Every revolution needs a unifying symbol, and members of Iran’s opposition movement now have theirs.
That was one dumb sniper who took out the young woman millions now know as Neda. Or was he?
No one seems to know the identity of the rooftop shooter who pierced Neda’s heart with a bullet Saturday. Was he a Basij sniper, as some witnesses have reported? Was it a mistake? Or did the shooter see an opportunity to create a necessary martyr?
The thought is inescapable that the beautiful Neda Agha Soltan might have been selected from the crowd not to scare away protesters, but to unite them.
It is not impossible to imagine that someone had a greater purpose in mind for the young philosophy student. If stories emerging from Iran are accurate, even Neda seemed to anticipate what might happen. When a friend begged her not to join the protesters, Neda said: “It’s just one bullet, and it’s over.”
Just one bullet was all it took. Neda reportedly died within two minutes, blood seeping from her nose and mouth as onlookers shouted, “Do not be afraid.” That phrase, a single word in Farsi, has become a chant among protesters.
In a matter of hours, a video of Neda’s death was circulated through YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. No matter who pulled the trigger or why, Neda is now the undisputed symbol of reform-minded Iranians’ demand for freedom.
What follows next is by no means predictable, but history provides hints. Neda’s anointment as a martyr could become crucial in the next month. Followers of the Shiite branch of Islam participate in cycles of mourning – on the third, seventh and 40th days after death. These cycles served as rallying points during the 1979 revolution and conceivably could serve the same purpose now.
In the meantime, it is reasonable to ask why Neda so captured the imagination when many others have died since the June 12 election. On the same day that Neda died, at least nine other protesters were killed.
At first, reports were that she was a teenager, just 16, walking with her father. Perhaps the world’s initial reaction was tied to the belief that the government had slaughtered a child. Later, we learned that Neda was 26 and that the man with her was her music teacher. By then, the image of the young woman’s dying face was firmly imprinted on the international psyche, and the mythology of Neda had taken root.
What of all those others? Were they only men? Were they not as beautiful?
We are a video culture attracted to drama and beauty, an admission of which does not diminish the tragedy of Neda’s death or the terrible loss for her family and friends. But as the days unfold, it will be interesting to watch how Neda, whose name means “The Voice” or “The Calling,” is incorporated into the developing narrative of Iran and especially of Iranian women.
In fact, the protest movement’s martyr needed to be a woman. And she needed to be a modern woman. It is noteworthy that Neda was wearing jeans and sneakers, uniform of the West, rather than the traditional garb of hijab or chador. Whatever one’s attitude toward Muslim dress – and many women don’t feel the need to buck tradition – it was clearly Neda’s choice to ignore her government’s preference that women hide their feminine features.
What better symbol for the repressive rule of old clerics than a liberated beauty brutally cut down in the prime of youth? Symbolically, Neda’s death isn’t about voting irregularities, but about the clash between superstitions that justify men’s dominion over women and the universal yearning for freedom.
Women’s rights were at the center of opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi’s reform agenda. His wife, Zahra Rahnavard – in stark contrast to the nearly invisible wife of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – was front and center throughout the campaign urging a “religious democracy, which would allow young women of our time to thrive and flourish by providing them with security, freedom and employment.”
That message may have been the sniper’s target. With his bullet, he delivered another: Women either will behave and follow the rules, or they will die. Whatever the shooter’s true aim, the body he left in the street has become immortal in the story of Iran.
Neda – the voice of freedom – can never be silenced now.