SOUWIE ON . . . The Arts


But “we intend to” said Iranian activist, Maryam Namzie when I met her in Amsterdam, in 2019 at De Bali’s Celebrating Dissent festival. Namazie also predicted that the next revolution in Iran would be female. The protests in the Islamic Republic of Iran, sparked by the death of a 22-year-old woman in the custody of the morality police, are entering their fourth week. I am reminded of a graphic novel I taught some years ago, called Persepolis. I thought too about the work of recent Nobel prize winner, Annie Ernaux, whose memoirs of life as a working class woman in rural France have finally been recognised as a form of protest.

Persepolis is the name of an ancient Persian city, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, that dates back to c.500 BC. The capital of the Achaemenid Empire, it lay just 60 km North East of modern day Shiraz. French Iranian writer, Marjan Satrapi’s decision to name both her book and the award-winning animated film on which it was based, after this ancient Persian capital, directly references the proud heritage of a long and rich cultural tradition. Over the years, I have met a number of Iranians who refer to themselves simply as Persians. Many view the Iranian Revolution of 1979, when the Islamic regime took power, as a high-jacking of their proud and ancient heritage.

This is reflected in the stark black and white illustrations of Satrapi’s novel, which includes a brief but poignant history of Iran. Both novel and film also rely on humour to explore the musings of a ten year old girl who suddenly finds herself forced to wear the veil and is forbidden from doing many of the things that were as natural to her as breathing. One frame depicts the young Satrapi and her class mates at recess, using their newly acquired veils as skipping ropes, the reins of an imaginary horse and as a monster disguise. The meaninglessness of this imposition on children of this age is made abundantly and irreverently clear.

Neither can the power of the visual be under-estimated, particularly when it comes to protest. Satrapi’s decision to share her story in graphic form is in keeping with the perspective of its youthful protagonist, who’s childhood innocence is painfully eroded by events that follow the Revolution. Today, on Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms, protesters both inside and outside Iran are creating a startling variety of powerful images that strike at the heart of the struggle for freedom from a regime that brooks no opposition.

As Ernaux said in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “Writing is a path to knowledge”. Nowhere are the implications of such a statement clearer, than in decisions to ban books viewed as conduits of apparently forbidden knowledge. Persepolis, both book and film are banned in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The book has also been banned at school level in parts of the United States on different occasions, since its publication.

I would like to dedicate this month’s column to all the brave women who have continued to write and share knowledge in spite of censorship, harassment or simply the disapproval of the societies in which they live.  Souwie Buis,  October 2022

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