The Perilously Intoxicating Dance of the Strong Will

By Vali Mahlouji

The twentieth century’s most successful and developed model of state-imposed Islamism is on its knees in Iran in the face of civil acts of human pleasure and delight: kiss-ins, dances, songs, liberally swaying bodies. The protagonists are guided by an essential natural desire to be and a healthy, necessary demand for presence. Whether through discreet gestures or perilously grand acts, but always in defiance of the violent doctrines of sin and retribution, the people claim their right to joy, expression, and presence and spur a culture’s demand for every form of (individual) being.

The current and ongoing Iranian uprisings are changing the course of history. They are decisive in shifting the tides of political Islam that cancerously perverted the course of the last century. It is clear to any historian that the totalizing system of control and closure at play in Iran is fundamentally in keeping with the delusional strategies imposed by any totalitarian catastrophe. It distinctly lacks ingenuity or originality. There is no mystery to its method nor to the ruin in its wake. There is only one dark nuance: the Khomeinists’ carcinogenic discriminatory self-righteousness justifies its devastating menace, its bloodletting, through religious, ideological dogma – by the will of, and for the greater good of, god.

In contrast, the peoples’ vigorous strategies of resistance are movingly creative, nuanced, joyous and generative. They liberate public space in a call to life and free enjoyment in their most essential and radical forms. They thwart and dismantle the civilizational withdrawal and atrophy that totalitarian Islamist Iranian theocracy necessitates. Such counter-cultural action liberates new structures of feeling and social modes of formation that can no longer be contained by state-sanctioned violence.(1)
Control has forever been impaired. The nation’s spirit and psyche refuse to be tamed. Released rage has produced the most beautiful and dangerous ritual, ecstatic, epiphanic, cathartic social drama we have historically witnessed. Its spiritual transcendence coalesces with the Dionysian/Bacchanalian.
The protagonists, like maenads, readily embrace the arts of destructiveness and regeneration, for they have the knowledge that free will and the free body are the very Achilles heel of a controlling master. They articulate a charismatic, dignified mighty presence and clear every conscience from the grip of control. They dispel all stillness and inhibition. Dionysus’s followers were women possessed by the energies of the god – the god of fertility, festivity, ritual madness, and ecstasy. His offerings of intoxication, ecstasy, and dance liberated the self-conscious soul and subverted the dominance of the powerful. And as the story claims, they would shake the calm of the senses, liberate the compressed unconscious and drive toward a kind of potent Artuadian revolt.”(2)
Dancing, chanting fearless women use the power of their being, body, desire, and quest for liberty and life to drive a decisive deadly blow at the dark core of a defunct state. All veils of illusion, distorted readings that camouflage, confirm, or reinforce fear, or support an inability to stand up to power have been irredeemably ripped away. It is so deserved of such an archaic inhumanity ruling Iran to contend with a Dionysiac spiritual transcendence whose protagonists will not give up until all has changed.

“A civilization that withdraws into itself atrophies.”
Aime Cesaire(3)

