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The Badge of Rebellion

Sahar Delijani

The first time I heard of protesters getting blinded by the police, it was in Chile during the 2019 anti-government protests, where more than 200 protesters lost an eye to rubber bullets and metal pellets fired at close range by security forces. Mentioning this to a friend, she pointed out that the first time she heard of this vicious phenomenon was in Egypt during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, where one of the officers even came to be known as the “Eye Hunter.” Tens of protesters lost an eye that year, the same year the people of Tahrir Square ousted Hosni Mubarak after thirty years of rule over the country. In 2020, during Black Lives Matter protests, police used projectiles to quell the unrest, blinding at least eight protesters. In the recent anti-dictatorship uprising in Iran, beginning in September 2022, hundreds of protesters were targeted and blinded by security forces and anti-riot police.


“The last image my right eye recorded was the smiling face of the man shooting,” says Ghazal Ranjkesh, a law student in the Iranian southern city of Bandar Abbas, who was shot along with her mother during anti-regime protests in November 2022. “Why were you smiling when you shot me?” she asks.


“Three shots hit my right hand and one hit my left eye,” says another protester, Kosar Khoshnoudikia, an Iranian archery champion, who was with her father at the protests. “Now I see the world only through my right eye.”


Posting a video of herself wailing in agony on a hospital bed, with a white bandage covering her bleeding eye, Elaheh Tavakollian, a PhD student, asserts fiercely  on her social media page, “So that the world never forgets this pain! So that no one ever forgets!”


It is now a year since Iran was rocked by waves of anti-dictatorship protests. Dying down then rising again, these protests—which began in retaliation to the death of a young Kurdish woman named Mahsa Zhina Amini in the hands of the Morality Police for allegedly wearing her mandatory hijab too loosely—have over time turned into one of the most significant waves of political and civil resistance in the country’s post-revolutionary history. This significance does not only lie in the fact that the uprising and the revolutionary Woman Life Freedom movement that emerged from it lasted far longer than any previous surge of civil disobedience, nor because it clearly and surely demanded the end of the Islamic Republic, but because, led by women, minorities and the youth, it has marked one of the most progressive and inclusive movements in the country’s recent history. 


Young, rebellious, and iconoclast, the new generation of protesters have put up an unprecedented popular resistance to the political rule of the Islamic Republic. They have challenged the very core of the religious patriarchy in Iran, with the cries of “Woman Life Freedom” shaking the pillars of a violent, corrupt, theocratic dictatorship.


However, as in every battle which defies a system of tyranny and oppression, the price these courageous women and men have paid and continue to pay in Iran has been devastatingly high. In the past year, more than 20,000 protesters have been jailed, tortured, and interrogated. Over 550 were gunned down by security forces, 70 of them children. Seven protesters were executed, charged with crimes of “waging war against God” and “corruption on Earth.” Many more face the death penalty, charged with similar crimes. 


Every day, we hear of more deaths, more arrests, more torture. We hear of poisoned girls and grieving families, of ever more punitive measures for the women refusing to wear the mandatory hijab. We hear of militarized towns, of kidnappings and abductions, of rape as a form of torture. We hear of students and teachers expelled from schools and universities, of journalists in solitary confinement, and of families of victims and prisoners being targeted, harassed and even arrested for speaking up. Once again, the Islamic Republic has proved it has nothing to give to society but brutality and death.


It is not easy to fight a battle where your opponent is armed to the teeth and all you have is the street stretching back behind you. It is not easy to fight where your opponent is out there to kill and all you have is a life, which has never been easy. It is not easy to fight where your opponent thinks the world belongs to it and all you have is the unrelenting belief that it doesn’t, because you’re there and as long as you’re there, the fight is not over. Your life, your own constellation of dreams and demands and despair, is what you hold onto, what you’ve always held onto. And it has become your weapon, the only weapon you have, the only weapon you carry with you to every battle.


But then, isn’t this “life” the only thing we all truly have? Isn’t it what we’re all only truly fighting for? A life of dignity, safety, the right to its future. Isn’t that what brought these young women and men to the streets in the first place? The “woman” who was killed. The “life” that was lost. The “freedom” that was crushed as if none of it mattered. 


And yet, it does matter. Every single fragment. Every single voice. Every single life that could bloom into something new. Every single breath of freedom that could blow like the morning air. Every single woman who could stand before us, wounded, mutilated, but with the conviction to tell their story, with the bravery not to conceal their pain, with the audacity to smile as they look us right in the eye and assert that life is bigger than anything any of us had ever hoped.


“No one and nothing will ever prevail over a woman, who is happy reading books and poetry, listening to music and drinking coffee.” These are the words of Niloofar Aghaei. On the eve of her 32nd birthday, her dark curly hair flowing in stark contrast with the gleaming white of the snow around her, she records a message for us. She is holding a cake. A white patch covers her right eye. She is not breaking down like I imagined she would be. She is beaming.


“I hope we will achieve what we all want to achieve,” she says


As I watch this video, like many similar videos that I have seen, of women who appear before the camera adamant to tell their story, adamant to hold their heads high while telling their story, a tremor runs through my body. I feel something taking hold of me: a thrill, a wonder, an implacable urge for meaning. Niloofar’s smile, like many smiles before her, leaves me in awe, in a state of exquisite disbelief. Her smile, the scintillating pitch of her voice, free of resentment, light like the wings of a spring sparrow. Obsessively, I go through every one of their posts. Not only Niloofar’s but Ghazal’s, Kosar’s, Elaheh’s. My heart pounds so loudly I can barely hear their voices. My eyes fill with tears so that I can barely see their faces that light up every time they speak, making you almost forget the agony of the white patch concealing the wound they are forced to carry with them forever. 


How is this possible? I think. How do they go on smiling like that? It is not the smile itself that boggles my mind, it is the effortlessness of it. The burning blazing veracity of it. And the hope that spills from it like gold.


“The man who shot me didn’t know that I am bulletproof,” writes Ghazal. “He didn’t know that my soul and body are more than that.”


“I have felt no regrets for being there on that day, at that time,” writes Kosar. 


“You aimed at my eyes but my heart is still beating,” writes Elaheh. “Thank you for taking the sight from my eye which has opened the eyes of so many people. Tomorrow is the day we shall begin to build again.”.


If this isn’t a triumph of light over darkness, what is? All of these women standing tall and luminous against a giant of tyranny that has always sought to eliminate them completely: their bodies, their voices, their right to a dignified fulfilling life, the very fact of their existence. But it has failed. No matter how hard it has clawed and bitten and roared. No matter how persistently and ferociously it has harassed and persecuted and repressed. These women are not going anywhere. These women are here to stay. 


“The pain is unbearable but I'll get used to it,” Ghazal writes in a post after having been fitted with a prosthetic eye. “I will live my life because my story is unfinished. Our victory is not here yet but it's close. I will witness freedom with one eye.” 


From Chile to Iran, violent methods of repression are universal, but so are the courage and defiance of these women standing up against them. With their resilience, their smiles, their rage, the pure light of their hope, their unbending will to live and love and fight, pushing where it seems all out of reach, appearing before us wounded but standing, wearing their eye patch like a badge of honor, an emblem of resistance, the burning torch of an unfinished revolution illuminating the path, calling us forward.

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