Neda Soltani: Student & Symbol (And Why She Ought To Be Both)

When I first wrote about Neda on Sunday, it was already clear that she would be made into a symbol. What wasn't clear then, but is now, is that she would also be identified, and humanized.

In the LA Times today, Borzou Daragahi is able to write about what we know about her life, and death, due to her friend (and music teacher) Hamid Panahi, who was with Neda when she died, and doesn't expect to survive himself.

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 neighborhoods on the eastern and western outskirts of the city.

Like many in her neighborhood, 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. She took private classes to become a tour guide, including Turkish-language courses, friends said, hoping to someday lead groups of Iranians on trips abroad.

She was, in other words, just a regular person, doing regular things.

The Guardian's Robert Tait and Matthew Weaver have gleaned more information from Soltani's supposed fiancé, Caspian Makan, who was originally interviewed by BBC Persia.

She was no rock thrower at the ­vanguard of a movement for regime change , but, according to her fiance, Caspian Makan, a young woman who may have ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Makan said she 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 Mousavi or Ahmadinejad, her target was her ­country," Makan said, adding that although she hadn't planned on ­demonstrating, she was sympathetic to the protest movement.

By some accounts, Soltani was shot either by a rooftop sniper or a passing Basij militia member on a motorcycle; she was either on her way to observe the protests or headed home and stuck in traffic in a hot car. It probably doesn't really matter that those details are under dispute: in a country with no right to bear arms among its citizens, no one without power authorized by the state could have shot her.

Iran is now claiming that her death was staged, in an effort to prevent more Iranians from making Soltani a symbol and a martyr. The government has warned her family not to speak to the press, canceled her memorial service and sent the Basiji in to drive off mourners. They hope, apparently, to make her not just an ordinary woman, but something less than ordinary. (And, in a small ray of light, they may be quietly telling the Basiji and other forces to lay off female protesters, giving women even more power in the uprising.)

Meanwhile, others in and outside Iran seek to make Soltani — and her senseless murder — something more. Joe Joseph of the Times of London says:

Posters of her bloodied face have been held aloft by protesters in Los Angeles and New York. Overnight "I am Neda" has become the rallying cry of the protest movement, echoing the solidarity of those Roman slaves who claimed, one after the other, "I am Spartacus".

Neda's fame marks the moment when Iran's repression emerged from the forest of newsprint and became personal. We are all Iranians now.

Peter Popham of The Independent goes even further and decries the humanization of a woman whose death is not iconic.

Too much information already. The myth is more glorious without it.

John McCain eulogized her on the Senate floor yesterday, hailing her now-iconic status; Ulrike Putz of Germany's Der Spiegel hails her as "a kind of Joan of Arc"; the President of the United States says she was "on the right side of history." Can one be an icon in death and still retain one's humanity?

Kate Harding at Salon wondered the same thing yesterday:

An icon, a martyr, a symbol, a slogan. Not so much a person anymore. We don't even know for sure if Neda, which means "the call" or "the voice" in Farsi, was her real name or an embellishment for the cause. (For that matter, as Putz points out, we can't actually confirm that the video is real.) While her family grieves for the woman they loved, the world tweets, "Neda is my daughter, I have one just like her." Really?

Harding thinks that witnessing Soltani's death is an expression of privilege, rather than an atonement for it — and serves only to erase the memory of the real Neda. Dana Stevens, Susannah Breslin and Meghan O'Rourke at Double X essentially agree, with calling it a "snuff film" that "instrumentalizes" (Stevens) and "fetishizes" (Breslin) Soltani, with O'Rourke adding, "In reducing it to a symbol, it becomes monolithic rather than intimate." I think that ignores the fact that, for many people, watching Soltani die was an incredibly intimate act, even as they were doing so with millions of other people.

Tami at Racilicious does have a critique of the obsession with Soltani that I find particularly compelling: why did so many people have to watch Soltani die before they cared — and (why) would they decry the same graphic treatment of a white person's death?

But why does the Western world (and here I refer mostly to the dominant culture, not marginalized groups) have to see these things to be shaken from its complacency?

