Case Study: Persepolis

PersepolisPersepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir of growing up during the Iranian Revolution, has received international acclaim since its initial publication in French. When it was released in English in 2003, both Time Magazine and the New York Times recognized it as one of the best books of the year. In 2007 it was adapted as an animated film, which was nominated for an Oscar and won the Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize and a French César. Although it was certainly controversial in the Middle East, there were no publicly reported challenges or bans of the book in U.S. schools or libraries until March 2013, when Chicago Public Schools administrators abruptly pulled it from some classrooms.

At the time, the circumstances surrounding the ban were unclear. In an email to employees, principal Christopher Dignam of Lane Tech College Prep High School initially said that he had been instructed by district administrators to remove Persepolis from the school’s library in addition to discontinuing its use in classrooms. Predictably, a furor ensued as students and teachers held protests and anti-censorship groups, including CBLDF, demanded an explanation. The day after Dignam’s email, district CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett sent another email to principals claiming that the intention was never to remove the book from libraries, but only from classrooms due to “graphic language and images that are not appropriate for general use.” The book was approved for use in grade 11 classrooms, removed from grade 7 classrooms, and reviewed for use in grade 8 – 10 classrooms. Following the district’s review, grade 8 – 10 teachers who wish to use the book in their classrooms are now required to first complete supplemental training. Persepolis remains banned from CPS classrooms below grade 8.

As Chicago students themselves pointed out, the few panels in Persepolis depicting torture techniques that were used on Iranian dissidents are no more graphic than images encountered while studying other true events such as the Holocaust or slavery. Moreover, many of these same students are exposed to real-life violence daily in their own neighborhoods, so the official CPS justification for the restriction of a modern classic in the nation’s third-largest school district remains unconvincing. In 2015, University of Illinois Library & Information Science graduate student Jarrett Dapier obtained the release of 45 pages of emails between then-CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and other top district administrators discussing the removal of Persepolis from classrooms without much regard for CPS policy or the book’s literary quality and critical acclaim. Dapier provided further insight on the ban in an interview with CBLDF.

Possibly as a result of publicity from the 2013 CPS ban, Persepolis faced three more school challenges in 2014, landing it the #2 spot on the American Library Association’s Top Ten List of Frequently Challenged Books for that year. First, a parent in Oregon’s Three Rivers School District demanded the book’s removal from high school libraries because of “coarse language and scenes of torture.” After some contentious school board meetings, the graphic novel was ultimately retained in the school libraries without restriction.

Less than a week after the Oregon challenge, Persepolis was targeted again in central Illinois’ Ball-Chatham School District, where a parent said it was inappropriate for the senior-level English students to whom it was assigned. He also “questioned why a book about Muslims was assigned on September 11.” The Ball-Chatham school board voted unanimously to retain the book in the curriculum.

Islamophobia was also evident in the third 2014 challenge to Persepolis in Smithville, Texas, where the book was part of an innovative community book discussion series called “Let’s Talk About It: Muslim Journeys — Points of View,” funded by a grant from ALA and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Muslim Journeys programs were held in 125 communities around the country in 2013-2014 and aimed “to foster opportunities for informed community conversations about the histories, faith, and cultures of Muslims around the world and within the United States.” Students in Smithville High School’s World Geography class read excerpts from Persepolis and another book from the discussion series, In the Country of Men, and were encouraged but not required to attend the Muslim Journeys events that were held outside of school hours.

Some parents and community members were displeased with this cross-cultural engagement, however. Library director Judy Bergeron said about 30 of the 100 people who attended the discussion of In the Country of Men on September 16, 2013 were “not supportive of the program.” That same night, a large crowd also attended a school board meeting to voice their concerns “about the newly-introduced Islamic literature available to students.” Debate at that meeting seems to have mostly focused on In the Country of Men, with parent Charles King saying that the book “should be pulled from the schools.”

School board documents and a report from the ACLU of Texas show that King later filed a formal challenge to both In the Country of Men and Persepolis, the only two books from the Muslim Journeys series that were used in Smithville High School’s curriculum. The school board heard his complaint at a meeting on February 17, 2014, but voted 5-1 to concur with the recommendation of an administrator (apparently Superintendent Rock McNulty) to retain the books.

In June 2015, Persepolis was one of four graphic novels that a 20-year-old college student and her parents said should be “eradicated from the system” at Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa, California. After completing an English course on graphic novels, Tara Shultz publicly raised objections to Persepolis, Fun Home, Y: The Last Man Vol. 1, and The Sandman Vol. 2: The Doll’s House as “pornography” and “garbage,” saying that Associate Professor Ryan Bartlett “should have stood up the first day of class and warned us.” Crafton Hills administrators responded with a strong statement in support of academic freedom, although President Cheryl Marshall did note that future syllabi for the graphic novel course will include a disclaimer “so students have a better understanding of the course content.” CBLDF joined the National Coalition Against Censorship to protest this attack on academic freedom, and the district backed away from the proposed disclaimer plan.

As of late June 2015, Tara’s father Greg Shultz said he plans to speak to the San Bernardino Community College District Board of Directors which oversees Crafton Hills, and he also contacted state lawmakers. He has since stopped responding to media inquiries.

Additional resources:

Adding Persepolis to Your Library or Classroom Collection

Using Graphic Novels in Education: Persepolis

Download a PDF of the Persepolis discussion guide here.