For Neda: HBO Documents the 2009 Iranian Elections

As I snuggled on the couch to watch HBO’s documentary on Neda Agha-Soltan, I knew this wasn’t the time for popcorn. The first images that splashed across the screen were Agha-Soltan’s infamous last moments, which haunted viewers around the world exactly a year ago. The tone of onlookers and loved ones was agonizing, screaming as they crowded around her body, placing their hands over the bullet hole in her chest. As blood began to gush from her mouth and nose, Agha-Soltan’s eyes remained open. It was only a few moments before she died, but the video burned a memory in the hearts of many that will perhaps last for years to come.

The images of Agha-Soltan’s last moments were perhaps the most impressing images of the brutality and violence that unfolded after last year’s Iranian elections. Cell phone cameras and digital cameras became the weapon of choice for many of Iran’s population. They wanted to show the world the injustice they were suffering at the hands of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

HBO’s documentary For Neda delves into the life of Agha-Soltan to answer the questions of who she was, what she stood for, and why she died. The documentary elicits the testimony of Agha-Soltan’s family and recognized names such as Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, and Dr. Ali Ansari, Professor of Iranian history at University of St. Andrews. The familiar voice of Shohreh Aghdashloo, an Iranian actress, narrates Agha-Soltan’s tale of courage. (Note: the trailer below contains explicit images of her death)

For Neda provides a limited understanding of the socio-political landscape of Iran and elicits only the testimony and experiences of those with a particular angle. The story of Neda Agha-Soltan was used here to paint a particular picture of Iran seen from the eyes of a certain kind of woman–a woman like Agha-Soltan.

For Iranian women who neither look like Agha-Soltan nor held the same desires or religious or political values as she, the documentary may be marginalizing. For Iranian women who are not like “any girl, anywhere,” it sends the message that their stories are not valued enough to be told and the injustices they face are not worthy of international attention. The diverse political and religious opinions of Iran’s population make it highly unlikely that any one woman could be the “face of the revolution.”

Agha-Soltan was described in the documentary as “a free spirit that is confined by a regime that does not value these qualities in a woman.” She is portrayed as an ordinary girl who loved to dance, listen to music, read books, and who wanted to be loved. Aghdashloo narrates, “In so many ways, any girl, anywhere, but this wasn’t anywhere, this was the Islamic republic of Iran, where even the clothes you wear have a political meaning.”

In between narrated commentary on the politics and status of women in Iran, the documentary gives a look into the life of Agha-Soltan through the testimony of her immediate family. Her story was used as platform to speak about the general status of women in Iran: Googoosh, a superstar who sought asylum outside Iran, and Rudi Bakhtiar of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran give their testimonies of living in Iran post-revolution. Both women offer the same perspective on the treatment of women in Iran and echo the same sentiments about the regime.

Nafisi posits that women seem to be irreligious as a result of the Iranian regime’s hijacking of religion, which translated into government control over women’s clothing. This was unbearable for Agha-Soltan, whose mother points out that she refused to wear the chador in school. There is only one picture shown of Agha-Soltan wearing hijab, perhaps to garner sympathy by reinforcing this sentiment that she was like any other woman and had to abide by Iran’s dress code.

I wondered if Agha-Soltan were pictured wearing the chador, would viewers feel as though they could identify with her? Would she have amassed such support? Or would she have been like many other women who died that year: forgotten? What about other women who were killed during this time? Why weren’t their names and images splashed all over the media and celebrated internationally?

In the days of protesting that followed the elections, Agha-Soltan was approached by three Basij women who said to her, “Dear, don’t come out looking so beautiful… do us a favor and don’t come out because Basiji men target beautiful girls and they will shoot you.”

These disturbingly ominous words, expressed that men, feeling threatened–in this case by a woman’s beauty–place the responsibility of the destruction of religious values on women and therefore attempt to make women invisible or disappear in order to preserve religion and culture.

