“No Veils, No Oppression!” Watching From a Distance As Women Fight for Freedom in Iran
Sahar Delijani on Heeding the Call for Revolution
A bonfire in Tehran. Women dancing around it. Arms outspread, heads held high, gyrating like whirling dervishes. Yet, there is something different about this. It isn’t in spiritual ecstasy that these women whirl, sweeping the headscarves off their hair. It isn’t a call to divinity that they laugh and chant, frolic to the fire. It isn’t to receive holy beneficence that their hands turn, weightless, flinging the hijabs into the flames.
This isn’t a ritual in remembrance of God.
It isn’t an act of becoming one with the divine spirit.
In this early evening in Tehran, surrounded by an applauding audience and the fire that burns buoyant and free accompanying their dance, these whirling women are in the midst of a revolution.
You’re alone. Dusk has fallen in Manhattan. The only thing that glows, lighting up your face is the screen of your phone. You’re watching the fire. You’re watching the women. You’re not one of these women. You’re far from them. Thousands of miles of deep blue ocean. The phone in your hand is your only connection, and you cannot put it away. You feel like you’ve seen this in your dreams. These women and the blaze. You watch the video until you begin to feel the flames crawling on your face. The heat. The smell of burning fabric.
The women’s whirling dance has transformed into countrywide protests, a wildfire of “Death to Dictator!”, “Freedom Freedom Freedom!” and “I will kill whoever killed my sister!” Now when you watch the videos, there are not only women protesting but men too. Not only the young but the elderly too. Not just Tehran but Kurdistan, Zahedan, Khuzestan, Isfahan, Shiraz. Not just the cities but towns and villages. Not just the students but workers and teachers and singers and writers taking to the street against a violent, corrupt, theocratic, patriarchal dictatorship. There are even children out there, stamping their feet, swinging their headscarves in the air, shouting, “Woman Life Freedom!”
These are my people, you keep muttering to yourself. I am one of them. What do I do now? How do I respond? What is my responsibility? What is my role?
It’s a starry night.
The internet has been shut down for months and what you see are videos sent painstakingly through different VPNs from protestors in Iran. You don’t know their names. Most times, you don’t even see their faces as for safety reasons they’re either covered or are being recorded from the back. You know they risk their lives by being in these videos, by recording them, even by sending them. And all you can do is watch. At least to watch. You want to keep them safe. You want to keep them alive.
You feel like there is a lifeline connecting you to them, a lifeline of history and songs and late-night stories and collective memory and poetry and embraces and grandparents and date stones and solidarity and defiance and the hope of one day hearing the receding echo of boots and batons in the streets when a dictatorship is toppled.
That is your connection. That is what pulsates over the oceans and reaches you, enfolds you. You’re one of them, you think. You feel it so deeply, you stop living your life. The one you’ve built far away from them. The one you’ve struggled for and have come to know far better than the one unfolding in those brief videos. But it matters no longer. This is about life and death. It’s about the future. It’s about breaking free. And those in the videos, those chanting and dying and rising are telling you to forget everything else and choose them.
“No veils, no oppression / Freedom and equality!”
“You’re the pervert / You’re the filthy / I’m a free woman!”
“This is the year of blood / Khamenei will be overthrown!”
“You cannot wash off blood with paint!”
“Behind every person you kill stands a thousand people!”
“We don’t want an Islamic Republic!”
“Free political prisoners!”
“Death to Khamenei!”
“Death to the Republic of executions!”
Five months have passed.
You cannot sleep.
You live in a constant state of alarm, helplessness and grief.
Your thoughts cannot go anywhere but to the spilt blood on the streets, to the packed prisons, the gunshots, the torture, to women blinded by rubber bullets during protests, to bodies turning up in rivers, to kidnappings and abductions, to executions and shattered families, to the senseless suffering and violence the regime in its desperate attempt at survival has unleashed on the population.
In the past five months, almost 20,000 protestors have been jailed, tortured, interrogated. Over 500 gunned down by security forces, 70 of them children. Four protestors have been executed charged with crimes of “waging war against God” and “corruption on Earth.” Hundreds face the death penalty charged with similar crimes.
And yet, despite all the pain, the fire keeps burning. The sparks keep twirling.
And you cannot keep away.
A mother bangs on a prison door demanding to see her daughter, “You’ll have to take my dead body away from here! Let me see my child!” A father dances in the graveyard, bidding the wish of his martyred son. A sister chops off her hair. A brother calls on everyone to not be silent. “Your silence will be the noose around the neck of this land’s children!” Students stage sit-ins, take over university auditoriums, singing freedom songs, “Our darkest night will become dawn!” Supporters drive to prisons in solidarity with families waiting to get news of their loved ones behind bars.
The parents of a young man hanged by the regime lays flowers on the grave of another executed victim, who does not have a family of his own to bring him flowers. At the funerals of killed protesters, thousands join to pay homage. No one wails funerary songs anymore. Now they applaud. Now the mother of a killed protestor holds the photo of her child aloft and chants, “We swear to the blood of our comrades / We will stand to the end!” The mourners chant along with her.
If this is not a revolutionary cry, what is? A mother buries her son swearing she will not back down, swearing she will stand to the end. You realize the question is not whether what is happening in Iran is a revolution or not. The question is whether you will stand by this woman and her courage. Whether you will stand by her dead son.
“You can kill a revolutionary / But you cannot kill a revolution!”
You are alone. Dusk has fallen. From the window of your home, you see streetlights slowly coming to life. You see a young couple walk past hand in hand. Someone is playing loud music in their car. A dog barks. People are stomping down the stairs. A gale of laughter.
You wonder how it was when you lived a normal life. You wonder how it felt to live without death and courage and glory constantly breathing the same air as you, breaking bread with you every morning. You wonder what it is that you live for. What are your priorities in life?
“In the name of Woman / In the name of Life!”
“Freedom is to be planted / And we have the seeds!”
“Resistance is life!”
That is what you have become.
There to keep watch, to bear testimony when everything else is out of reach. At times, you wish you could be there with them, in those booming streets, submitting to the audacity of the crowd. But you cannot go back. For so many reasons. And you’re too ashamed to name them, to choose a word for your shortcomings.
A distance of a thousand miles separates you from those streets, from the struggle, the one that reeks of blood and bullets and torture and solitary confinement. It is not a symbolic distance. It is a real one. It’s what’s keeping you safe. It’s what’s keeping you alive. And you end up living with the shame of it, with the guilt. It’s your destiny of an outsider.
Yet, all is not lost. You’re not alone. You’re not unarmed. You have language, movement, media, speech. You have memory, history, past and present. There is a revolution in the making, and you must rush to make impressions of its traces, its familiar faces. You must learn to listen to its heartbeat, memorize it, keep it safe. For, this is for you too. This struggle. It encompasses your life, your freedom, your beliefs, your dreams of a better world. There is nothing abstract about it, nothing apart.
It is about you, about all of you, and how far you’re willing to go to ensure another’s wellbeing, to protect another’s dignity. This is what those women and men rising to tyranny have done. This is what they will do. Save you from a life of resignation and despair. From a life of thinking there is no alternative to inequity, no path out of injustice. It is their gift to you, and you shall accept it with humility, and let them take you away and make you part of the grand cycle of the unrelenting human strife for freedom.