Remembering an unlikely martyr

I cannot get Neda out of my mind. Neda Agha-Soltan, to be precise. Neda is the woman the world watched die on videotape that was uploaded last weekend to the Internet. She was the woman slaughtered, apparently, by Iranian government gunfire last Saturday during anti-government protests and riots in Tehran.

If you’ve been online since last weekend, and you’ve been following the brave Iranian protests against that country’s all-but-certainly stolen national elections, you know exactly who Neda is.

According to CNN, Neda was 26, the second of three children born to a middle-class family living outside Tehran. She was studying religion, but friends described her as more spiritual than religious, and not involved in politics in any serious way.

CNN described how she happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time last weekend, even though she apparently never meant to take part in anti-government activities: "Shaky video captured on a cell phone shows her walking with the man, a teacher of music and philosophy, near an anti-government demonstration.’

"The two are near where protesters were chanting in opposition to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose calls for an end to anti-government demonstrations have sparked defiance across the nation.

"Neda, wearing a baseball cap over a black scarf, a black shirt, blue jeans and tennis shoes, does not appear to be chanting and seems to be observing the demonstration.

"Suddenly, Neda is on the ground — felled by a single gunshot wound to the chest. Several men kneel at her side and place pressure on her chest in an attempt to stop the bleeding."

The video shows her lying in a pool of blood on the ground. Men are screaming at her, one saying, "Neda, be brave." All of a sudden blood gushes out of her mouth and nose, her eyes fall to the side and her body goes limp. She was shot in the heart and died on the spot.

Death, that most private of moments when one should be old and at peace and surrounded by loved ones, takes place instead on concrete and in front of the world. How horrid! Now she’s become the most unlikely of political heroines.

Expatriate Iranians around the world demonstrate against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s stolen reelection and bear signs saying, "I am Neda." But it’s not at all clear Neda intended to place her life on the line to join them in protest.

I hope in her heart she meant to participate in the anti-government protests, and her felling was not some bizarre, irreparable accident. I hope she would have enjoyed the symbolism her short life has now embraced.

Mariam Memarsadeghi is an Iranian-born American who specializes in democracy and human rights. I interviewed her last week about the role of Iranian women in the ongoing election dispute. She told me, among other things that Iranian women and their long-stifled demands for legal equality have been at the core of the "green movement" behind the candidacy of Mir Hossein Mousavi (Ahmadinejad’s opponent.)

She said, "Though the leaders behind this grassroots civic campaign were subject to intense surveillance, intimidation, imprisonment, exorbitant bail fines and restrictions on their right to travel abroad, they managed to make their struggle a broad based one that penetrated the intensely male dominated political sphere by calling on presidential candidates to engage with them and address their demands for reform of the constitution and laws affecting women’s rights. They also demanded that Iran sign on to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women as a means to force the Islamist regime to bring its laws and practices affecting women in line with international norms. Women themselves have never been permitted by the theocracy to run for president as their judgment is deemed inferior."

Women have been seen on the front lines of the Iranian protests. But they still are not viewed in the international sphere as the leaders of this fight.

How fitting if Neda’s legacy could be to stand as a global symbol of the depth of women’s contributions to democracy.

(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)