talk" with their children. Not being able to speak freely about these topics makes them taboos in our society. Growing up in such hostile environments makes children hide their curiosities from elders. However, these taboos are not rooted solely in Indian culture, but rather in patriarchy.
The framework of patriarchy is based on power dynamics- the man as the provider and woman as the receiver. For a patriarchal society to thrive, it is essential to keep the subject-object status between a man and a woman. A woman is no longer considered from a good background or having morals once she expresses desire. So, society does everything it can to curb it, often disguising religious or moral ideologies.
This can mostly be seen while discussing the concept of virginity, which, it is important to note, does not work the same for men. Also, no matter how much we progress or "modernize" our thinking, a woman losing her virginity before marriage is still considered promiscuous, whorish, or slutty.
The idea of suppressing a woman's sexuality is like the glue that keeps society's patriarchal binding in place. Thus, an explicitly patriarchal society would make it a taboo and continue feeding its home-grown chauvinists (both men and women). The idea is blasphemous unless it is being used for male consumption or entertainment in most of the cases.
(Edited by Sidhant Koshi and Pujit Tandon)