Opinion

Commentary: Neda's story tells alot about life in Iran

These photos show a woman identified as Neda Agha Soltan. The May 2009 portrait on the right was provided by Caspian Makan, 37-year-old photojournalist in Tehran who identified himself as her boyfriend. The image on the left, captured on amateur video, was circulated on the internet via YouTube and Twitter Sunday June 21, 2009, shows the woman lying in a Tehran street moments before she died. (AP Photo)
These photos show a woman identified as Neda Agha Soltan. The May 2009 portrait on the right was provided by Caspian Makan, 37-year-old photojournalist in Tehran who identified himself as her boyfriend. The image on the left, captured on amateur video, was circulated on the internet via YouTube and Twitter Sunday June 21, 2009, shows the woman lying in a Tehran street moments before she died. (AP Photo) AP

Thanks to cell phone video and the Internet, the world has witnessed, up close, the death of Neda Agha-Soltan. Beautiful and bloodied, hers is the face of the Iranian resistance.

But what of her life?

Agha-Soltan was 26 years old and lived with her family in Tehran. She had dreams and ambition, but she lived in a land with a low ceiling.

She could study at a university, but her job prospects were slim. Nearly a quarter of Iranians in their 20s are unemployed, and only 15 percent of Iran's workforce consists of women.

She could take music lessons but was forbidden to perform in public.

She could travel internationally but could not walk the streets of Tehran without risking a confrontation with the "morality police," who could detain her for holding hands with a man or wearing a coat with a hemline deemed too short.

Born in the early 1980s, Agha-Soltan grew up in the shadow of the Iran-Iraq War. She was about 5 years old when the enemy nations rained Scud missiles on each other's cities for seven weeks in 1988. About a quarter of Tehran's 10 million residents temporarily fled the city.

When the two sides reached a cease-fire later that year, more than a million Iranians had been killed or wounded over eight years of war. The casualty toll climbed higher as civilians suffered the effects of chemical weapons.

The towering figure of Agha-Soltan's childhood was the Ayatollah Ruhollah Al-Khomeini. The charismatic Islamic leader deposed the American-backed shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in 1979. But he imposed his own form of tyranny, with women bearing the brunt of Islamic law.

Growing up, Agha-Soltan surely heard older people talk of the days "before the revolution," when Iranian women wore Western-style clothing and held jobs as government ministers and judges. The shah had been cruel and despised, but the Islamic regime's morality squads and militias were in many ways worse.

Iranian citizens gained more liberties during the eight-year presidency of Mohammad Khatami. But Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election in 2005 brought a hard-line resurgence. Educated women can still be lashed by illiterate thugs for going outside without a head covering.

Iranian women haven't tolerated the inequalities passively. They started the One Million Signatures Campaign, which promotes equality in divorce, custody and inheritance cases. But a man's word in court still has twice the weight of a woman's testimony. Another movement, the White Scarves Campaign, aims to get women access to sporting events.

"Incrementally, Iranian women have been working to get back the rights and freedoms they had before the revolution," said Hormoz Hekmat, who edits a Persian language social science journal for the Foundation for American Studies in Bethesda, Md.

The apparently rigged presidential election this month galvanized these women. The bearded men who formed the vanguard of the Islamic revolution 30 years ago have been displaced by women in head scarves. Many Iranian men are openly cheering them on.

Neda Agha-Soltan stood on the fringe of a demonstration last weekend, wanting to witness history. A gunshot rang out and she fell to the ground. Hours later her death was on the Internet.

"I saw the picture of the young lady lying on the street and I cried because this was partly my fault," said Hekmat. He was one of the Iranian intellectuals who supported the return of Khomeini and then fled the country when he saw what the Islamic revolution had wrought.

Agha-Soltan lived a conflicted life in a conflicted land. But her wrongful death has clarified the yearning for a more just and legitimate government in Iran.

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