Golnar Narimani: „Jina Revolution: A Revolution of Bodies“

Performance and Installation, Tehran University of Art’s Students Movement (Iran, 2022)

The Jina revolution in Iran which was ignited by the brutal murder of Jina (Mahsa) Amini in September 2022 by the morality police in Tehran, has fundamentally changed many things in Iran, and will continue to do so. It might not look like a raging river in the streets nowadays, but it has been like a long rain whose waters have been absorbed to earth, quenching the seeds of tomorrow’s victory tree and moving beneath the surface like the blood veins of a living body.

Among its achievements, one particular achievement stands out as its pulsating heart: a new collective subjectivity based on overlapping sufferings which did not exist before at least in its present form. This newly shaped common subjectivity which is at the same time not blind to the particularities has manifested itself in the most remarkable way in what could be called cultural or artistic productions of the revolution. An innumerable amount of images, videos, pictures, songs, dances, performances and texts circulate in the streets in various cities and villages of Iran and its neighbouring countries, on stages around the world and on social media. The current text tries to describe the specificity of these artistic activities and their achievement. These activities might show us that even though on the political scene today, we are faced with what seems like a silenced scene where antagonisms prevail, the revolution is still alive and this life manifests itself in its cultural and artistic, or let us say aesthetic aspects.

If we could suppose that one definition of political art, a rather radical one is that political art emerges as activism, reformulation of propaganda and as agitation, then the art of the Jina revolution, its main cultural heritage, perfectly embodies this form of art: it emerges with the movement, it re-formulates and re-articulates media of propaganda and many concepts related to it, it is bold and yet aesthetically modest. It is this art that we would like to take a look at.

I. Dancing a Revolution: a decentralized artistic production

Political philosopher Oliver Marchart shows correctly in his recent book titled Conflictual Aesthetics (2019) that art qua art is not political per se, it can become activist art, and politically engaged through a process and under certain conditions. By giving many examples from contemporary activist art he describes such art to have three elements, propagation, agitation and organization. The first two are in my opinion quite remarkable in the Jina Revolution’s artistic productions. In what follows we will use them to describe the movement’s artistic achievements.

II. A feminist revolution in the making

What does a feminist revolution look like? What distinguishes it from any other revolution? What distinguishes a revolution which claims its slogan to be “woman, life, freedom” in a geography marked by decades of appraisal of death, shadows of life, patriarchy and repression?

Maybe the artistic outcomes of the Jina revolution can shed light on these questions. Everybody knows now that women, since the 1979 revolution are not allowed to dance and sing or even wear what they like – the well-known mandatory hijab law – and exist bodily in public, in a gist they have been objects of total control in Iran. It has been going on like this for so long that it was almost invisible until the revolution. The revolution’s bodily performance which is its aesthetic existence uncovered the brutality of these oppressions for decades and unmasked it. Thus, one important artistic activity of the Jina revolution is performance and dance in public spaces in various ways. Other art forms significant to it include song-video clips and paintings circulating on social media. Let us underline some remarkable examples: “The rapist is you” or “the rapist on your way” is a dance invented by Chillean women to protest against sexual violence. The performance which is quite simple in moves and words soon became widespread around the world whenever sexual violence against women and feminist struggles were the issue. In the Jina Revolution as well, many women from different geographies performed the dance with translated lyrics and in various public spaces. Other dances became paradigmatic of the movement as well, among which one is emblematic for us: the “Girls of Ekbatan” dance. A couple of young girls dance to the music of calm down by Rema in Ekbatan district of Tehran.

Snapshot from the original dance video of the Ekbatan Girls, (Image taken from media on Instagram) Tehran, Iran, 2023

As their performance went viral, other women and girls’ videos dancing to the same music flooded the social media, from Baluchistan, to Tehran, to Kurdistan, with traditional dresses or modern, all women were dancing their revolution of bodies.

Snapshot from a group of Balouchi girls dancing to the same music as the Ekabatn Girls in their support, (Image taken from media on Instagram) Balouchistan, Iran, 2023

Another significant example is numerous songs sung by art universities’ students around Iran during the movement, where their whole activist presence is expressed in the rhythmicity of moving feet and their song. They are often quite simple, with one guitar or piano as accompaniment and as many as singers as possible singing the songs. However, their power rests in their sheer simplicity and accessibility.

Snapshot from Tehran Art University music students’ performance of their song “the oath” during the Jina Revolution, (image from instagram), Tehran, Iran, 2022

And last but not least, we should mention unknown artists’ and art students’ urban performances such as turning water in pools and fountains in parks into red and doing various installations and performances in university spaces.

III. Propaganda vs. Propagation

The Ekabatan girls’ dance and art university students’ activities and other instances of artistic activism clearly show the structure mentioned above, where artistic activities agitate and unsettle, even disturb without the authorities being exactly able to catch them red-handed. Moreover, they have established by now their specific propaganda the meaning of which we need to underline. Taking this term from Marchart again, propaganda does not necessarily mean manipulation, even though in a certain definition of ideology does mean that. Propaganda, etymologically from the Latin root propagare, meaning dissipation, expansion and spreading, could also refer to promoting the correct political stance in a situation of opposing antagonisms. As political messages and artistic activism contributing to them are not spread automatically and need to be propagated, the positive sense of propaganda could mean counter-propaganda in the old sense and can refer to all strategies adopted by artist activists to spread and to promote their resistance and rightful political stance. In the case of the Jina Revolution, the examples we mentioned above and many more are capable of creating a strong propaganda and make the message of the revolution heard by virtue of another characteristic they all share.

