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Death an emotional rallying cry in Iran

By Susan Abram and Laura Nelson

Friday 10 July 2009, by admin

Her eyes, wide and bright, filled with confusion, then fear. Desperate hands pressed against her chest to stop the blood.

And then, in front of all of our eyes, the young woman whose name we later learned was Neda, surrendered to the bullet that pierced her heart.

Her eyes have been shut forever, but the haunting, graphic amateur video released over the weekend of 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan dying on a Tehran street, will live on as an iconic symbol of brewing discontent and deep seated desire for change.

"The video has already become a rallying cry for the ongoing demonstrations and uprisings against election fraud," said Nayereh Tohidi, chairwoman of the Gender and Women’s Studies Department at California State University, Northridge.

Tohidi specializes in Middle East culture, gender issues and politics. Like many Iranian-Americans in Los Angeles, she has stayed up late nights to watch the protests that have swelled as a result of last week’s election. Millions say the results were fraudulent, with the count favoring incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over reformer Mir Hossein Mousavi.

And if it weren’t for social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube, Tohidi and others would only be seeing a trickle of government-approved news. No one would have learned of Neda.

"Because the whole world watched the way Neda was brutally attacked and killed, it has impacted whoever watched emotionally," Tohidi said.

"More than that, she symbolizes the Iranian people’s movement for freedom."
On Monday, wire service news reports said the government barred the family from holding a public funeral amid the continuing street protests. Meanwhile, stories of Neda trickled in. She was a philosophy student out with other students and a professor before she was shot by government militia.

Already, poetry has been written for her, for her name, which means "voice" or "call" in Farsi.

"There are Web sites of her image, showing her innocence, how she was peace loving and also the prominence of women in this movement," Tohidi said.

For the Iranian government, Neda’s death was in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Of the thousands of videos posted on Youtube and Facebook, the "Neda" video also marks how youth, and especially women, have played a role in demanding freedom against a theocracy that treats females as second-class citizens.

Nearly 70 percent of Iran’s population is 30 or younger and more than 50 percent of Iran’s college students are women.

"The `Neda’ video wasn’t the only amateur video that millions of people have been seeing over the last week, but it was clearly the most emotionally powerful, wrenchingly powerful, example," said David Westphal, a specialist in social networking sites who lectures at USC Annenberg School for Communication.

"It’s clearly having a galvanizing impact," Westphal said. "It’s putting a face, a very haunting face of someone who was in the last seconds of her life, on this protest."

Much has and will be made on the use of social network sites to document Neda’s death, and if the video was pivotal in the beginning of a revolution.

"Everything happening in Iran is a turning point because the events have shined a much bigger spotlight on social networking and showed its potential to rivet a world," Westphal said. "Video is not something you can fudge on. This was real and immediate and very very powerful."

So powerful, that leaders from the Arab world also are watching the reaction to Neda’s death, wondering how their own youth will react, said Steven Stalinsky, executive director the Middle East Media Research Institute in Washington, D.C.

"I would say that some of the Arab governments, because of how much the young Iranians want freedom, are asking what does this mean for our countries?" Stalinsky said. "The youth are very connected to the Internet. (The Neda video) definitely is going to have an impact."

Along Ventura Boulevard, young people sitting at coffee houses or having lunch said they were drawn to Neda, for her youth, and for their own personal experiences. "I’d never seen anything like that," said David Mahmoudi, a Woodland Hills teen whose parents are from Iran.

Hetty Foroudi, originally from Belgium, said she empathized with those who tried to save Neda.

"The moment she turns her eyes to the camera, I felt I could feel her pain," she said. "The blood ran out of her mouth and I felt like I was standing there. I can feel how it must have felt. I have one friend who was shot also and I had memories... it’s like you make your own movie in your head. Five or 10 years from now, I will remember it."

"This is not about the election," Azzizi said. "Bloodshed has made this about so much more than the election, and Neda has become a symbol."

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