We did not need to see bloodied bodies to understand the horror of Columbine. After the first live footage of people in the World Trade Center jumping to their deaths, those gruesome images disappeared. It was too much. We don't need to see carnage to understand horror when the bodies involved are mostly white. To show brutal images of the dead is generally seen as unseemly and disrespectful. Consider the uproar when some newspapers published images of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in the early 90s. But deaths like Neda's we feel we must see, need to see. What does it say when we feel squeamish and protective about the deaths of some, but not others?

As some people have no doubt noticed, there are few things I hold sacred, and few things I won't look at, so I come at this from a slightly different angle. I think we should bear (or should have borne) witness to those people who leapt from the World Trade Center. I think it was important to watch what happened to the soliders in Mogadishu. I think we should bear witness to the wounds and deaths of our soldiers in Iraq; I think we should watch when our government executes some one; I think we should see the pictures of what soldiers did in our name in Abu Ghraib. I thought we should see more than Benazir Bhutto's coffin carried through the streets of Rawalpindi — and that we should see the suffering of the other people who died that day [caution: those link to graphic imagery] — and not just the sanitized version someone else thinks we should see. And I think, in no small part, that we should look at real violence for the very reasons Kate Harding pronounced herself unaffected by it.

I did not cry or shake with horror. Because what I saw was actually too familiar to me — from crime dramas, war movies, the thousands of fictional depictions of violent deaths I've seen in a lifetime of watching various screens. This time, the thought kept going through my head, "This is real, this is real, this is real." But it was no match for almost 30 years' worth of knowing that when I see blood gushing out of a chest or a mouth, it's actually red-tinted corn syrup; that when I see the spark of life leave a victim's eyes, they only stay that way until the camera shuts off and the actress stands up; that when I hear the screams of frantic bystanders, they've been recorded over and over until the most chilling possible version was achieved. None of that was true, this time. My brain knows that, on one level — but on another, deeper level, I am so desensitized to similar imagery, I can't fully process it.

Most of the violence Americans see in their lives is fake and, yes, I think it can desensitize us. We fetishize violence in the movies, with dramatic sprays of blood and acrobatics; we sexualize it on television every time two men on CSI stand over a beautiful-but-supposedly-dead nude actress: it comes wrapped in a bow, a mystery solved in an hour or two, a family's grief mitigated by justice or a villain's rightful end, and we walk away satisfied and satiated by it. Real violence isn't pretty, it doesn't always result in justice and it rarely feels satisfying. If Harding can't wrap her mind around a real murder because she's seen so many fake ones, that makes her (and most of us) quite lucky — but that's not necessarily a good thing. If you never see man's inhumanity to man, it doesn't mean it doesn't exist, it just makes it easier to compartmentalize, and decide to ignore, whether it's on our streets or in some far away place teeming with people that don't look like white American and don't speak our language when they scream.

To Iranians, the sight of a violent death doesn't hold the same meaning as it does to Americans — their government conducts public executions and it has violently put down protests before. And yet, Soltani's death — and her visage in death — holds meaning to them, too. So, while I agree with Tami that we shouldn't be willing to show dead people of color and yet shy away from showing dead Caucasians, I disagree that the solution is to train our eyes away from the results of violence all together. It's to stop treating dead white people (or dead Americans) as something more horrifying to bear witness to than anyone else.

Family, Friends Mourn 'Neda,' Iranian Woman Who Died On Video [LA Times]
How Neda Soltani Became the Face Of Iran's Struggle [The Guardian]
Iran Says Courts Will Teach Protesters A Lesson [Reuters]
Woman's Slaying In Protests Creates An Opposition Icon [Washington Post]
Women In The Vanguard [Andrew Sullivan]
Like The Student In Tiananmen Square, Neda Has Become A Tragic Icon [Times of London]
Neda – The Tragic Face Of Iran's Uprising [The Independent]
McCain: Neda Killing "Defining Moment" Of Iran Crisis [Politico]
Neda Becomes A Symbol Of the Protests [Salon]
Obama Hails "Courageous" Iranian women [Salon]
I am not Neda [Salon]
Is The "Neda" Video A Snuff Movie? [Double X]
Of Course The Neda Video Is A Snuff Movie [Double X]
On Watching Neda's Death [Double X]
Must Brown People Be Martyred For Americans To Be Motivated? [Racialicious]
Before and After the Assassination, in Photos [Wonkette]
What They Sort of Showed You [Wonkette]

Earlier: "Neda Is My Daughter, I Have One Just Like Her"