The realities of love in the Middle East

It’s that time of the year when couples are sickeningly cute and single people are just plain sick from eating a pint of ice cream alone while watching cheesy rom-coms. Glittery hearts and teddy bears are everywhere. Whether you’ll be going on a romantic date with your significant other or you’ll be attending KXSC’s “I’m Single and I Hate You” anti-Valentine’s Day party, chances are you’ve been in love at least once.

In the spirit of the pink-and-red debacle that is the lead-up to V-Day, I’ve decided to write about a feminist book that focuses on relationships. Sometimes, book recommendations come from unexpected sources. A year ago, my English Literature professor suggested I read Marjane Satrapi’s Embroideries following a conversation about how culture differences tends to complicate relationships. At the time, I was busy with midterms and forgot all about Embroideries until I came across it at Leavey last week, just in time for Valentine’s Day.

Embroideries is a short graphic novel revolving around the discussions of a group of Iranian women who are gathered for tea at the house of the matriarch of the family. Naturally, the discussion turns to love and the experiences each of the women has had with men.

Each of Satrapi’s characters comes to life through the stories they tell: from helping a friend perform white magic to convincing a boyfriend’s mother to let him marry her, to taking opium to give oneself the hooded look of ‘bedroom eyes’ to seduce a man. One woman tells the story of being forced to marry an army general half a decade older than her. Another tells the story of advising her friend to use a razor blade to fake her virginity – ironically, the newlywed ends up cutting her husband instead.

Satrapi’s graphic novel is unique because the characters discuss virginity and sex in unabashed terms, unrepentant under the regime of the ultra-conservative Iranian government, where women are forced to cover up by wearing the hijab or chador. Both are veils to preserve modesty, although while in Islam a woman should not be forced, things operate differently in Iran. In the Middle East in general, relationships are often frowned upon – but that doesn’t mean that they don’t happen, albeit in secret, which Satrapi capitalizes on.

One character extolls on the benefits of being a mistress rather than the wife: “To be the mistress of the married man is to have a better role. Do you realize? His dirty shirts, his disgusting underwear, his daily ironing, his bad breath […] well, all of that is his for his wife! When a married man comes to his mistress, he’s always bleached and ironed, his teeth sparkle, he’s in a good mood […] he is there to have a good time with you.”

Controversy? As proven by the quote above, Satrapi does it well. It’s even in the title of her book, which does not refer to thread and cloth, but rather to the practice of recreating physical virginity by sewing up the hymen.

I fell in love with Embroideries because Satrapi allows the reader a view into the realities of living in the Middle East, beyond what is shown in Western media. She demolishes the stereotype of the submissive Muslim woman while never explicitly stating her motives. Unapologetic, she uses the shock factor of frank sexcapades to drive home the message: despite the dominant narrative, whether Iranian or American or something else entirely, and whether you love V-Day or hate it, love and relationships are an inevitable part of life.

Gift this book to your loved one or pair it with a night of binge-reading Aziz Ansari’s Modern Love, because V-Day is all about “treating yo’self.”

Noorhan Maamoon is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism.  Her column “The Hijabi Monologues” runs on Thursdays.