'Persepolis' in the Classroom Led to Understanding

Persepolis helped make the case for open discussion and books reflecting a variety of cultures. 

When early news reports spread this spring that Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett had banned Persepolis and asked that Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel be removed from libraries and classrooms, I decided that my sophomores needed to know what was happening.

In that moment, I felt fortunate not to teach in CPS. I teach in the Chicago suburbs and, since my students have spent all year reading and talking about banned books, I thought this was the perfect current event to discuss in the classroom. We would later learn the specifics of Byrd-Bennett’s concerns.

Satrapi's autobiographical novel, which tells the story of her childhood in Iran during and after the Islamic Revolution, had been on the CPS seventh-grade reading list. As the story unfolded, Byrd-Bennett said the book’s “graphic language and images” were not suitable for seventh-graders and was reassessing the appropriate grade levels. But early reports had painted a broader picture of the ban.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, hearing about the initial ban excited my students. They wanted to read the book immediately. Our sophomore world literature class was at the end of one nine-week unit on tolerance and about to start a unit on gender. I thought it was the perfect time in our curriculum to introduce Persepolis to my students.

We read it in class, discussing issues that arose along the way. My honors students read the entire book. My college prep students only had time to read pieces of it. A common concern arose in all my classes: Why were women forced to wear the veil in Iran after the Islamic Revolution? We discussed culture and tradition.

Satrapi does a great job of explaining the impact of events. In one scene, when she and her parents are watching television, the newscaster says, “Women’s hair emanates rays that excite men. That’s why women should cover their hair!” This description led to rich discussions about whether women should wear the veil if they immigrate to countries not ruled by religious leaders. When I posed this question, my students brought up France’s “burqa ban.” All but a few students in every class thought the ban was unfair. Some felt a ban against the veil should be in place in every country to avert terrorism.

One student wisely argued, “Not all Muslims are terrorists. Muslim extremists are to Muslims what the Westboro Baptist Church is to Christians. Not all of us are like that, just like not all of them are like that.”

I thought this was a particularly mature statement from a sophomore in high school. I went with it, asking students whether they thought a ban on veils would prevent terrorism. Unanimously, the students said that it would not. In fact, they said that banning religious symbols like the veil could make some groups even angrier at Western countries and their intolerance of Muslims.

This discussion was a great way to start talking about the Muslim religion and various stereotypes my students believe. It was also an easy way to encourage them to remain tolerant citizens in the face of acts of terrorism like the Boston Marathon bombings. I was happy to see that my students were thinking in terms of choice and fairness, regardless of what they see in the media. Persepolis afforded me the opportunity to talk with my students about important issues. That experience makes a stronger case for these books being taught in schools, not banned from classrooms.

Samsa is a freelance writer and teaches high school English in the south suburbs of Chicago.