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  • Education Is the Humanitarian’s BurdenDevelopment and Iranian Women’s Memoirs
  • Niyousha Bastani (bio)


In 2003, the year of the invasion of Iraq and two years after the invasion of Afghanistan, two memoirs written by Iranian women about Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution were published in English: Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (henceforth, RLT) and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (henceforth, Persepolis).1 Their covers featured veiled young women, appealing to the West’s desire to learn about the Muslim-majority world with which it was—and continues to be—at war. The memoirs, like others by women from the “Muslim World,” have gained lasting popularity, both as recreational reading and as educational material in school and university syllabi. As the trend of Muslim women’s memoirs continues, I return to these works, which center themes of education and development and owe much of the authority of their stories to their “native” voice. I consider the body politics of education and development in Nafisi’s and Satrapi’s modifications of the memoir form in relation to their context as works published and popularized in the West at the very beginnings of the “War on Terror.” In doing so, I contribute to discussions about Other women’s memoirs and the relationship between ideology and literary form.

Seemingly no different from others in the “subgenre of first-person ‘oppressed Muslim women’ narratives” (D. Ahmad, 105), Persepolis and RLT both modify the memoir in ways that elude easy classification. RLT is a self-described “memoir in books,” intertwining memoir, university lectures, and literary criticism. Satrapi’s most obvious, and therefore most studied, modification is the use of the graphic novel form. Less explicitly, by framing her graphic novel as a coming-of-age [End Page 64] story, she merges memoir with bildungsroman (the “novel of education”). I argue that through these formal modifications, Persepolis, the memoir-as-graphic-bildungsroman, and RLT, the memoir-as-lecture-and-criticism, school their readers in a liberal story of development and education as processes of mastering the unruly body in favor of self-abstraction.

Historically, the liberal discourse on colonial education envisioned the West’s Others as children, so that moral and economic progress in the non-West required the production of “a reformed, recognizable Other” (Bhabha, 122). Such subjects—mimics that are “almost the same, but not quite” or “almost the same, but not white” (127–28)—were to be created through colonial education. Today, a hegemonic discourse of development still envisions educating Others into recognizability as necessary for the achievement of universal human rights. This discourse often weaponizes human rights for militaristic or economic interventions. Through form especially, Persepolis and RLT center education and link human rights violations in Iran to a supposed widespread lack of the kind of education necessary for development and rights. They thus lend native authority to the imperative for the “Muslim World” to be “educated in” (meaning, coerced to adopt) Western liberal norms.

However, whereas Bhabha’s conception of mimicry previously suggested its potential for subverting the conception of Western norms as universal, my analysis of RLT and Persepolis follows Jodi Melamed in showing that “almost the same, but not quite” is no longer a source of anxiety for the powerful under conditions of neoliberalism. In fact, an “almost the same, but not white” subject can be the perfect case for “proving” that even those coded as embodying difference can develop into the universal norm. As Melamed argues in her analysis of RLT, neoliberalism presents the success of good, educated multicultural subjects as evidence that disenfranchisement in the global order is a matter of choice, not structural racism and classism (42). That they achieve neoliberal subjecthood despite not being white shows the development path to be open to anyone who learns the universal norms that any-body can learn, because they are universal and disembodied norms, in contrast to embodied monocultural ones. By focusing on literary form in relation to bodies and education in RLT and Persepolis, I argue that these memoirs’ modifications work well for a neoliberal understanding [End Page 65] of what qualifies as an individual...


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