One of the most important underlying themes of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis is the censorship of artistic expression in Iran under the fundamentalist Islamic regime that took over power of the country after the 1979 Revolution. Satrapi’s novel is itself a product of, and reaction to, this censorship. As a graphic novel, it purposefully rejects the Islamic tenet that there should be no iconic representations of the faith. It boldly denounces the brutality of the regime and calls into question the legitimacy of its rule. The book challenges the legitimacy of the regime’s war with Iran as a move to keep control of its people by sending hundreds of thousands to die. For these reasons and others, Persepolis has been denounced by Iran’s religious leaders and banned in the country that it depicts. It, however, is but one work of art that has come under intense scrutiny from the Iranian government.
In 1979, Iran underwent a large scale Revolution that fundamentally altered the culture of the country. Before 1979, Iran had been ruled by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The Shah had begun a process of Western reform in the country but had also inculcated a culture of brutality against his people, especially those that would politically dissent from his rule. This corruption caused unrest amongst the middle and lower classes which soon revolted and overthrew the Shah.
The Shah was replaced by a religious regime that sought to institute Sharia, or Islamic rule, as supreme law. This rule meant that all Western education, culture, and art was banned throughout the entire country. Early in the regime’s leadership, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini proclaimed that expressions of Westernization “rape the youth of our country and stifle in them the spirit of virtue and bravery.” This meant that artistic expressions and endeavors were strictly regulated and, in many cases, banned from public consumption.
In order for a work of art to be displayed, an album to be released for public consumption, a film to be viewed, or a photograph to be used for journalistic or artistic purposes, permission must first be obtained from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Permission is difficult, if not impossible, to attain for most artistic expression, especially any that comes from a Westernized point of view. According to some critics, this has led the Iranian people to often self-censor themselves and their work for fear of imprisonment or even execution. Critics of the Iranian regime argue that the strictness and fundamentalism of the regime’s rule has suppressed a long history of Persian art and cultural influence.
Art, however, is not absent in Iran. Instead, as a contrarian theory states, art actually flourishes under censorship. Faced with threat of persecution artists actually become more bold in their expression and point of view, according to this theory. Though not published in Iran, Satrapi’s novel would seem to be a chief example of this. Other artistic expressions openly defy the regime within Iranian borders. The techno-rock band The Plastic Wave is one such recent example. The Plastic Wave not only play music with a hard edged, Westernized sound, but they also write songs in open defiance of the government and its policies of repression and violence. Iran also has a long history of filmmaking and, though the cinema is heavily censored and regulated, certain controversial films are able to find an audience despite government threat. Bahman Ghobadi’s “Marooned in Iraq,” is a recent example. This film critically examines the lives of the poor on the Iran-Iraq border. It’s director has come under intense scrutiny by the government for his support of women’s rights and criticism of strict Iranian rule.
Paradoxically, Iran’s policies on education and cultural knowledge have actually made it more difficult to maintain a control over artistic expression. Iran now boasts a literacy rate of over 90%, and its youth are some of the best educated in the world. This educated populace often finds itself wishing to gain freer expression in art, journalism, and politics. The government, on the other hand, must play a “cat and mouse game” of allowing certain forms of expression while repressing, often violently, others. What is often not recognized, however, is that Iranians often have as much access to banned materials as anyone in the Western world. A thriving black market for music, literature, and film exists in much of the country. Though a fatwa was issued in 1994 against satellite television, this has not stopped much of the Iranian population from obtaining and installing satellite TV in their homes, offering access to world news and Western programming. Despite the threats of repression and persecution, Iranians have remained amazingly resilient in their expression and consumption of culture and art.