Persepolis begins with a short introduction. It is an abbreviated history of Iran from its first occupation by Indo-European nomads, to the establishment of the Persian Empire, to the 1979 Islamic revolution. The author writes that the purpose of her book is to show that Iran is not a country of fundamentalists and terrorists, and that characterizations of the country by the West are inaccurate.
As a ten-year old girl, the author is forced to wear a veil to school by those that called for a cultural revolution in Iran. There are many protests both for and against this cultural revolution. Her French non-religious school is abolished and boys and girls are separated for education. Her mother protests against the changes and her picture appears in newspapers across Europe. She is afraid after that. The author believes that one day she will be the last prophet. She has conversations with God in which she imagines that there will be cultural and social equality and that old people will not suffer from pain. When she announces her plan, her classmates and teacher ridicule her but she retains the hope that she will one day be the symbol for justice, love, and the wrath of God.
She and her friends often pretend to be revolutionary figures such as Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. She knows of world history because of books that her parents give to her, and her favorite book is a comic book called Dialectic Materialism, in which Marx and Descartes argue over the validity of the material world. One night, while talking to God, she overhears her parents talking about a fire at a local theater in which 400 people died. The fire, they say, was ordered by the Shah and the people plan to demonstrate. The author begs her parents to let her attend the demonstration, but they refuse because she is too young.
Marjane's father explains the history of the Revolution to her: Reza Shah had been a foot soldier fighting against the King of Persia in order to install a republic. This had been during a time when Western democratic ideals were being instituted in many countries around the world. The British had learned of Reza Shah's desire to overthrow the king and, seeing an opportunity to profit from the country's rich oil fields, the British had supported Reza Shah's plans. The British made sure he had been instituted as Emperor. Marjane's grandfather had been a prince before Reza Shah came to power and, after had been the Prime Minister of Iran. Her grandfather had become a communist, however, and had been imprisoned and tortured by being put in cells full of water. Marjane tries to imagine what such torture would have felt like.
Her grandmother visits and tells her more about the Shah. The Shah is a very harsh ruler who sees himself in the line of Cyrus the Great and other great Persian rulers. When Marjane's grandfather had been imprisoned, her mother and grandmother had been very poor, sometimes boiling water on a stove just so that the neighbors would believe that they had food. Marjane's father is missing that afternoon and the family believes him dead. He returns late to tell an incredible story about a mob that commandeered a dead man's funeral in order to protest against the Shah.
Marjane has a maid named Mehri. Mehri's parents had given Mehri to the Satrapi's as a child because they had too many children to feed. Mehri falls in love with the neighbor's son and they write passionate love letters to each other. Mehri tells Marjane all about their love for each other. The news about their relationship gets out, however, and Marjane's father finds out. He goes to the neighbor's boy and explains that Mehri is not their daughter but is, instead their maid. The boy decides not to see Mehri anymore. When Mr. Satrapi finds that Marjane had written many of Mehri's love letters for her, because Mehri is illiterate, he explains that their love for each other is impermissible because social classes cannot mix. Defiant of her parents, Marjane takes Mehri to demonstrate at the marches. When Marjane's mother finds out, she slaps both her and Mehri for putting themselves in such a difficult situation.
Many people are beginning to die in the revolution. The Shah's rule becomes impossible and so he leaves the country for the United States, a move that Mr. Satrapi interprets as the United State's greed for the world's oil. At school, Marjane and her friends try to beat up a boy that was in the Shah's secret police. The boy defiantly tells her that he is proud that his father killed communists. Marjane is told that she must forgive those that torture. Marjane gives up her "Dialectic Materialism" comics and retreats to the arms of her imaginary God friend.
After the Shah steps down, the political prisoners are released. Two of them, Mohsen and Siamak, are good friends of the family and come to visit. They tell stories of torture and imprisonment. The torturers, they say, had been trained by United States CIA agents. Marjane and her friends begin to play games in which they pretend the losers are tortured. Marjane feels badly for such games and her mother again tells her that she must forgive those that tortured.
Marjane learns that her Uncle Anoosh had also been in prison and she is proud that he is a hero of the Revolution. Anoosh had defied the Shah's rule by taking a position in a government that had declared independence from the Shah. He had moved to the U.S.S.R. where he had become a Marxist and had married. His wife had divorced him and he had returned to Iran where he had been captured and imprisoned. Anoosh tells her that her family's memory must live on through such stories.
Her father and her uncle have intense and somewhat confusing political conversations. The revolution was leftist, yet the republic is led by religious fundamentalists. Anoosh predicts that the religious leaders will soon relinquish control to the people. Many people, including some in Marjane's family, begin to move to the United States and to Europe to escape the new fundamentalist regime. Marjane's father does not want to leave Iran because he would lose his social status. The situation becomes perilous, however, and the family learns that Mohsen and Siamak's sister had been killed by the Guardians of the Republic, a kind of military police force. The former revolutionaries soon become the enemies of the republic.
