Gendered Bodies in Motion: Representation of Iranian Women Dancers in Public Spaces of Tehran

Elaheh Hatami and Sepideh Zarrin Ghalam

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Woman dances on Tehran’s metro in protest (2014) (via BBC Urdu)

A video of a young Iranian woman exuberantly dancing to Little Mix on the Tehran metro has spread rapidly, and not just because of her moves. Dancing in public is illegal in the country, but the unidentified girl twirls around the metro carriage regardless – even when her hijab slips down her shoulders. Think of it as a one-woman protest with some pirouettes. The woman has defied two Iranian laws for women – dancing in public and moving around without a head covering.

The video was uploaded to the Facebook page of My Stealthy Freedom, which is a place for Iranian women to express their personal views on the matters of hijab as many women in Iran do not agree with the Islamic law of wearing a hijab. Thus, it was a popular topic for the video has already been watched over a million times.1 The clip lasts barely over a minute, but one can still see the girl pulling some serious moves to the faint, tinny sound of Little Mix’s Salute (sample lyrics: ‘Ladies all across the world / Listen up, we’re looking for recruits / If you’re with me, let me see your hands / Stand up and salute’). Many of the people on the carriage try to ignore her, although one woman in the video says disparagingly, ‘Now this is a new fashion.’ However, her comments are at odds with the positive reaction that the film has received online, where over 30,000 people have liked it on Facebook.

It is not about how well she dances; it is the fact that she has broken a taboo. The video of the dance of this unknown young woman in the public space illustrates the distance and difference between the Iranian state and its people. This gap becomes more evident when the uniform image of the society dictated by the Iranian State TV, where all women are well-covered in dark colours, is put in contrast with the heterogeneous image broadcasted by people-driven social media where there are also women without headscarves, wearing colourful clothing, and shown to be dancing and singing. This taboo act of the young woman occurred only once in the physical space of a metro while the captured image was later acknowledged, acclaimed and repeatedly reproduced within the virtual space of Facebook as it went viral.2

Women Dancers in Post-Revolution Iran

In Iran’s post-revolution system of government, religious laws were instrumentalized to weaken and control the social role of women, who were already struggling to overcome the limitations of a long history of patriarchal culture and tradition. The seclusion of women, gender segregation and compulsory hijab were among the very first regulations decreed by the Islamic Republic following the 1979 Revolution. Such policies were imposed even more strictly on women artists and particularly on dancers, as their bodies were the medium for communicating art and expressing emotions.

Dancing has now been officially forbidden in Iran for 38 years. This prohibition has above all affected women. In Iran, dancing is considered to be traditionally a female medium, an embodiment of femininity. Because of this restrictive and suppressive attitude toward any exposure of femininity, female dancers are not able to utilize their expressive and communicative instrument freely or without consequences. Imprisonment and suspension of work permits are the least of the punishments that threaten the profession of female dancers.

Dynamics of Power and Resistant Movement

After the 1979 Revolution in Iran, the control of social and urban spaces was among the first spatial policies of the new political regime for forming a cultural and physical ‘Islamic atmosphere’ based on their own interpretation of the religion and by means of gender segregation in universities, public sectors, schools and even private companies. The aim was to reformulate the concept of private space within all social spaces, associating it with the body within public spaces especially with regards to women. Under the new formulation, the female body as a private space is not allowed to be exposed within the public space and thus its public presence and appearance has to be regulated by the state, not by the person nor any social norms, in order to protect the private space and at the same time secure the public sphere.

The ‘Islamic’ dress code and specifically Chador as ‘superior veil’ was a clear symbol of such policies. Another strategy was to select darker colors in clothes to attract less attention to the body. Spatial gender segregation, however, was foremost among policies for establishing an “Islamic” society. In such circumstances women were at the frontline of marginalization in public spaces.

Political power in Iran tends to stretch its arms beyond public space and also intervenes into the private sphere. Yet, it is mostly the public domain that is the main battlefield of power – this in turn is where challenges by the people in different forms or degrees occurs. The authorities work to design the presence of people in public spaces, and they have the legal power to determine and control every detail, such as the dress code. However, this does not mean that such rules are being fully obeyed by people. Instead different forms of resistance or reactions are seen, even in the everyday practices of people.