On, June 20, 2009, this is what happened. However, the attempt to make Agha-Soltan disappear or to make her invisible was to no avail after the video of her death surfaced. Agha-Soltan, a girl like “any girl,” became a martyr. Activists and photojournalists like Reza Deghati went to task making “Neda masks.” They were distributed to over 100 capital cities around the world and were worn by protesters chanting, “We are Neda!”

The video of her death was one among many shocking videos; but unlike the other videos, the video of Agha-Soltan’s death were widely used to garner public sympathy. HBO’s documentary leaves the impression that Agha-Soltan became “the face of the revolution” mainly because she was like any girl anywhere. Through her death, she was able to focus international attention on the violence in Iran and elicit a response from international leaders.

However, Neda Agha-Soltan only represents one of the many faces of Iranian women and of the revolution. Had this been another face, a different Iranian woman, the international response and HBO’s documentary may have been very different.

  • rochelle

    “Or would she have been like many other women who died that year: forgotten? What about other women who were killed during this time? Why weren’t their names and images splashed all over the media and celebrated internationally?”

    Because nobody took a cell phone video of their death and then put it on youtube!!

    I really don’t understand this article. Are you saying that there were tons of videos of women’s deaths and that none of them were so widely disseminated because those women were in chadors? It makes no sense — it’s not like there were dozens of other videos of chador-clad women’s deaths being spread around and the media chose to focus on this one. The video was unique in this way.

    Neda’s death was particularly powerful not only because of the video but because of her circumstances. When commentators say that she was like “any girl”, they are referring to the fact that she wasn’t a politician or full-fledged activist. She was just a girl going home from music practice and was caught up in something she couldn’t control, and I think a lot of people identify with that.

    But then you say -
    “The video of her death was one among many shocking videos; but unlike the other videos, the video of Agha-Soltan’s death were widely used to garner public sympathy.”

    Huh? All the cell phone videos were released to garner public sympathy. Why do you think people risked their lives taking cell phone videos? For the happy memories? They were doing it to release them to the world because international media were all deported.

    There were so many videos circulated during the protest, and I think the reason why they were so powerful is because they showed a diversity of people — and women — on the streets. Just email me and I’ll send you dozens of pictures released to the media of chadori women wearing green, old, young, whatever. (The women that told Neda to not dress so pretty were not Basij, by the way, maybe you are confused as to what the Basij is.)

    Finally, I would just like to say that Neda, peace be upon her, is not been the only victim of the post-election aftermath who has received international attention, and if you think so, then perhaps you need to do a little more research. Just a few months ago I wrote something for this blog about Shadi Sadr, and she is joined by Shiva Nazar Ahari, Hengameh Shahidi, Bahareh Hedayat, Azar Mansouri, Mahdieh Golroo, Atefe Nabavi… all of whom have been arrested, tortured, or exiled since the election.

  • emma

    You’re right, of course. But it would be interesting to compare media representation of Neda with that of, say, Ahmad Batebi or Shirin Ebadi. I suspect that the key element in Neda’s becoming the face of the protests was her death, and the way in which it was recorded. If she had survived, she would still have been “any girl, anywhere”, but the impact of the video would not have been the same.

    The comparison may sound trite, but the Neda narrative reminds me a great deal of Zola: the hyper-naturalistic representation of a zesty, innocent young woman’s inexplicable demise at the hands of forces beyond her control.

  • Diana

    I am not saying that there were tons of chador-donned women being killed on video. In fact, I agree with what you are saying, that this happened to be a unique video because it captured Neda’s death in such detail. What I am saying however, is if instead Neda was wearing a chador, would the video have been used to make an HBO documentary which repeatedly used the slogan “like any girl, anywhere” to garner support. If she was wearing chador, would there be protesters around the world wearing her mask, chanting “we are Neda!”.

    I think this is a very valid question. Would people be able to sympathize so much with a woman who looked different or who represented (in look i.e. through chador) a religious identity that they are perhaps ignorant of or even hostile of?

    On top of these questions, I have to objectively say there is undoubtedly a bias in the documentary. It elicits the testimony of Iranian women who have the same take on the revolution and the same sentiments about the regime and I am sure you know as well as I do, Iranians have very different takes on the politics of Iran; It is not black and white as they made it seem.