Marjane finds out that her Uncle Anoosh has been arrested and is being held in captivity. Her father tells her that Anoosh has asked that she be the one visitor he is allowed. Marjane goes to see her uncle and he tells her that she is the daughter he wished he could have had. Soon, they learn that Anoosh has been executed on the false charges of being a Russian spy. Marjane banishes her God friend forever and feels empty and alone. At that moment, bombs begin to fall and the Iraq Iran war begins.
Other events begin to occur quickly. The American embassy is overtaken and the Americans are forced to leave Iran. This crushes Marjane's dream of one day going to the United States. Soon, the religious leaders close all of the universities so that the curriculum can be changed. This crushes Marjane's dream of being a famous scientist like Marie Curie. When the car of Marjane's mother breaks down, a group of men assaults her because she is not wearing the required veil around her head. Women are then required to cover their heads in public and Marjane has to lie about how much she prays every day. Marjane's parents allow her to attend a rally demonstrating against the new regime. The demonstration erupts in violence and they do not demonstrate again.
The war intensifies and one day a group of bomber jets descends on Tehran. Marjane is for the war because, as she explains, the Arabs had forced their religion and culture on the Persians 1400 years earlier. Her father believes that the real Islamic invasion is occurring in their own government. A group of fighter pilots is released from jail and they agree to fly for Iran if the old national anthem is broadcast on television. One of Marjane's friends has a father who is a part of the bombing but he is killed during the raid.
During the war, food and rations are low in the country and tensions run high amongst the people. A bombing on the border town of Abadan sends Marjane's friend Mali and her family to stay with them. Mali had been wealthy and her family must sell their expensive jewels, the one salvaged item from the bombing, in order to survive. One day, while shopping in the grocery store, a group of women sees Mali and calls her, and all refugee women, whores. Marjane is ashamed for herself and for Mali.
Young male children are each given keys by their schools. The keys, they are told, represent their ticket into heaven once they are martyred during the war. The key is their ticket to women and a mansion in heaven. One of Marjane's friends is given a key and Marjane's mother tries to tell the boy that this is nothing but nonsense that the schools are telling the children, but the boy seems oblivious. Marjane's cousin Shahab returns home from the front lines and tells Marjane about the horrible things that they do to children there. They send them out into the minefields where they are blown up and killed.
During a party to celebrate the birth of a new cousin, a bombing raid begins. Marjane's aunt becomes scared, hands her child to Marjane, and runs off. The party continues, however, and there is dancing and wine, things that are strictly forbidden by the regime. On their way home, Marjane's family is stopped by the Guardians of the Revolution. Smelling wine on Mr. Satrapi's breath, they follow the family home to search the house. Marjane and her grandmother run up to their apartment to dump out all the wine in the house. The guard, however, only wants a bribe and so the family avoids the search, but they lose all their alcohol.
Marjane makes friends with some older girls at school and one day they all sneak away "Kansas," a Western style burger diner that the regime has overlooked. They flirt with boys until a bombing raid begins and the boys dive in the gutter to stay safe. At home, Marjane's mother is upset that she skipped class and Marjane goes down to her basement where she smokes a cigarette that she had stolen from her uncle.
The war has become very bad with millions of people dying. Marjane's Uncle Taher is very stressed about the war and about sending his son overseas to avoid serving in the military. Because he smokes heavily, Taher had had two heart attacks and soon he suffers a third. At the hospital, a doctor tells Taher's wife that he must go to Europe for heart surgery, but the hospital director refuses to give him a passport. Taher dies on the same day that his passport arrives and he never realizes his final wish of seeing his son one last time.
A year later, the Iranian government reopens the borders and Marjane's parents are allowed to leave the country on a vacation. They leave for Turkey, and when they return, they bring Marjane many presents of Western culture. They sneak in a poster of the rock band Iron Maiden and the rock star Kim Wilde. Marjane goes out wearing a jean jacket, sneakers, and a Michael Jackson button, but she is accosted by two women Guardians. They threaten to arrest her but let her return home safely. Marjane does not tell her mother about the incident for fear that she will become stricter and not let her have such Western things. One day, Marjane goes out of the house to buy a pair of jeans. While shopping, a bombing occurs in her neighborhood. Marjane rushes home to find the house next to hers demolished. She sees the arm of her Jewish friend, Neda Baba-Levy, sticking out from the wreckage. She had been killed in the attack.
Marjane grows up to become a "rebel" and, after a confrontation with one of her teachers, she is kicked out of school. Fearing that the country is no longer safe for their daughter, the Satrapis decide to send Marjane to Austria to attend a French school there. Marjane spends one last night in the arms of her grandmother who advises her not to carry resentment or hatred towards anyone. The next day, her parents take her to the airport. Marjane senses that, though she will see her parents again, they will never again live in the same household. At the customs gate, Marjane turns to see her parents leave. Her mother has fainted in her father’s arms.