It is important to note the relation between the intensity of control and the type or levels of reaction to such regulatory forms of domination. In the Iranian context, social freedom and pressure from above always vary due to internal and foreign policies. Furthermore, the tendency to adapt to patterns of globalization and modernization, particularly in big cities like Tehran, has gradually influenced social norms. In recent years this trend intensified as women and young generation began to resist the spatial norms set by an overarching ideological regime, and many underground spaces of marginalized social groupings have been created. The occasional social freedom of the last few years, which were previously practiced in private spheres, have now found their way into the public spaces and have led to a crack in the thick wall between pre-defined public and private space. Despite the fact that gender segregation is still followed in public spaces, the pluralistic tendencies of the society and its move toward hybrid spaces in the public can now be seen, more than any other time.

Iranian women are using their relative freedoms from recent years to break through spatial limitations and regain independence from imposed socio-spatial norms, making their bodies a personal issue again, and proving that wherever there is power, there is also resistance.

Dance as Political Movement

Randy Martin in his book Critical Moves illustrates how the practice of dance is interrelated with politics and social change. Martin theorizes that dance has a capacity for mobilization and argues that dance further displays a particular agency.3 According to Martin, the dance movement of an individual or a group has potential to function as protest and to represent the cultural and social characteristics of a society or cultural group who performing it.

Inspired by these concepts, we decided to take up the case of women dancers and inquire into the relationship between dance that occurs within public spaces, and the imposed spatial politics of the controlling powers. Drawing on Martin, we argue that such dance practices may not be institutionalized by political movements but can be interpreted as political acts.

Here we would also like to emphasize the potential of dance as agency, its function both as an everyday activity and an artistic practice, and the ways it seeks to challenge dominant social norms and question existing spatial orders. In the Iranian context, such activities are challenged every day by the high levels of control set on the public realms, where the authoritarian regime continues to impose its own ideological interpretation of what kind of movements are considered to be right or wrong.

The representation of the body as an art medium has been a taboo since the Islamic Revolution and the body, especially the female body, should not be shown to others. In other words, the public space is forced to be free of any association to the female body. Such an attitude is the result of an ideology that considers the presentation of women’s bodies as taboo, a so-called real threat, which one shall only overcome by transforming it into an ‘object.’ Michel Foucault witnesses such forceful transformation as he maintains: ‘the body is also directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs.’4

Restricting and disciplining a woman’s body and turning it into the ideal object of the patriarchal society has been mostly on the agenda of the state during the 38 years from the 1979 revolution. Women’s bodies have to be covered and the rules determine what to wear, how to behave, not to show body parts such as legs, arms, hair, breasts, etc., and preferably not to appear in public.  If a woman is married, her body belongs to her husband, and if not, father and brother decide for her. The purpose of production such limited bodies by power institution is primarily not to seduce the men; the female body is a threat and has a “satanic” potential to make the men guilty; this body must be disciplined and limited. The limitation is stricter in the case of moving bodies of the women; as they have more seductive potential, according to rules of the Islamic government in Iran.

What are the dancing bodies representing? Can we consider the dance of women in public spaces as a new trend to represent the image of an Iranian women? How can public spaces provide the space for dances regardless of their genre (urban or contemporary) to serve as a political act?

Azadi (Freedom) Square as Dance Stage

The green space around the Azadi Tower has become an important place for the presence and performance of dancers during recent years. Azadi (Freedom) Tower is the main symbol of Tehran city and an emblem of modern Tehran, designed and built within one of the main squares under the same name in west Tehran. Formerly called Shahyad Tower (The King’s Memorial), the tower was built in 1971 by the command of Iran’s last king in order to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of the foundation of Persian Imperial Dynasty in Iran. Following the 1979 revolution it was renamed. Apart from its shape, and representing Iranian classical and post-classical architectural elements, the Azadi Tower was the main stage for two historic events that are present in the collective memory of Iranian people, first being the demonstrations of the 1979 revolution taking place at this prominent square as well as the more recent protests during the aftermath of the 2009 elections by the Green movement.5 Images taken from both events with the tower standing dominant at the background with countless protesters in the forefront became the symbol of people’s unity through their quest for justice and freedom.

Owing  to its unique and symbolic characteristics , the Azadi Square offers Tehran a prime location of great importance. There are also several theatre halls, a library and a whole museum located in the lower areas of the tower and the square.

The square is located in one of the main entrance gates of the city where a large number of urban and suburban passengers pass by daily. The proximity of Mehrabad airport and bus terminals causes a lot of traffic and bustle round the clock in this part of the town. One can imagine that performance in this part of town can be associated with anxiety and fear, especially for the female performers.

