How a young student became the face of Iran's struggle


The death of Neda Soltani, immortalised by the internet, has become a powerful symbol for the opposition, writes MARY FITZGERALD

HER NAME was Neda. A grainy video clip captures this philosophy student’s final moments, blood pouring from her mouth, after she was apparently shot on a Tehran street, and it has swept YouTube, Facebook and a host of other websites.

The circumstances of her death remain oblique apart from this account from a bystander: “A young woman who was standing with her father watching the protests was shot by a basij[pro-government militia] member hiding on the rooftop of a civilian house. He had clear shot [sic] at the girl and could not miss her.

“However, he aimed straight at her heart. I am a doctor, so I rushed to try to save her. But the impact of the gunshot was so fierce that the bullet had blasted inside the victim’s chest, and she died in less than two minutes.”

Neda means “the voice” or “the call” in Farsi, and this young woman’s death, in the midst of the greatest upheaval faced by the Islamic Republic since the revolution that brought it into being three decades ago, has become both a powerful symbol and a rallying call.

Already her face adorns placards and opposition websites. “Watching the clip of that woman’s death brought tears to my eyes,” says a middle-aged man in Tehran who has not participated in any of the protests that have rocked the Iranian capital and other cities since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election was declared on June 13th.

The authorities are acutely aware of the threat posed to them by Neda Soltani’s killing. They only agreed to release her body on condition her family agreed to a quick burial on Sunday in the sprawling Behesht-e Zahra cemetery on the outskirts of Tehran.

A memorial service planned for the Nilufar mosque in the capital’s Abbasabad neighbourhood was called off after officials forbade it. All other mosques in the Tehran area have been warned against holding services in her memory.

The details surrounding Soltani’s death are as sketchy as her own story. She was 26, a philosophy student and a part-time travel agent, according to those who knew her. She was no rock-thrower at the vanguard of a movement for regime change but, according to her fiance, Caspian Makan, she was simply a young woman who may have ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Makan said Soltani had been in a car in central Tehran with her music teacher when they were caught in a traffic jam.

He said the pair had left the car to escape the heat. It was when she was walking down Karegar Street, talking on her phone, that the shot rang out.

“Neda’s aim was not [defeated presidential candidate Mir Hussein] Mousavi or Ahmadinejad, her target was her country,” Makan said, adding that although she hadn’t planned on demonstrating, she was sympathetic to the movement.

At least 17 more people have been killed, and their deaths are already being woven into a narrative of protest that draws heavily on the traditions of mourning and martyrdom that are an integral part of Shia Islam.

Shia Muslims mourn on the third, seventh and 40th days after a death occurs, with the commemorations on the 40th day usually considered the most important.

In the months leading up to the shah’s ousting in 1979, clashes between his forces and those pressing for revolution often played out in 40-day cycles in tandem with the period of mourning.

There are hints of a similar pattern emerging within the current turmoil. Huge crowds gathered last Thursday, following a call by the defeated Mousavi, who alleges widespread electoral fraud, to commemorate the deaths of protesters three days after they are shot by militia.

Many hail Soltani and the other dead as shohada, or martyrs, and the concept of martyrdom has become a strong undercurrent to the protests of Mousavi and his supporters. The opposition leader announced at the weekend that he was “prepared for martyrdom”.

Many Iranians repeat the rumour that he has begun wearing a white burial shroud.

At protests, Mousavi’s supporters often chant “Ya Hussein! [O Hussein!]” – a deliberate reference to Hussein, the prophet Muhammad’s grandson, who was massacred along with a band of followers in the seventh century after he dared challenge the tyranny of the Umayyad caliph.

Today Hussein’s tomb in Karbala in present day Iraq is one of the holiest Shia shrines. His portrait adorns homes, offices, shops and even buses in Iran. Every year Hussein’s martyrdom is commemorated during what is known as Ashura, and the lessons of his sacrifice have proved a backdrop to many events in Iran’s history, most notably the eight-year war with Iraq, during which more than 120,000 Iranians were killed.

The faces of these men stare down from murals and roadside banners in every city and town in Iran, and most cities have a cemetery or museum devoted to the shohada.

The most eulogised is Mohammed Hussein Fahmideh, a 13-year-old who strapped explosives to his body before throwing himself under an Iraqi tank in 1980.

The Islamic Republic, throughout its 30-year history, has borrowed from the potent notions of martyrdom, contained in Shia history and traditions, in its telling of revolutionary Iran’s founding myths, and also to encourage its young men to the front during the war with Iraq.

As more becomes known of Neda and the others killed in last week’s violence, the regime may, for the first time, find the very same tools used against it.