The Legacy of Neda Agha Soltan
By Hamid Yazdan Panah
January 23rd would have been Neda Agha Soltan’s 32nd birthday. A turning point in a young woman’s life, with a bright and hopeful future ahead of her. Instead, we are left with thoughts of what might have been, and what was lost. The legacy of Neda Agha Soltan is akin to that of Iran’s protest movement, gone but not forgotten. Neda’s story is symbolic of the story of so many Iranians, full of potential and on the cusp of greater things, but cut short by confrontation with power and repression.
Neda Agha Soltan: January 23, 1983 — June 20, 2009
The image of Neda dying on the streets of Tehran has left a lasting impact on all who have witnessed it. Providing a glimpse to the world of what has passed unseen on the streets of Iran and behind the walls of its prisons. It also internationalized the Iranian protest movement, and gained the sympathy of viewers from across the globe. The video of her death has been burned in the collective memory of this generation. TIME referred to it as “…probably the most widely witnessed death in human history.” The short video encapsulated 30 years of pain and suffering by dissidents in Iran.
Neda came from a middle class family in Tehran, and like many Iranians who grew up in post revolutionary Iran, she was torn by the deep contradictions in her society. She studied theology and philosophy at Islamic Azad University, but was forced to withdraw reportedly due to personal issues and the constant governmental interference in the University. “She was a person full of joy,” said her music teacher and friend, Hamid Panahi. “She was a beam of light. I’m so sorry. I was so hopeful for this woman.”
Neda did not vote in the 2009 elections. She had seen enough injustice in her 26 years to know where she stood in regards to the Iranian regime. Her fiancé, Caspian Makan, was quoted as saying: “Neda’s goal was not to support Mousavi or [President] Ahmadinejad, she was just in love with her country. She was a young woman, but gave a big lesson to everybody … Neda just wanted to have freedom for everybody.”
The Iranian regime desperately tried to censor and distort the facts surrounding her death, blaming western intelligence, unruly protesters and Iranian opposition groups in turn. In typical Orwellian fashion, they attempted to co-opt her as a martyr, and claimed she was killed by those seeking to vilify the regime. The regime produced several documentaries which sought to paint her death as conspiracy, going so far as issue arrest warrants for those who accompanied Neda in her final moments.
While the regime attempted to cast her as a martyr for their own benefit, supporters of the regime desecrated her grave stone. The actions reflect the deep contradictions in the regimes propaganda, as well revealing the true animosity felt by the regime towards Neda as a symbol of resistance. Neda’s Fiance Caspian Makan, was quoted by Middle East Times as saying: “The breaking of Neda’s gravestone broke the hearts of millions of freedom-loving people around the world. The repressors, believing they can stifle the cries for freedom, have even attacked, beaten, threatened and insulted Neda’s parents. This is while the Islamic Republic of Iran denies Neda’s murder.” Makan himself was imprisoned for 65 days, beaten and tortured to try to make him “confess” that Iran’s enemies killed her. Similar pressure was placed on Neda’s parents in order to obtain a televised confession that Neda was killed by foreign agents.
Yet her family remained adamant as to governmental responsibility for her death. “I openly declare that no one, apart from the government, killed Neda. Her killer can only be from the government,” Ali Agha Soltan told theBBC’s Persian service by telephone from Iran. “They’ve been avoiding responsibility from the very beginning. They want to put the responsibility on other people… This is how the Islamic Republic behaves,” he said.
Yet Neda’s death was not in vain. Arash Hejazi, the doctor who stood over Neda in her last moments, explained the impact of her death on the regime; “It has never recovered,” he contends. “Neda’s death took away the mask the regime had been trying to wear for 30 years. It exposed the hidden face of one of the most violent and treacherous governments in the world, and they can never cover it up again.”
The fact is the Iranian regime has resorted to brutal suppression of dissidents for 30 years, including the massacre of tens of thousands of political prisoners 1980’s, and a campaign of censorship and distortion to hide the brutal realities of political freedom in Iran. For those who have suffered behind closed doors, the death of Neda was a form of vindication, an image burned into the memory of the entire world, which the regime could not stamp out no matter how hard it tried.
The murder of Neda, a woman who had not participated in the presidential vote, became the defining image of 2009 uprisings. Belonging to a generation born after the revolution of 1979, searching for freedoms they had never had. Yet their cries for freedom were met with bullets, and even in death the regime has sought to suppress their memories. In the end the 2009 uprising was about more than the miscounting of votes, or the stealing of an election. It was about exposing a system which had deeper issues than electoral misconduct.
Today, as we approach the four year anniversary of Neda’s death, Iran continues its reign of terror against its own populace. With the world’s highest per capita execution rate, the regime has undertaken a systematic approach in regards to execution and torture against dissidents and anyone who dares stand up. Yet the Iranian people have not forgotten the sacrifices they have made and the ones they have lost in their struggle for freedom.
For those of us who wish to honor Neda, we must begin by upholding the principles which she died for; Freedom, Truth and Justice. Through these principles, the Iranian people may achieve the dream that Neda and so many of those from her generation died for.