    If you watch the video Neda was not just walking home and happened to get caught up in the protest. She went out that day to protest the election, she went out to voice her opinion. This is what the documentary says. She was outspoken and she didn’t like what the regime was doing.

    I know there were hundreds of videos released. I was watching them with the rest of the world. I know also that there were hundreds of women pictured in those days of protests: hijabis, women who wore chador, women who wore neither, but this is not my point.

    I am focusing on this video, Neda’s story, this documentary. And I have done my research, thanks for reminding me. But that’s my point-I did research. Most people did not have to research Neda’s video or this documentary. It was a well known story and a widely publicized video. So this is what I am asking…why this video? why this woman? and why are the other women whose names you mentioned less familiar to the world?

  • Eman Hashim


    great insight, Diana. Ma shaa’ Allah!

    In Egypt, a comparison between Neda’s muder wide international and global focus, and Mona Elsherbini’s murder was made.
    Mona Elsherbini is the Egyptian pharmacist who was stabbed to death in German courts for being Arab, and she wore the Hijab.

    A lot of those who supported such a comparison based the global focus on Neda’s case more than Mona’s on the fact that Mona was a very normal (and ofcourse veiled) woman while Neda was an unveiled girl in Islamic Iran.

    I can relate to your words Diana and I echo your questions

    • Fatemeh

      @ Eman: That’s so interesting! Why would they say that Neda was an unveiled girl? Because of all the personal photos of her in the news media?

  • Diana

    @Eman and Fatemeh:

    Thanks Eman! Yea this is interesting. I think it goes without saying that there is definitely a great focus on the hijab or lack there of from the international community.

    I find it interesting that there is a picture of Neda with a black hijab on that is also quite popular, but it wasn’t used as much as the picture we see of her on the masks that were made.

  • henna

    HI Diana,

    Basically in whole article you are saying ” Is Muslim woman covered in chador not a sympathy generating one as compared to someone not in chador”.

    Though you wrote Chador many a times but actually you are referring to “nakaab” or “veil”.

    Women covered in afghanistan in Chador as well as veil did generate sympathy when Taliban forced them indoors. Similarly same women did generate sympathy when American forces attacked but intensity was less as it was assumed that for removal of Taliban some people would suffer. anyway so far Taliban is there and story will continue.
    But world saw Afghan women in general as tormented lot, they couldn’t connect as they couldnt see.

    Coming back to Iran, why Nida was so much publicised by western media (I am not talking of Iraninan media), basically people across geopgraphies could connect with her.

    and that is simple and straightforward thing.

    Though the video is in detail but if Nida was having a flowing veil from head to foot, or veiled but eyes are visible, you could see different responses from brains of humans across world.

    why? simple expressions. people connect with expression. if her face is not covered, all expression can be captured. if just eyes are invisble still some pain can be felt. but if fully veiled what is there to feel. the cries of women. that is least impactful.

    It is like watching a movie where either u put mute or do not understand language but still u can connect. Why? Expressions.

  • Diana

    @ Henna:
    Thanks for your input Henna. I understand well the difference between chador, hijab (head covering here) and niqab.

    What you seem to be getting at is my implication that hijab or niqab would also cause an outsider (someone who is outside of Iran or who is not familiar with Islam) to feel a loss of ability to identify with someone who chooses to wear either one of these or chador. None the less, I do understand the difference and perhaps I did not make that clear in the post.

    The sympathy you speak of with Afghani women is very different than what I am talking about here in my post. Afghani women were portrayed by media as helpless victims and that is where the sympathy you seem to be talking about came from.

    Here Neda is not portrayed as a helpless victim. She is portrayed as strong and brave, willing to die for her cause. This is why I say the world perhaps sympathized with her, not because she seemed oppressed or helpless but because she looked like any other woman. She seemed to be no different than “any woman, anywhere”.