This is what we will call the de-centralized artistic performance of the revolution. Our examples and other artistic productions of the Jina movement are not created by prominent figures of the Iranian art world. They are de-centralized in two sense: firstly, they are not produced by art world’s known figures and famous artists, but by art students, activists with no aesthetic background, or simple a group of young women, so within the art world’s structure they do not belong to its symbolic centre; secondly, they have geographically and spatially de-centralized political art and artistic activism. The dances of Balouchi girls to calm down is an example. In contrast to the 1979 revolution where – of course in the absence of contemporary media – famous artists and significant figures of the art world, from singers like Mohammad-Reza Shajarian, to graphic artists and photographers and film makers, and many more joined the people’s movement in order to create art for the revolution, here in the Jina revolution we are faced with unknown artists, or mostly art students, the nameless, faceless artists transforming their activity to artistic activism for the revolution. This difference is not meant to be an axiological criteria and we are not also blind to the fact that some of such prominent figures from the art world have also joined the Jina movement; rather we would like to point to the fact that in the Jina movement we are faced with an opening-up of the artistic practice towards more democratic, less hierarchal modes of artistic production which is itself largely indebted to the emergence and development of virtual platforms and social media for presenting and propagating them. This situation is what a critical political situation such as revolution in our times necessitates.

IV. Reclaiming the Space

Even if we criticize in words and in our minds a political situation for decades, the revolution finally happens in the street, with our bodies and in our actions. Revolution is the performance of revolution. Action and practical reason takes precedence over theory and theorization. The Jina Revolution, once again is paradigmatic in this respect: unlike many revolutions, it has no leader, no specific political figure or party articulating its path and yet it has shaken the fundaments of one of the most brutal Islamic regimes. It has had an undoubtable victory in space(s). This is the second aspect from which we should consider artistic activism and cultural productions of the revolution.

On the face of it, the difference between a revolution and a feminist revolution is that the latter is focused on women’s rights and issues. However, the Jina Revolution goes much deeper than that: it is feminist not only because the oppression of the feminine body and the violence related to it started the revolution, but because it struggles for rights and causes which emerge from a feminist approach to the body and its right to space in any sense in a fundamental way. Even though the feminist struggle for women’s rights to their bodies is a universal struggle and overlaps with the Jina movement in Iran, the latter began with the outcry of women who have not even been able to choose what to wear for more than four decades and then it spread to the intersectional struggle for other rights and against intersecting forms of oppression and violence all around the country. Thus, this revolution is a performative, bodily revolution in every possible and in a very deep sense of the term.

V. It is not illegal to sit on the grass

Let us get back to our examples: Ekbatan girls dancing in public, other performances of the same dance following in the streets all over the country, is a clear reclaiming of public spaces by women who have been excluded from them for decades. Moreover, since the very first days of the movement, art students all around the country, and especially art students of Tehran University of Art transformed university spaces into spaces of performance. Their strategies of agitation seemed simple: forming human chains, sitting in the university’s green space, holding hands and standing there, writing on the walls, in the toilets, making simple paper installations with the names of the victims and so on. These strategies were deeply disturbing to the officials as on the face of it there was nothing clearly against the law. After all, an art university is space to practice art and sitting on the grass is not illegal. However, by their collective presence, by their persistent bodily assertion in the space they were reclaiming spaces in the name of their resistance. They were agitating the homogenized space of academy and transformed it into a conflictual space of artistic activism and political demands.

VI. All Spaces belong to the Revolutionary bodies

Other instances of activism are also exemplary in this respect: park pools coloured in blood red, mothers dancing and waving head scarves on the grave of their children killed during the revolution instead of crying and conventional mourning, young girls practicing parkour under a historical bridge in Isfahan, and many more. All these activities are scattered around the place, propagated and distributed in every possible space – real and virtual – and disruptive of the conventional definition of political activism and manifestation itself. The regime no longer meets with its adversaries, which is most of the population, in certain streets, big boulevards during manifestations. It meets them everywhere, no space is safe for the regime anymore as a feminist revolution is exactly this heterogenic, unpredictable, fluid and organic reclaiming of the right of the body to space and to self-expression in space. For these revolutionary bodies, all spaces are spaces of revolution, and as many declare, “woman, life, freedom” is a daily exercise which has brought us to the point of no return.

VII. Space is Made of Bodies

The body is not yet another object among objects in the space, it is the definition of space. Before my bodily presence before and in front of you, before I meet you as the other bodily existing in space, there is no space. Space emerges with bodies interacting with each other in it. A revolution of bodies thus, is a redefinition, reorganization and reclaiming of the very nature of space itself. This reclaiming of space which has been disciplined and homogenized for decades has led to the politicization of artistic practices more than before, as art itself is also deeply intertwined with a modification of the sensible and the spatial. Hence the artistic productions of the Jina Revolution are this very redefinition of spaces, from public spaces and academic spaces to spaces of art and even the virtual space. Maybe that is one reason why art students are so harshly repressed to this very moment. The reclaiming of space by the revolution transforms artists and reciprocally artistic practices which intervene in the homogenised distribution and disciplining of space, create the aesthetic body of the revolution. The artistic productions of Jina revolution are the performance of a bodily revolution of spaces. They have created a shared subjectivity based on empathy and on a cultural basis which will safeguard their future political victory. This collective subjectivity of shared emotions manifests itself best in the artistic activities of the ordinary people, unknown artists, thousands of nameless and faceless performers in Iran and around the world. The future brought by a feminist Revolution is a future of particularities and acknowledging the impossibility of homogenizing political strategies which are already evident in Jina Revolution’s artistic productions.

Art Students’ protest and performance during the Jina Revolution, (unknown city), Iran, 2022