At an airport in France, an Iranian woman, Marjane ‘Marji’ Satrapi, looks at the flight schedule; her eyes come to rest on a listing bound for Tehran. She then takes a seat, smokes a cigarette, and reflects on her childhood.
As a young girl, Marji lived in Tehran, wanted to be a prophet, and was a big fan of Bruce Lee. When the 1979 Iranian revolution against the Shah of Iran begins, her middle-class family is thrilled and participates in the rallies, though Marji herself is forbidden from attending. One day, Siamak Jari, a friend of the family and the father of Marji’s friend Lali, is released from prison. They all listen as he recounts the horrors of prison, and Marji grows jealous of Lali having a real ‘hero’ in her family.
Some days later, Marji and a group of friends attempt to attack a young boy, Ramine, whose father, a member of SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police, had killed Communists and revolutionaries as part of his work. They retrieve nails from a toolbox and chase him, but are stopped by Marji’s mother, who punishes Marji. In her room, God tells Marji that Ramine’s father’s crimes are not Ramine’s fault. Marji walks up to Ramine the next day to say she forgives him for his father being a ‘murderer’ but Ramine staunchly defends his father and angrily rides away on his bike.
One day, Marji’s uncle Anoosh arrives to have dinner with the family after recently being released from a nine-year prison sentence. Marji is ecstatic to meet him as he is the very sort of family ‘hero’ she wants to have. Anoosh inspires Marji with his stories of his life on the run from the government.
The Shah is deposed and elections for a new leading power commence. Marji’s family’s situation does not improve, in spite of Anoosh’s optimism, and they are profoundly upset when Islamic Fundamentalists ‘win’ the elections with 99.99% of the vote and start repressing Iranian society, imposing strict Islamic law. The government forces women to dress modestly and wear headscarves, and Anoosh is rearrested and executed for his political beliefs, as are other political dissenters Marji has come to know, while Siamak flees with his family after his sister is killed in his place. Many of the family’s friends, as well as thousands of Iranians, flee the new regime to Europe or the USA. Upset that God did nothing to prevent her beloved uncle’s execution, Marji rejects her faith.
Profoundly disillusioned, Marji tries, with her family, to adapt to life under the new regime. The Iran–Iraq War breaks out and Marji sees for herself the horrors of death and destruction. The Iranian government begins implementing laws that create blatant injustices and cut down even more on social freedoms. Marji’s father is threatened by corrupt, rifle-wielding teenage government officials.
Later, one of her uncles, Taher, has a heart attack. He needs open-heart surgery, and since Iran does not have the equipment, he must go to England. But since the borders are closed, only very sick people approved by the Board of Health can leave. When Marji’s aunt attempts to get permission, she finds that the hospital director she must deal with is her former window-washer; incompetent and totally submissive to his religion, he refuses to allow the uncle to travel abroad.
Marjane and her father go to see Khosro, a man who prints fake passports. He tells them he can make the passport in a week. Khosro is sheltering a relative named Niloufar, an 18-year-old wanted for her Communist beliefs, to whom Marjane takes an instant liking. Later, Niloufar is spotted and promptly arrested and executed; Khosro’s house is ransacked in the process. Khosro flees without making the passport. Marji watches as her uncle eventually dies from his heart problems. His official passport arrives on the day of his death. The family tries to find solace in secret parties where they enjoy simple pleasures the government has outlawed, including alcohol.
As she grows up, Marji begins a life of overconfidence. She refuses to stay out of trouble, secretly buying Western heavy metal music, notably Iron Maiden, on the black market, wearing unorthodox clothing such as a denim jacket, and celebrating punk rock and other Western music sensations like Michael Jackson. She is nearly taken into custody by female Guardians of the Revolution but escapes by lying. Marji is expelled from school when she openly rebuts a teacher’s lies about the abuses of the government.
Fearing her arrest for her outspokenness, Marji’s parents send her to a French lycée in Vienna, Austria, where she can be safe and free to express herself. She lives with Catholic nuns and is upset by their discriminatory and judgmental behavior. Marji makes few friends, and ultimately feels intolerably isolated in a foreign land surrounded by annoyingly superficial people who take their freedom for granted and view her with open disdain. As the years go by, she is thrown out of her temporary shelter for insulting a nun.
Marji continues to go from house to house until she arrives at the house of Frau Dr. Schloss, an unstable former philosophy teacher. One night, her grandmother’s voice resonates, telling her to stay true to herself as she leaves a party after lying to an acquaintance that she was French. Her would-be lover reveals his homosexuality after a failed attempt at sex with Marji. She engages in a passionate love affair with Markus, a debonair native, which ends badly when she discovers him cheating on her. Marji is then accused of stealing Schloss’s brooch, and finally leaves. She spends the day on a park bench, reflecting upon how ‘stupid’ she has been, and realizes she has nowhere else left to go. She lives on the street for a few months. Eventually, she contracts bronchitis and almost dies.
Marji recovers in a Viennese hospital and returns to Iran with her family’s permission, hoping that the conclusion of the war will improve their quality of life. After spending several days wasting her time watching television, Marji falls into clinical depression. She attempts suicide by overdosing on medication. She falls asleep and dreams of God and Karl Marx reminding her what is important and encouraging her to live. Her determination is renewed and she begins enjoying life again.
Marji attends university classes and parties. She enters into a relationship with a fellow student, Reza. Iranian society is more tyrannical than ever. Mass executions for political beliefs and petty religious absurdities have become common, much to Marji’s dismay. She and her boyfriend are caught holding hands and their parents are forced to pay a fine to avoid their lashing.
Despite Iranian society making life as a student and a woman intolerable, Marji remains rebellious. She resorts to survival tactics to protect herself, such as falsely accusing a man of insulting her to avoid being arrested for wearing makeup and marrying her boyfriend to avoid scrutiny by the religious police. Her grandmother is disappointed by Marji’s behavior and berates her, telling her that both her grandfather and her uncle died supporting freedom and innocent people and that she should never forsake them or her family by sacrificing her integrity. Realizing her mistake, Marji delivers a speech at a gathering at the university, and her grandmother is pleased to hear that she openly confronted the blatantly sexist double standard in her university’s forum on public morality.
The fundamentalist police, however, manage to discover and raid a party that Marji attends. While the women are detained (having just barely managed to cover themselves up, they ultimately avoid punishment), the men escape across the rooftops. One of them, Nima, hesitates before jumping, consequently falling to his death. After Nima’s death and her divorce, Marji’s family decides that she should leave the country permanently to avoid being targeted by the Iranian authorities as a political dissident. Before leaving, she takes a trip to the Caspian Sea and visits the graves of her grandfather and uncle. Marji’s mother forbids her to return, and Marji agrees. She never again sees her grandmother, who dies soon after her departure.
Marji collects her luggage and gets into a taxi. As the taxi drives away from the south terminal of Paris-Orly Airport, the narrative cuts back to the present day. The driver asks Marjane where she is from and she replies “Iran”, keeping the promise she made to Anoosh and her grandmother that she would remember where she came from and always stay true to herself. She recalls her final memory of her grandmother telling her how she placed jasmine in her brassiere to smell lovely every day.