Phrases like ‘an eye for freedom' have become synonymous with the protesters who since last year lost eyes to shotgun pellets or rubber bullets.
Blinding protesters since last year’s Woman, Life, Freedom uprising, has become a nationwide phenomena, a state-sanctioned tactic to suppress those who dare to step out and defy the regime.
Security forces resorted to the same brutal technique to quell segments of the anti-regime protest rallies in Iran in November 2019. However, it seems that targeting the demonstrators’ eyes was employed in a more systematic manner as a strategy for suppressing the mass rallies which followed the death in morality police custody of Mahsa Amini.
On November 25, 2022, a letter issued by some 140 ophthalmologists and addressed to the head of the Iranian Ophthalmology Association, warned that numerous protesters had been taken to medical centres hit by rubber bullets and metal pellets as well as paintball bullets in their eyes, leading to the loss of eyesight in one or both eyes.
Referring to multiple cases of protesters sustaining injuries in the face and eyes, the Norwegian-based NGO “Iran Human Rights” announced on February 4 that such actions by regime agents had been carried out “intentionally and systematically”.
The precise number of protesters who suffered eye injuries during the regime crackdown remains uncertain, but the New York Times reported in November that at least 580 protesters had sustained serious eye wounds, citing ophthalmologists of three hospitals in the capital Tehran, and several doctors in Kurdistan province.
Based on media reports, in some cases, Iranian regime security forces obstructed surgeons from completing surgery on the injured demonstrators or pressured them to discharge patients before they had fully recovered.
Mersedeh Shahinkar was among the first individuals who openly talked about what had befallen her on her Instagram account.
On October 15, she lost an eye after being shot by Iranian security forces after she and her mother joined the protest on Sattar Khan Avenue in the western part of the capital. The impact of the incident had such a profound effect on her and her family’s lives, she has now been forced into exile.
She is not alone. Others forced into exile include Raheleh Amiri, Mersedeh Shahinkar, and Elaheh Tavakolian, who have all left Iran for foreign countries, ordinary citizens whose lives and worlds changed dramatically in a matter of a few seconds and plunged into darkness.
The protesters who have endured traumatic eye injuries come from all walks of life, encompassing workers, students and teachers, athletes, coaches, and artists.
Kowsar Eftekhari, a theatre actress, continues to defy compulsory hijab. Recent photos depicting her walking in public without a hijab have garnered considerable appreciation and attention from users on Instagram and X. The Iranian regime has brought charges against her for her acts of defiance, and she is expected to stand trial for the alleged offences.
According to reports, in the past several months, at least seven protesters with eye injuries have been detained and some of them were subsequently released on bail. The actual number of the detainees is likely higher. However, some of them are reluctant for this issue to be raised in the media, while others have received such petrifying threats that they refrain from updating their social media accounts and posting new content regarding their situation.
Once again, the regime has not only displayed zero tolerance towards the bereaved families of the protest victims who are seeking justice for their lost loved ones, but it has failed to give the slightest chance to those who have endured permanent injures to speak up against the injustices they have suffered and to demand accountability.
Asal Jazideh, just 18-years-old, recently published the painful account of the day she got injured. "There has not been a day when I have not hidden the left side of my face beneath my hair. But I have no regrets for what I did. I believe in the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ slogan, in the people and in this revolution... in the hope of achieving freedom and the triumph of light over darkness."
Like many, they wear their injuries as a mark of defiance, to shame the regime’s brutality while they wear their courage with pride. Raheleh Amiri, like Jazideh, has openly said on her Instagram account she has no regrets for protesting, in spite of the devastating injuries she will now suffer for the rest of her life. She even said that if given the chance to turn back time, she would make the same choice again.
A young woman, whose eye was shot in Tehran, told Iran International of the harassment she has since suffered from state security. Speaking on condition of anonymity, she told of the ordeal when after posting a photo of her lost eye and explaining what happened, intelligence agents came to her home and forced her into silence, warned against filing a complaint or speaking out about her injury.
"I do not regret taking part in the protests because it was my right. However, every day I wish it had been my hand or my foot that was injured, not my eye… perhaps I might change my mind at some point in the future,” she said.
For some, their new found darkness goes far beyond their vision, seeping into their mental wellbeing and even bringing feelings of regret. A young victim in his 20s, however, does not feel the same way.
Speaking to Iran International on condition of anonymity, the young man from the north of Iran, said: "I paid a heavy price, one of my eyes, it is not something trivial. Now I am under tremendous psychological pressure to state that it was worth it. But in reality, it was not, especially since we did not emerge victorious, and the regime did not fall. Even if the Iranian regime were to collapse, I wish I could have witnessed the beautiful day of freedom with both eyes.”
(This is an article by Maryam Moqaddam and Masoud Kazemi, journalists at Iran International)