Friday 22 February 2019

The terrible image that Iran's leaders can never shred

Medb Ruane

A bullet pierced Neda Soltan's chest in Tehran as she watched street protests about Iran's recent elections. She collapsed like a young faun shot by poachers and was filmed, dying, on a camera phone.

Her dying went global before sundown, provoking more outrage than the hectares of debate on alleged electoral fraud. The sight of her soulful eyes gazing enigmatically towards something only she could see turned viewers into witnesses. They saw her blood grow from drops into rivers.

Neda's death on camera did more damage to the Iranian Government than anything, perhaps, in the last 30 years. It's already created a community who call her 'The Angel of Tehran'. Songs and poetry are being written and footage embellished with portraits of the beautiful woman she was.

The internet outrage provoked President Obama to move on from the caution he's shown on Iran so far. The footage is 'heartbreaking', he said this week, and there's 'something fundamentally unjust' going on.

Neda's last gasps have already attracted more hits than Obama's broadcast to the Iranian people in March to mark Nowruz, the New Year, when he praised centuries of Persian culture and spoke of new beginnings and fresh promise. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei poo-poohed Obama's rhetoric the next day.

Obama's caution was quite some change from the brash anti-Iranian swaggers of the last US administration but it led others to wonder if preaching mutual respect was enough to start shifting the political motherlode between the two states, dating back to the days of the Shah.

Iran still endures economic sanctions and asset-freezing, as the Ayatollah reminded the international community after Obama's Nowruz greetings. Some of his supporters allege that the US, UK and France are encouraging the current anti-Government protests, which neatly sidesteps the issue of his militia's brutal response.

It's a truism that images are the most powerful weapon in any propaganda campaign or news service, even though digital technology means you can, in theory, represent almost anything as true, when it's not. That's why Governments limit access to real-time events when they can.

The age of the camera phone, however, makes everyone a potential reporter, given the right place and time. This is shifting public opinion away from the traditional image values of great photographers such as Don McCullen towards Facebook politics and YouTube wars.

Obama's team used exactly this strategy to mobilise support in the forgotten days when he was less likely than any underdog to become US President. Coincidentally, posters showing Neda as the Angel of Tehran look very like Obama posters in the lead-up to his campaign.

Neda was one of at least 13 people killed during the current protests but hers is a face of contemporary Iran in a special way. She's a symbol of young, well-educated Iranian people, particularly women. Two-thirds of Iranians are under 33 and over 60pc of the student population is female. Add this reality to her beauty, her enigma, and Neda is a powerful symbol, a Mona Lisa of Iran.

The status of women in Iran is better than women in Afghanistan but much less than women in the US or Europe, and it's been worsening. Women fared better, briefly, after the Shah's downfall. The belief in mass education taught generations of women that they could and should think for themselves. Neda was a philosophy graduate; many others work as doctors, journalists, lawyers in and outside Iran.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime worked to reverse things, not least by capping the number of university places available to women. He tried to make polygamy legally easier (for men). His attitude to women was to destroy any evidence that they had health, education or welfare requirements, never mind legal rights.

In office, he actually ordered the shredding of all government research on women's status in terms of healthcare, education, welfare, which had been collected by Iranian agencies. He literally tried to obliterate the case for women's eman cipation.

Understandably, more women became more active politically than for years, organising a 'One Million Signature' campaign against discriminatory laws -- and winning widespread support.

Peaceful protest was the tone, despite brutal responses by both police and the Basiji (who report to the Supreme Leader and are suspected of killing Neda). Women leaders endured beatings, arrests, imprisonment, house raids and outright intimidation.

By the time of the recent election, the women's lobby reached across over half of Iran's provinces. It forced a first, permitting women to register as candidates for President. This, however, provoked the religious Guardian Council to ban all women who tried to put their names down. It also provoked more raids on women suspected of supporting change.

Women's groups then combined in a pre-election coalition to support reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. Mousavi promised to appoint women to senior posts, to disband the morality police and to enact legal reform. Levels of intimidation, however, increased to a point where the coalition was forced to disband.

Killing Neda was deliberate, reformers say.

Who knows?

Ahmadinejad has a record of destroying the evidence and isn't likely to make finding her killer his mission in life. She symbolised everything his regime is scared of -- youth, beauty, intelligence, and the female sex.



Clarification

I wrote last week about a report on the Muslim School in Cabra and linked the school to St Mary's.

The Muslim School has no association with St Mary's School for Deaf Girls in Cabra and I regret any confusion this may have caused.

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