Iran is a country ruled by religious fundamentalism. As such, their government is generally pretty homophobic and sex-negative. However, one Iranian cartoonist, Kioomars Marzban, better known as Kya, is working to provide sexual education with an online comic.
Jensiat, a collaboration between Kya and artist Vahid Fazel, follows three main characters: Leila, a businesswoman and activist; Jamshid, an Iranian-American digital rights activist (and Leila’s love interest); and Shirin the sexologist.
Lelia’s just returned to Iran after a decade of living in France. She wants to be successful in Iran’s emerging tech industry, and she partners with her two friends.
The three of them set up a website teaching sex ed, and the Iranian government isn’t exactly a fan. When they refuse to make the changes the government demands, Jamshid is put in prison.
In this case, art mirrors reality — the Jensiat site (in Persian) not only features the comic, but lots of educational resources. And like the fictional Jamshid, the real-life Kya has faced persecution over this important work. Unlike Jamshid, though, Kya’s not in prison — he was exiled to Georgia. (Fazel, the illustrator, lives in Toronto.)
Though the title, Jensiat, translates to “Sexuality” or “Gender”, the focus of Jensiat isn’t just on sexual health. Jensiat also a lot of helpful information about technical issues. One story involves a woman in an abusive relationship. Her boyfriend is hacking her social media, and the characters solve her problem — while teaching the readers how to solve it in real life.
The idea of using comics as a way to train people isn’t new. In World War II, pioneering cartoonist Will Eisner — most known for superhero strip The Spirit — created Army Motors, teaching GIs how to maintain their vehicles.
After World War II, this morphed into PS Magazine — and Eisner’s idea to teach via comics has been so successful, PS Magazine is still running today. Of course, PS Magazine is designed to only deliver information; Jensiat is ultimately about its narrative.
While Jensiat is only available in Persian, it’s been getting noticed around the world. It was nominated for a Freedom of Expression Award. While Jensiat is filtered by Iran’s government, Iranians will contact the Jensiat team for advice on tech — and discuss what it means to be online in Iran.