An unintentional martyr: Neda becomes 'symbol of goodness'

Neda has become a symbol of struggle in Iran.

Before the details of her identity were even confirmed, Neda Agha-Soltan had become the symbol of struggle against the hardline Iranian regime.

Neda Agha-Soltan was allegedly killed by pro-government militia in Iran. ((BBC))

Videos of her bloody death were first posted Saturday on YouTube, but quickly spread across news websites and on social media networks.

Twitter users tinged their avatars green, a colour used by reformists in the recent election, or adopted an image of a broken heart atop Neda's name in solidarity with demonstrators. Wikipedia entries in both English and Persian appeared. Images of her graphic death were plastered on protest placards around the world.

Hers is believed to be one of at least 10 deaths reported by state media during Saturday's fierce clashes between anti-government protesters and the police or feared Basij militia.

A 40-second amateur video shows a young woman in jeans lying on the pavement in a pool of blood, with two men kneeling beside her and holding her chest. The camera zooms in on her face and blood begins flowing out of her mouth, forming crimson streams across her face.

In the hours following her death, details seeped out — some true, some false — but it barely kept pace with the level of interest. Little could be confirmed about the woman or video in a country where foreign media access is strictly controlled.

On Monday, the BBC gained a clearer picture of Neda from a man who claimed to be her fiancé: he said Neda Agha-Soltan was driving with her music teacher, but had exited the car during a traffic jam when she was allegedly shot by pro-government militia.

Not a 'martyr'

Headlines have heralded the young woman as a martyr and some even dubbed her Iran's Joan of Arc.

But such religious references are unlikely to be heard from secular Iranians among the protesters, according to Amir Hassanpour, an associate professor with the University of Toronto who teaches about the modern Middle East.

Shahid, the Arabic word for martyr, is derived from religious literature and has become ubiquitous in the names of streets, universities and institutions in Iran's theocracy.

Instead, janbakhteh, a non-religious term for someone who lost their life, has been used to describe Neda and others who have suffered the same fate.

"The tendency has been in the last 20 years or so not to use the word shahid for people like Neda because shahid is a very religious and Islamic word," said Hassanpour.

"It's a way of protesting, and it becomes even more significant in the course of this struggle."

The video of Neda Agha-Soltan's death was first posted Saturday on YouTube, but quickly spread across the internet. ((YouTube))

Click here for the 40-second video of Neda's death. Warning: it contains graphic content.

No matter what the vernacular, the video has fuelled the anger of protesters in Iran and around the world, an anger that shows little sign of abating even as Iran's highest authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issues stern warnings against demonstrations.

Anti-government protests began in the days following the June 12 presidential election, when results showed a landslide victory for hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the government's main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, alleged fraud.

In the midst of a complex struggle, the story of Neda, whether factual or fictitious, has sharpened the world's focus on Iran.

"All struggles are so complex and there are different interpretations of it," said Hassanpour. "I think a story like Neda summarizes it, sums it up in a single event."

Beyond Neda

Not only has she become a "symbol of goodness" battling against her brutal oppressor, her story has laid open a much larger issue about the regime in power, he says.

Her fiancé told BBC the family had planned to hold a memorial service at a mosque, as is customary, but authorities forbade the public service for fear it would further fan the flames of discontent.

"This Islamic government, why if it's so Islamic does it prevent an Islamic tradition, a very important tradition?" said Hassanpour.

He hopes Neda's story makes people question the regime and their misconceptions about Iranian society.

Impressions of Iranians crouched over their Koran or dutifully practising their ablutions no longer holds true, he says; with governments using Islam to suppress people, religion has lost some of its sheen since the Islamic Revolution of the late 1970s.

And as protests stretch beyond a week, there are questions about the future of the Islamic republic.

"While the idea of a modern Islamic theocracy was born in Iran and practised in Iran, it's being buried in Iran too. That's the significance of this struggle," Hassanpour says.