x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Neda - the face of the Iranian uprising

If history can be distilled in a fleeting moment which then electronically ricochets around the globe, this is what happened when one joyful life, tragically and brutally cut short became the icon of a quest for political empowerment. A young woman who was shot through the heart and died on the streets of Tehran has become the face of the opposition movement in Iran.

If history can be distilled in a fleeting moment which then electronically ricochets around the globe, this is what happened when one joyful life, tragically and brutally cut short became the icon of a quest for political empowerment. "A young woman who was shot through the heart and died on the streets of Tehran has become the face of the opposition movement in Iran," Bloomberg declared. The New York Times said: "Mehdi Karroubi, an opposition candidate for president in this month's election, called her a martyr on his website. 'A young girl, who did not have a weapon in her soft hands, or a grenade in her pocket, became a victim of thugs who are supported by a horrifying intelligence apparatus.'" The Los Angeles Times reported: "Neda Agha-Soltan, 26, was shot dead Saturday evening near the scene of clashes between pro-government militias and demonstrators who allege rampant vote fraud in the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The jittery cellphone footage of her bleeding on the street has turned 'Neda' into an international symbol of the protest movement that erupted after the June 12 balloting. Images of her final moments have spread virally on social networks, been beamed across the world on cable and held aloft on placards on the streets of Tehran. "To those who knew and loved Agha-Soltan, she was far more than an icon. She was a daughter, sister and friend, a music and travel lover, a beautiful young woman in the prime of her life. " 'She was a person full of joy,' said her music teacher and close friend Hamid Panahi, who was among the mourners at her family home Sunday, awaiting word about her burial. 'She was a beam of light. I'm so sorry. I was so hopeful for this woman.' "Security forces urged her friends and family not to hold memorial services for her at a mosque and asked them not to speak publicly about her, associates of the family said. Authorities even asked the family to take down the black mourning banners in front of their house, aware of the potent symbol she had become. "But some insisted on speaking out anyway, hoping to make sure the world would not forget her. "Neda Agha-Soltan was born in Tehran, they said, to a father who worked for the government and a homemaker mother. "They were a family of modest means, part of the country's emerging middle class who built their lives in rapidly developing neighbourhoods on the eastern and western outskirts of the city. "Like many in her neighbourhood, Agha-Soltan was loyal to the country's Islamic roots and traditional values, friends say, but also curious about the outside world, which was easily accessed through satellite TV, the internet and occasional trips abroad. "The second of three children, she studied Islamic philosophy at a branch of Tehran's Azad University until deciding to pursue a career in tourism... "But she was never an activist, they added, and she began attending the mass protests only because she was outraged by the election results." In The Guardian, Masoud Golsorkhi wrote: "In their not-so-slow transition from a campaign of civil disobedience to potentially a nascent revolution, the street protests over the presidential election result in Tehran have found an icon. Neda Agha Soltani typified the youth of Tehran - she was only casually taking part in the demonstration when she was cut down by a single bullet to the heart as she spoke on her mobile phone. "The drama of her death on Saturday went around the world via YouTube and Facebook and she became the personification of a nation in torment. Her name means 'voice' in Persian, making her even more of a symbol of youth cut down and brutalised in Tehran. "I count among the victims the lorry loads of what the people are calling 'Joojeh Basij' - the baby Basij. Barely adolescent youths brought in by the regime from rural areas, handed clubs and set to work attacking the protesters. The flower of our youth is made into the brutal and the brutalised. The baby Basijis are reinforcing the older generation of Basijis, who are often too well fed to keep up with the svelte youth." The attention Ms Soltan's death has received has also brought into focus the prominent role that women have played in Iran both during the election campaign and the subsequent protests. "Prominent Tehran-based women's-rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh tells RFE/RL that she believes women have many good reasons to protest against Ahmadinejad's reelection. " 'In the past four years, not only women's gatherings came under attack,' Sotoudeh says. '[Many women] were repeatedly summoned by the judiciary and put on trial. They faced long jail terms, but they also faced serious problems because of their appearance and they were constantly attacked and beaten up.' "During last week's demonstrations in Tehran and other cities, women of all ages and segments of society were seen at the forefront of the protests. Some were holding banners; chanting slogans; defying police. Some were seen beating back Basij militia and plainclothes agents who were attacking protestors with sticks." Likewise, CNN noted: "Amid the clashes and chaos, there has been a recurring scene on the streets of Tehran: Women, in their scarves and traditional clothing, at the heart of the struggle. Some are seen collecting rocks for ammunition against security forces, while video showed one woman trying to protect a fallen pro-government militiaman wounded in the government crackdown... "Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the image of Neda and other women at the protests showed the difference from the 1979 revolution. 'The iconic pictures from the revolution 30 years ago were bearded men. This shows the new face of Iran - the young women who are the vanguards of Iran.' "Abbas Milani, the director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, agreed that Neda was becoming a symbol for all the women who have become involved in the turmoil that has followed the disputed election. 'She will become the image of this brutality and the role - the truly significant role - that women have played in fighting this regime. I think that women are the unsung heroes of the last few years. They are the ones who began chipping away the absolute authority of the mullahs.' "The protests haven't just been confined to Iran's everyday women. The daughter of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was arrested over the weekend while taking part in a protest. She was later released. "In addition, Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of Mir Hossein Moussavi, whose apparent defeat in Iran's presidential election has sparked the unprecedented demonstrations, campaigned for her husband, an unusual step in politics in Iran. Her public support of his candidacy underscored his professed support for women's rights." Finally, at a news conference in the White House on Tuesday, the US president Barack Obama was asked under which conditions he would accept the election of Mr Ahmadinejad, and if he did accept it without any significant changes in the conditions there, would that not be a betrayal of what the demonstrators there have been working towards. The question was asked by Nico Pitney on behalf of an Iranian reader of The Huffington Post. Mr Obama responded: "Well, look, we didn't have international observers on the ground. We can't say definitively what exactly happened at polling places throughout the country. "What we know is that a sizable percentage of the Iranian people themselves, spanning Iranian society, consider this election illegitimate. It's not an isolated instance, a little grumbling here or there. There is significant questions about the legitimacy of the election. "And so, ultimately, the most important thing for the Iranian government to consider is legitimacy in the eyes of its own people, not in the eyes of the United States. "And that's why I've been very clear, ultimately, this is up to the Iranian people to decide who their leadership is going to be and the structure of their government. "What we can do is to say, unequivocally, that there are sets of international norms and principles about violence, about dealing with the peaceful dissent, that - that spans cultures, spans borders. "And what we've been seeing over the internet and what we've been seeing in news reports violates those norms and violates those principles. "I think it is not too late for the Iranian government to recognise that - that there is a peaceful path that will lead to stability and legitimacy and prosperity for the Iranian people. We hope they take it."

pwoodward@thenational.ae