By June 20, 2009, the protests had been going on for a week. Despite record turnout at voting stations across Iran and defiantly open public support for presidential hopeful Mir-Hossein Mousavi, incumbent strongman Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had declared himself the landslide victor. Outraged voters—especially college students—poured into the streets of Tehran, demanding to know “Where Is My Vote?” At first it seemed as if the young, armed with technological savvy, might outwit the slow-footed government crackdown. Iranian newspapers were appearing with front pages blanked out by official censors and Revolutionary Guards and Basij paramilitaries had resorted to attacking students in their dormitories at Tehran University in the middle of the night. But each day, students were on the streets with handheld devices posting videos to YouTube and live reports to Twitter. They were more nimble than the government forces, better able to coordinate and communicate amid the chaos. Then, a week into the protests, the newfound power of social networking took a tragic turn.
On that evening, Neda Agha-Soltan was among a carload of friends stuck in traffic on their way to the protests in central Tehran. She stepped out of the passenger side to get some fresh air and get a better look. Exactly what happened next is unclear. A single gunshot rang out. Some say it came from the rooftop of a nearby house; others insist that it was fired from a passing motorcycle by a Basij—later identified by witnesses as Abbas Kargar Javid. Either way, the shot hit Neda in the chest. Video taken with a cell phone at the scene captures her collapsing to the pavement. Several men rush to her side and ease her onto her back. “Neda, don’t be afraid,” one of her friends says. “Neda, stay with me.” But blood pours from her mouth and nose; her eyes turn glassy. As chance would have it, Iranian novelist Arash Hejazi, who is also a doctor, was there at that moment. “I rushed to try to save her,” he said in another video shot shortly after the incident, but she was bleeding too fast. The crowd loaded her into a passing vehicle, and the driver searched hopelessly for a way to the hospital. At one point, they turned down a dead-end street; they moved her to another car whose driver knew the way to Shariati Hospital. In the end, it didn’t matter: she was dead on arrival.
Within hours, the video of Neda’s shooting spread via YouTube and Facebook and became one of the leading topics of discussion on Twitter. A review of the Tehran ambulance service’s internal radio system, conducted by the Guardian, revealed that no fewer than forty-seven people were killed in the protests that day, many the victims of gunshots, but Neda, by virtue of having died on video, became the face of the growing Green Revolution. Many online pointed out that Neda means “voice” in Farsi and began referring to her as the Voice of the Revolution. Indeed, her death inspired Iranian women to shout their protests from the rooftops of Tehran when the city had gone dark enough to afford them safety—a phenomenon shot with haunting beauty by Italian photographer Pietro Masturzo.
In many ways, the fact that a young woman like Neda should become the voice of protest seemed appropriate. In the West, our understanding of the struggle for freedom in Iran has been shaped largely by the country’s remarkable women. Shirin Ebadi, a lawyer and former judge, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her efforts in “the struggle for the rights of women and children.” Soon after, Ebadi attempted to use her renown to get justice for photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, who was tortured and killed at Evin Prison after she photographed anti-government protests. Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis graphic novels and Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, with their depictions of the oppression of women under the Islamic Republic, became international bestsellers. And yet, Neda was not like these other women. As potent a symbol as her death became, Neda—the person, the carefree philosophy student and lover of music—was robbed of her voice, silenced by a state system that would not brook protest nor allow any challenge to its invented narrative of a democratic election.
Indeed, Neda Agha-Soltan’s life may be more emblematic than her death. She married young and divorced—a fact that limited her chances for work and for romance in Iran. She loved to travel and on a vacation tour of Turkey she met another divorcé from Iran, a photographer named Caspian Makan. Amid the thrilling liberation of Turkey’s secular state, Neda was permitted to go out without a headscarf, and the smitten couple was free to hold hands or wrap their arms around each other’s waists as they walked. When they returned to Tehran, they could not be so openly loving. After a few frustrating weeks of longing and isolation, they made arrangements to return to Turkey—but the election and the protests interceded. Caspian was photographing the violence in another part of the city when Neda was killed. To assure his silence, the government arrested him and held him in Evin Prison for two months; there were rumors, after his release, that they would try him on trumped up charges, so he decided to flee—losing not only his new love but his family, his country.
To tell this side of life in Iran—the personal side, the side of longing and heartbreak—we asked Iranian-born writers Laleh Khadivi and Erika Abrahamian to assemble a special portfolio of work by writers from Iran. They have gathered intimate portraits of love curbed by Sharia law and separation imposed by political imprisonment; this work illustrates both the untenable strictures that give rise to protest and the unendurable consequences of opposing the government’s mandates. They also provide the backdrop and context for the other places in the world where people find themselves caught between impossible choices. In this issue, Kelly Hearn describes the hope and agony of the indigenous uprisings in Peru—which culminated in the massacre at Bagua and international condemnation before, days later, those events were overshadowed by Iran. Anthony Ham writes movingly of the village of Araouane in Mali, a settlement caught between increasing political assassinations by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the forces of the precarious US-backed democratic government.
Each of these stories serves as a painful reminder of the consequences of the Bush doctrine of preemptive war. By squandering the moral authority the United States briefly enjoyed after 9/11, we are no longer in a position to lend credible support to those who would oppose either the oppression of a totalitarian regime or those who would resist the intimidation of international terrorist networks. Sidelined by our recent history, we have been relegated to the role of restrained observers. President Obama was forced to express his opposition to the Iranian protests only in the most measured terms to avoid creating the appearance that the uprising was the work of foreign instigators, another example of neo-conservative interference. Even faced with the video of Neda’s grisly death, Obama could offer only these words: “While this loss is raw and extraordinarily painful, we also know this: those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history.” The last year, in these parts of the world and many others, we have seen the urgency of reestablishing US credibility internationally—so that we may not only make our own voice heard to the world again but also so that we might speak, with authority and honor, on behalf of the silenced.