Marjane Satrapi on resistance in Iran: 'A Real Revolution Is Cultural'

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Marjane Satrapi on resistance in Iran: 'A Real Revolution Is Cultural'
A page from Marjane Satrapi’s “Women, Life, Freedom.” Known for her graphic novel series, “Persepolis,” Satrapi is releasing a new illustrated book about the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement, inspired by the death of Mahsa Amini. (Marjane Satrapi/Seven Stories Press via The New York Times)

by Elizabeth A. Harris

NEW YORK, NY.- Marjane Satrapi, whose graphic novel series, “Persepolis,” about growing up in and leaving Tehran, Iran, won her international acclaim and millions of book sales, turned away from the form two decades ago and hadn’t looked back since.

Then, in the fall of 2022, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman named Mahsa Amini was detained by Iran’s morality police for allegedly violating the country’s hijab law, which requires women and girls to cover their hair.

A photo of Amini bruised and bloodied in a hospital bed after her encounter with police went viral. Days later, she died, and her country erupted. The Iranian government has said she died because of underlying health issues, but her family said that she had none, and that she died because she was beaten by police.

Women took to the streets and tore off their veils in what became known as the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement, one of the most significant cultural and political moments in Iran since the 1979 revolution. It is a widespread demand for women’s freedom that has been joined by men.

To document the moment, Satrapi has released a graphic work of nonfiction called “Woman, Life, Freedom,” which explains the movement, as well as the history and cultural shifts that led there. Satrapi, 54, who lives in Paris, contributed some of her own drawings and writing, but her primary role was the book’s “director,” she said in a recent interview, which she described as a combination of curating and editing.

The book is a collaboration with journalists, academics, activists and artists, with a collection of different visual styles — a chapter on surveillance and government propaganda is drawn in black and white, while a section on forbidden small acts of daily living, such as a woman going for a run or riding a motorbike, is rendered in beiges, reds and blues.

“The Iranian regime is a pseudo-totalitarian regime,” said Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University, who contributed to the book. “They want to control everything, from the way you dress to what you eat, who you sleep with, what movies you watch, what books you read, whether you shave or not. Every act in Iran can potentially be an act of dissidence.”

In a conversation with The New York Times, Satrapi discussed her goals for the book, the role of the Iranian diaspora and the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement. These excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Tell me about this image.

A; One of the reasons people are making a revolution, as this picture says, is just to be able to dance in the street. Even basic human rights, they deny us. You don’t have the right to dance, you don’t have the right to sing, you don’t have the right to do this, you don’t have the right to do that. It says it all, just to be able to dance in the street.

Q: Who is this book for?

A: For me, the book is more for the Westerner. When you have hundreds of thousands or millions of people in the street, then you talk about a revolution. In Iran, this is not possible because this regime’s tools of repression are extremely strong. So there are other kind of resistances like women not wearing their veil, more and more. This is the resistance. Just the fact of laughing. Just the fact of dancing. Small stuff like that. But it’s a real revolution because a real revolution is cultural. And this is why I wanted to make this book.

Q: What would you like people to know about this image?

A: It shows these great women taking off this veil. Standing up to the authorities. This is really the symbol of the revolution. They say without the veil, there is no reason for the Islamic Republic to exist. The whole thing falls on controlling the women. But we fight, and it is not them who give us the right to fight.

Q: When you set out to organize this book, how did you think about framing these events?

A: People in the diaspora — we are not there. We don’t know the heartbeat of our society anymore. We can be the loudspeaker, we can support them, we can talk. Whatever we know, we can spread it. We can share it with the world. But we cannot decide for them.

Q: One picture shows Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. What should readers know about them?

A: They are not the guardians of Iran — they are guardians of the Islamic Revolution. They’re there to support the Islamic Revolution, not the country.

Q: Tell me about the image.

A: It was really aching my hand drawing them. I have developed some kind of allergy. Anytime I draw these things it gives me nausea, but I had to do it. Their hands are full of blood.

Q: What do you want people to take away from this book?

A: Understanding and compassion. We are not asking any Westerners to come and make a revolution in our place. Just look at these people. They really need people to watch them, they need somebody to testify that everything they’re doing for freedom means something. And this is the way we change politics, through public opinion.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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