    If we understand what chador is, if Neda was wearing Chador when she died, we would be able to see her face. So what you are saying, that “but if fully veiled what is there to feel” doesn’t really hold.

    I am not talking about being “fully veiled” whatever that means (I assume you mean in chador and niqab?). What I am talking about here is the chador. If she simply had that large black flowing piece of fabric, set around her face and held closed on her body, with her face showing, would the world react the same?

    In this same manner I have to ask, even if she was wearing the chador, lets say she was wearing jeans and a t-shirt but also a hijab (head covering here), but with her face clearly visible, would the reaction be the same?

    I do not believe it is as simple as saying the world connected with her because they could see the anguish/expression on her face or because the video was the only one of its kind (in terms of the detail of the incident).


  • henna

    @ Diana
    I re-read the article and your response to understand what exactly is conclusion. The general feel I have from article is that would media (western) be interested in showing a Muslim girl wearing a Chador (non veiled, hair covered) with same detailed video as is done in case of Nida.
    I feel it will if she is like Nida, that is she loves music, painting, clicking pics etc.
    But if she doesn’t like that then I do not think western media will show that, also may be she may not have liked that because that way even taking her video is wrong thing (it is case where some Muslim consider taking picture/video of humans as haraam) and girl herself won’t like it.
    Also you emphasized on “girl anywhere”, that may be because she liked music, painting etc and liking for these things may comes naturally to most of us though not all. Some of them may like it and some may just appreciate it. And also some may not like that.
    Why Nida fascinated west was her rebel attitude against almost everything in Iran, from dress, to hobbies. And her rebel attitude also is very similar to what most of western feel life is about, so one more connection.
    But I would again reiterate that even if Nida would have been a rebel with her face veiled completely she couldn’t generate so much sympathy as her expressions were nowhere to be seen.

  • Diana

    @ Henna:

    This is my point exactly. So now that you have answered with your opinion that, “I feel it will if she is like Nida, that is she loves music, painting, clicking pics etc.
    But if she doesn’t like that then I do not think western media will show that”, my question then is why?

    Why is the life of a woman who wears chador, or hijab or niqab or who is different in her religious identity or any other identity, ethnic, racial or national, not valued or venerated so much as someone the rest of the world can identify with? Why are their pictures not shown the media as much? Why do they not garner support for a movement against injustice?
    This is problematic, no?

  • Rochelle

    “Why is the life of a woman who wears chador, or hijab or niqab or who is different in her religious identity or any other identity, ethnic, racial or national, not valued or venerated so much as someone the rest of the world can identify with? Why are their pictures not shown the media as much? Why do they not garner support for a movement against injustice?
    This is problematic, no?”

    Diana, seriously, you have no evidence for this. You have to admit that this perception is your perception and that it may have no basis in reality. In fact, I have read countless times on this blog the complaint that the media tends to focus TOO much on chador when it comes to women in Iran, or heavily covered women when it comes to other Muslim women. So which one is it — the media focuses too much or not enough on chadori women?

    Did not Zahra Rahnavard get a lot of attention? Again, I saw plenty of pictures of chadori women protesting circulated in the media after the elections. And if you think that most of the protesters were non-chadoris than you are wrong. If you think that the Green Movement got so much international attention because most of the women were western-looking than you are dillusional.

    You simply have no evidence for the claim that people do not sympathize with chadori women over hijabis. The fact that Neda was a stand-out figure (which clearly she was) cannot be used to support your conjecture, because her death, as I made clear in my first post, cannot be compared to the deaths of other women after the election (which, by the way were very few — most of the deaths were men.) This is because hers was the only death that was videotaped.

    Perhaps if there were several videos of female protester’s deaths — some who wear chador and some who didn’t — then you can base your hypothesis on something. But as of now you have nothing to go on than a gut feeling. In fact, if you watched the video when it came out, like I did, you couldn’t even tell that Neda was ‘pretty’ or what she was wearing because the camera was shaky and it was chaotic and there was blood everywhere. And yet it still horrified the world.