It is worth giving historical context. The Islamists’ forty-four yearlong divine-led transmogrification (1979-present) abused every opportunity to forcibly re-civilise society. Within weeks of taking control in 1979, the Iranian Islamist agenda and its new ‘moral guides’ devised a narrowing and harsh form of evangelisation. From inception, an all-encompassing deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation systematically aimed at cultural ‘correction’ and control. The new theocratic political order institutionalised an Islamising ‘cultural cleansing’ (paksazi-e farhangi). It replaced our Ministry of Culture with a “Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance” (Vezarat-e Farhang va Ershad-e Islami), swapping emancipation, edification, with an evangelisation project. To speak of culture, the objectives of that modern inquisition have been to enforce homogenisation, gender segregation, the censorship of our thought, restriction of our expression, restraint of our aspiration, regulation of our connection to ourselves and to the world. The expected censorship of literature and the arts and restrictions on political expression expanded into the realms of institutionalised bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, racial, religious, spiritual, gender, and sexual discrimination and the control of our bodies. That transformation was such that culture and the totality of the public sphere might be tyrannically subjugated to ideological state control. The outcomes: severance, atrophy, the nihilistic narrowing of being, of meaning, of experience, of expression, of love, of joie. As though we were colonised by aliens whose pursuit is to sever us from ourselves and to whose self-serving project we must be subordinated. Perhaps, it is necessary to qualify we: we are those ordinary citizens who find ourselves on the margins of Khomeini’s delineations of Islamic moralities. The colonial analogy is apt when one observes the system of (intra-)cultural dispossession. Khomeinists’ populist right-wing agenda was always aimed at exterminating differences.(4)
It aimed to narrow our experience of being. Its grandest narrowing of liberties was the enforcement of the veil on all women in public. That was first announced on 7 March 1979, on the eve of International Women’s Day. The cynicism at the heart of it was intended to break the spirit and remains a deep wound, a profound humiliation. And today, we are clear about that cynical epicentral paradigmatic strategy. Little wonder our women burn that symbol and symptom of state tyranny in defiance and walls of men form to support and defend them. Today, that deadly moralising, that very atrophied narrowing of the field of being, is at stake. And dangerously for a totalitarian theocracy, so are all its foundational structures of archaic patriarchal heterosexist, gender apartheid and sexist/sexual control of the Iranian space, body and psyche. Gender and sexual discrimination and the body’s control in space are fundamental to any totalising system of abuse. Patriarchal masculinity – that necessary and fundamental convention brilliantly consolidated by religion – is under attack. Society is acutely aware that the two are fundamentally and profoundly interlinked. In contravention, the Iranian renaissance has a unique quality: it feminises space and queers space. It cannot be stressed enough: the rebellion is uniquely a ‘feminine’ and distinctly a ‘feminising’ rebellion. It ushers a precarious space for questioning all ‘othering’, a space for all who yearn for the utterly unnegotiable demise of the orders and structures of totalising theocratic order in their entirety. It reverses the course of nearly half a century. As the twentieth century sped toward equalities, our history forcibly did the opposite. Our revolutionary uprising now reverses that perversity. It comes in all its oppositional manifestations of ‘feminising’ and ‘queering’ power. The frenzied, swaying, ecstatic public performances of women’s and men’s dancing bodies slice across that frigid, coagulated, forged, brutal form of archaic masculine Islamist order. In defiance, the collective body pain vents itself; its painful honesty acts out across public space; its overwhelming energy swarms the city streets; its spontaneous performative and aesthetic forms release themselves to pure abstraction. They spread like wildfire, igniting the rageful spirit of a generation of adolescent and young girls/women and boys/men who spin spontaneously on their rebellious feet. They dance freely, abandoned, ecstatic, mourning one of their own, celebrating one of their own. Their call to rebellion transcends the need for rational discourse to unleash an alternate mode of consciousness. It cannot be reckoned with. It is not strategic; it is real.

In our country, we – the women, the queer, the racialised, the marginalised, the tyrannised, traumatised, victimised and ostracised – are at the forefront of a political, social, civil, cultural, spiritual and psychological revolution. That is the immensity of the movement. We burn and defy symbols of conventional misogyny, patriarchy, cis-heterosexist determinism, racial patriotism. And as we do so we are acutely aware of the long road to our high progressive ideals. We remain vigilant to the seriousness of the scars of this contentious historical moment. The deep fractures and the deliberate and consequential scars of the half-a-century evangelical project and its profound social, cultural, political, geographic, linguistic, spiritual and psychological traumatisations would never dissolve overnight to make way for a desired world. The brutal backlash has been vicious, inhumane, expected.

The spirit, however, has been freed and unleashed; that will inevitably and inescapably only progress toward its dignified goal. Along its way, that spirit has found immeasurable expression in a dizzying range of visual and performative aesthetics. Visual artists, musicians, performers, writers, and thinkers defy power to give meaning to the revolt, and to consolidate a revolutionary moment. Those courageous, selfless efforts are a live testament to the immensity of our historical moment. That selflessness is actively resisting despite the violence unleashed on it. It is clear to any free spirit that confronting truth engenders risk and begets unpleasant, even deadly, consequences. It takes great courage to know gross abuse and even greater courage to call it out for what it is. But a generation of liberation-seeking youths demands not to be asked to contemplate propitiousness in crime for another day in its life. To whitewash, excuse, gloss over, shrug off crime, and absolve tyranny in the name of culture has run its course. That history is well and truly now defunct. It would be morally and spiritually degrading, hideously demeaning of a people’s half a century real-life struggle. It would be humiliating towards the spirit of culture to contemplate any other presence or form but that of free culture. Instead of conceding, of being coerced as an accomplice, we have conscience – to defend our will, our right to dream, to be different, open, and in contact—our freedom to be.

Vali Mahlouji, March 2023

1 Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1977) 135.
2 Antonin Artaud was a French radical dramatist, poet, essayist, actor and theatre director, who strove to “liberate the human subconscious and reveal man to himself”.
3 Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, trans. Joan Pinkham (New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1972). Originally published as Discours sur le colonialism (Paris: Editions Presence Africaine, 1955).
4 See Ervand Abrahamian, Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic. Berkeley: University of California, 1993