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Iran women's protests are the focus of 'Persepolis' author Marjane Satrapi's new book

<strong></strong>Marjane Satrapi, a graphic novelist, holds her latest book <em>Woman, Life, Freedom</em>, in her home in Paris, France.
Eleanor Beardsley/ NPR
Marjane Satrapi, a graphic novelist, holds her latest book Woman, Life, Freedom, in her home in Paris, France.

PARIS — In her bright Paris apartment, Marjane Satrapi makes coffee, her cat rolling at a visitor's feet. The author of the internationally acclaimed graphic novel Persepolis, about a young girl coming of age during Iran's Islamic Revolution, Satrapi thought she had left comics behind. She's mostly been working in film in recent years.

But she was pulled back to the medium after a young Iranian woman died at the hands of Iran's morality police for not properly wearing her hijab. The death of Mahsa Amini in 2022 sparked months of protests across Iran. Satrapi gets goosebumps thinking about it. She says it was history in the making.

"These adolescents are like, 'Stop, we want another world,'" she says, speaking of the massive protests begun by young Iranian women and joined by young men. "If it was only young girls, I would be extremely scared. But the girls were carried by the young guys. This is the difference. A real feminist revolution cannot succeed until men understand that equality between them and women is also good for them!"

Veiled Iranian women hold Iran flags and placards while attending a pro-government rally in Tehran, in December 2022. The rally was held in opposition to unrest following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody in September 2022.
/ Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images
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Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Veiled Iranian women hold Iran flags and placards while attending a pro-government rally in Tehran, in December 2022. The rally was held in opposition to unrest following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody in September 2022.

Satrapi says the protests were the first real pushback against the patriarchal culture underpinning Iran's clerical regime, which came to power in 1979.

The title of her newest book adopts the demonstrators' slogan: Woman, Life, Freedom. The anthology — a collaboration among more than 20 artists, activists, journalists and academics — depicts in words and art the historic uprising and its context.

One of the contributors is Abbas Milani, who fled Iran in 1987 and is now the director of the Iranian studies program at Stanford University. Like Satrapi, Milani believes the recent protests were very different from the 1979 revolution that replaced the U.S.-supported, secular regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi with a Shiite theocracy.

"The Iranian women's movement, in its civil disobedience, defiance and persistence, is absolutely one of the most important civil disobedience movements of the 20th century," Milani says. "It is completely comparable to the civil disobedience movement in the U.S. led by Martin Luther King."

Milani says only Satrapi, with her connections and international stature, could bring together such a diverse and talented group and turn out this book in just five months. Woman, Life, Freedom was published in Persian and French for the first anniversary of Amini's death last September. The English-language version, translated by Una Dimitrijević and published by Seven Stories Press, came out in March.

Spanish artist Patricia Bolañossays she thought it was a prank when she got an email about working on the project with the famed author of Persepolis. It was only when Satrapi got in touch herself that she believed it. Bolaños, who lives in New York, says Persepolis is one of her favorite graphic novels but she knew little about Iran.

So she worked with one of the project's Iran scholars to illustrate the book's chapter on the "Aghazadeh," or noble-born, a term connoting nepotism and corruption that's used to describe the children of Iran's elite, its ruling mullahs and Revolutionary Guards.

An illustration by Patricia Bolaños featured in Satrapi's book <em>Woman, Life, Freedom.</em>
/ Marjane Satrapi
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Marjane Satrapi
An illustration by Patricia Bolaños featured in Satrapi's book Woman, Life, Freedom.

Bolaños says she was inspired by one of their Instagram accounts, "Rich Kids of Tehran," which showed the Aghazadeh wearing bikinis on French Riviera beaches, drinking alcohol and partying.

"It was really scary because these are the kids of those setting the rules, but they don't follow the rules," she says. "For me, it was like, how is this possible? Especially for the women. These kids are perpetuating this corrupt system. And at certain moments they have to collide with this other world of other women fighting and dying for freedom."

Bolaños wanted to know what those moments are like. The last cartoon in her chapter shows a stylish Aghazadeh checking her Instagram account. "She watches videos of women burning veils and yelling 'freedom,'" says Bolaños, "and the reader sees it reflected in her sunglasses. And someone asks her, what are you watching? And she says... nothing."

Satrapi says it was important to involve people from outside Iran in the project to show Iranians the world is watching, and embracing the protesters' cause. The author believes nobody would read a 280-page book on the history and society of Iran. But a graphic narrative, she says, draws readers in.

"A comic has this advantage, because the first language of the human being is drawing," says Satrapi. "So it's an immediate relationship that we have with image. Instead of using 1,000 words, you draw an image and the human being understands what this image is about."

She flips through the book. "Each artist has his own style," she says, pausing on the chapter titled "In the Hellhole of Evin Prison."

"Mana Neyestani was actually in Evin prison," she says, "so he was the best one to draw this part."

The Iranian cartoonist, who now lives in France, is a recipient of the Cartoonists Rights Network International Award for courage in editorial cartooning. He was jailed for three months in 2006 because of a cartoon he drew in an Iranian publication that was considered offensive.

Satrapi drew the chapter on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, the notoriously vicious guardians of the 1979 revolution. "Without the Revolutionary Guards, the Islamic Republic wouldn't last a month," she writes. "They control the weapons and the finances. For now, at least..."

Satrapi says her hand ached as she worked on that chapter. "I didn't want to draw their dirty faces," she says.

Illustration by Marjane Satrapi about the Iranian revolutionary guards.
/ Marjane Satrapi
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Marjane Satrapi
Illustration by Marjane Satrapi about the Iranian revolutionary guards.

The 55-year-old artist, who has lived in Paris for more than 25 years, says her generation was exhausted after living through the Islamic Revolution, followed by a massive wave of political executions and the eight-year Iran-Iraq war.

But Satrapi believes the current generation, with educated women and the mobilizing power of internet, will bring change.

"It's such courage," she says. "And this is why I believe that this revolution, sooner or later, is going to give its results."

Milani agrees. "I think it's the beginning of the end of the regime," he says. "This doesn't mean the regime will fall tomorrow because it still has money, a small base of support, and it still has the brutality to kill hundreds and imprison thousands. But it's delusional to think that this corrupt, incompetent regime of septuagenarian and nonagenarian clerics, whose ideas come from 1,400 years ago, can rule the Iranian society of today, where more than 60% of college graduates are brilliant women, who in every domain inside and outside of Iran, have created marvels with their work."

Satrapi says the millions-strong Iranian diaspora can be a loudspeaker for what's going on in Iran, but change must come from within.

"It's not up to us," she says. "What am I going to decide for a young Iranian person who is in Iran? I have not put my feet back in my country in 25 years. So what am I going to tell them?"

Still, Satrapi has no doubt change will come. She says it's just a matter of time.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.
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