One such performer is Armineh A., a progressive contemporary dancer and member of the dance group MaHa.6 In recent years, a new generation of dancers has been emerged. People from different disciplines have established dance groups, mostly underground. These dancers have tendency to western contemporary dance. On this account and due to restrictions for moving freely to travel outside the country, they invite instructors and choreographers from Europe to learn techniques of contemporary dance and update their knowledge, as it is difficult to access materials such as books, videos and live performances. Armineh A. started to learn ballet in her twenties began her contemporary dance career in MaHa group. As a female dancer inside Iran, she could not continue her career, and left the country for the United States in 2016.

In 2016, MaHa performed as one of the very first Iranian dance groups at the Beirut International Platform of Dance (Bipod). In a photo exhibition introducing the members of the participating groups, Armineh A., a founding member, danced for the camera in Azadi Square. The location for her performance has a direct and significant correlation with Armineh’s experiences, who has fought restrictions as a dancer, fashion designer and above all a woman. Challenging rules limiting her freedom has become part of her daily life.

In the picture, we see Armineh A. on the steps around the tower with her look fixed to the ground while her facial expression signifies a sense of discomfort. Although her casual and loose-fitting costume that should have provided her freedom to move, the contraction and tension in her arms suggests the opposite. The scarf acts as an undeniable covering piece for women in the public sphere and the jacket serves to obscure the lines and contours of the body.

The accumulation of tense and fearful memories in Armineh’s body – memories of being arrested at various ages and different situations such as during photo shoots as a model, in mixed parties or because of “inappropriate” hijab – continues to affect her movements and limit her to the extent of not being as free or relaxed within public spaces; in a country where one of the main aims of politics is to marginalize the women and tries to keep them indoors.

Photo by Mostafa Kazemi Motlagh, Tehran, Jan 2016

Conclusion

One dancer utilizes improvised dynamic movement and social media, while the other choreographs gesture for a composed photograph for an art institution. However, their purpose and the employment of civic space as a site of the resistance is similar in both cases. These two mobile bodily actions convey the message of the collective actions of women who protest in less pointed form in the streets, by breaking the rules such as wearing loose hijab, bright coloured scarves and coats and exaggerated make-up.  They signal opposition to decision makers and remind them to hear the voice of the women and recognize their obvious demands. Utilizing dance movements, women continue to question the dominant spatial and political orders and create alternative spaces, challenging themselves and their fellow citizens as well as the controlling powers.

To sum up, oppressive social conditions attempt to shape Iranian women’s experiences, yet women dancers demand to see them transformed. Their acts are not just an individual, but a shared experience and collective action.

In this essay, we have tried to briefly elaborate on the challenging restrictions in terms of regulating and controlling the presentation of bodies in public, and how women have developed different strategies to re-present bodies in public spaces. These acts do not aim at overthrowing the ruling powers nor do they push for directly major political reforms, but rather they challenge the existing orders in their performative approach. They seek to legitimize their own place in both urban and public spaces and reclaim women’s right to the city. Whether such movements could further continue and improve in due course is not an easy question to answer but we can claim that such dances have contributed greatly in realizing how the interpretation of public space by the government is paradoxical and gendered. Furthermore, these dances have affirmed that women despite all their limitations are seeking for new mediums to demonstrate their resistance against misogynistic laws and to use their bodies to communicate to the world.

 

Elaheh Hatami is working on her Ph.D. dissertation on Politics of Performing Iranian Dance in Exile at Institute for Theatre Studies at the Free University of Berlin. She studied German Studies and Literature at the University of Tehran and followed her M.A. in Dance Studies at the Free University of Berlin.

Sepideh Zarrin Ghalam is an Iranian architect and urbanist based in Berlin. Since 2014, she teaches on topics related to urban heritage and revitalization at Brandenburg University of Technology and Anhalt University of Applied Sciences.

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Notes:

  1. It is quite noticeable that within public spaces of Tehran, as of other cities and despite the presence of hijab police, many women intentionally disobey the official dress code through wearing colourful clothes, body-exposing leggings, putting lots of make-up on or regularly showing parts of their hair, neck, and arms.
  2. It should also be mentioned here that even though Facebook is banned in Iran, yet it is the second most used social network after Instagram and has more than 17 million users (www.internetworldstats,com). Therefore, using Facebook by itself is an act against law. Nevertheless, government tolerates general Facebook users unless they utilize this media for their so-called “disturbance of public order”.
  3. Randy Martin, Critical Moves: Dance Studies in Theory and Politics (Durham and London: Duke University Press 1998), p. 6.
  4. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (London: Penguin Books, 1991), p. 25.
  5. Green movement refers to the political movement that arose after the disputed presidential election in 2009.
  6. Due to security reasons lastname of Armineh is not mentioned.

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