Sex, Violence, and Radical Islam: Why 'Persepolis' Belongs in Public Schools

Administrators in Chicago may think they're protecting students by limiting access to a controversial graphic novel. But they're missing a chance to impart real knowledge.

persepolis-top.jpg Marjane Satrapi

The job of American schools, as enforced by the bureaucracy, is not really education. It's censorship.

That may sound overly cynical. But I've worked as an educational writer and curriculum developer for almost 20 years, and the most important part of the job, it often seems like, is not imparting information, but rather figuring out how to make sure that the students don't receive any.

On one project, a colleague of mine working on a world history course was told not to include the fact that gay people were targeted during the Holocaust. In another instance, I was told that I could not, for sensitivity reasons, include a test passage about storms at sea. Passages about rats, or alcohol, or love, or death were similarly proscribed. So were passages that depicted, or even mentioned, slavery -- and this was for an American history exam. Again, there were sensitivity concerns, though whether we were worried about offending black people or white people, I don't know. Probably both.

I was not surprised, therefore, to learn that the Chicago Public Schools have recently decided to restrict access to Marjane Satrapi's graphic memoir, Persepolis, which deals with her experiences growing up under the fundamentalist regime in Iran. The exact nature of and reason for the ban is still somewhat unclear. There was initial speculation that the book was being banned from all school libraries because its negative portrayal of the thuggish fundamentalist Iranian regime was somehow Islamophobic or insensitive to Mulsim students. This story made CPS look, obviously, very bad.

School officials have hurried to explain that they do not actually object to the political content. Instead, they say, the book is still sanctioned for school libraries, but that lower grades may not use it because of "graphic language and images that are not appropriate for general use in the seventh grade curriculum." High school teachers are still, apparently, allowed to use the book, though only with special training.

CPS then, isn't protecting the Iranian regime out of some confused notion that criticizing them constitutes Islamophobia. It is simply protecting all of our children. And, to be fair, Persepolis does include a certain amount of violence and (especially in its second volume) a certain amount of sex. Satrapi talks about how friends and relatives were tortured, both by the Shah and by the Revolutionary government. There's a picture of a man dismembered by the authorities. She also talks about the Iran-Iraq war, and there are pictures of wounded soldiers. She describes her escape from Iran to Austria, and talks (without much detail, but still) about her sexual adventures as a young woman living on her own. She describes her suicide attempt. She writes the word "fuck" once. She talks about her gay roommates. She shows herself as a young child having imagined conversations with God. She shows herself as an adolescent smoking cigarettes and dealing pot. In my experience, any one of these infractions would be sufficient excuse to keep Persepolis out of the hands of students.

I'm sure there are some parents who, if asked, would say that they don't want to have their seventh graders exposed to narratives about suicide, or torture, or God, or sex, and don't want them to read the word "fuck." There are probably parents who would be horrified to learn that my third-grader is reading Louise Erdrich's The Birchbark House at his Waldorf school -- a book in which (my son informs me) virtually everyone dies in a hideous smallpox epidemic. Maybe someone would be offended, too, by the book he read about the Chicago fire (too violent!) or by the Norse myths he's studying (too pagan!).

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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