    Here’s a thought: Perhaps her life was venerated because we saw it taken away from her. Perhaps it had nothing to do with dress (for a blog that seems critical of Western media’s obsession with dress, you folks seem to be awfully obsessed with dress yourselves). Perhaps it was the look in her eye when she died, that horror in her eyes.

  • henna

    @ Diana
    That is my gut feeling that western media may not show a women unlike Nida with so much coverage.

    why? there are many scenarios of unlike Nida, but if i take extreme opposite with face uncovered, it would be chador or burkha + head covered + showing no interest in art, make-up, etc etc. I guess west won’t identity with her.

    But after I read Rochelle’s comment I think I need to see more videos, read more stuff because there may be places where other women are also showcased.

    Again I agree with Rochelle that the pain, and horror in Nida’s eyes and her expressions(which I am talking from first comment) are the show stealers. without them if video just shot her body the response across world would have been mild.

    Though it is off the topic but need to mention that we show mostly western view. If we can have africa, middle east, and specific countries in south east, far east asia it would be great.

  • Dina

    Again, like many here I do not quite understand the implication of “had she been a woman in chador, public sympathy would be less”.

    Firstly, she was modestly dressed – her coat only slipped upwards her jeans when she was falling to the grund. Her hair was covered, a baseball cap above her hijab. So she definitely is a veiled woman in the streets. The ones protesting the elections overwhelmingly were people NOT voluntarily wearing more conservative dress like long black chadors, or the veils leaving only a triangle of the face visible. Some of the more conservatively clad men and women were said to be in the protests for the sake of justice, but firstly no one will deny the overwhelming majority of protesters were those demanding more freedom; secondly who would government killers like the Basij target? The occasional woman in the chador, or the uncomfortable youth in jeans and shirt or tight coat? Of course the latter. I would be surprised if of the relatively few conservative protesters any had been shot at all.

    And yes, I do believe a woman in chador being shot in the chest with a rifle, dying a gruesome death filmed by cellphone camera just like Neda’s would have had the SAME exposure in Western media. Then it would be “look, she is complying so hard, and they still kill her”, instead of “she was a free spirit, that is why they killed her”. The representations of victimhood may in both cases be oversimplified and stereotypical -but no less solidarity and shock would in my opinion be present. This can be seen regarding late 1970s coverage in the West: Liberals, leftists, but also mainstream media did portray the tchador clad Shah protesters in a VERY positive light.

  • PinkMuslimah

    Actually, no. Zahra Rahnavard didn’t get much MSM attention. I learned about her speaking out by searching out and reading stories which we not on the front page and certainly not splashed all over our TVs. I watched hours of youTube video to find images of women in hijab and chador being threatened and beaten. They weren’t repeated ad nauseum on TV or used as front page photos. I had to go looking for them.

    A woman who dresses modestly, attends the masjid, does her prayers, and wants only to reform the IRI – not tear it down entirely – simply isn’t the kind of sensationalist eye candy that our semi-illiterate media demands.

  • mariam from iran

    Diana , thank you for writing about this issue. unfortunately western media always insist that main problem of iranian women is hijab , no, puting a loose headscarf on head is not our problem. all westerners think, all of iranian women wear chador . no, chador is not compulsory ,I should say many private companies in iran dont hire a women who wear chador.plan a vacation for iran and walk in streets of tehran you will find many young women with tight pants, tight and short mantoo(common cloth in iran)and a loose headscarf that dont conceal their heir.I voted to mirrhossein musavi but after one year I have lost my faith to green movement .again and again women and their cloth is a tool for persuming political intrests specialy for United Stetes.

  • Diana

    @ Rochelle:

    Perhaps you need to take a breath and simmer down. You seem to be taking statements out of context and then making assumptions about what I think.

    “And if you think that most of the protesters were non-chadoris than you are wrong. If you think that the Green Movement got so much international attention because most of the women were western-looking than you are dillusional.”

    I never said this, or thought this. In fact, I think I said the opposite.

    “You simply have no evidence for the claim that people do not sympathize with chadori women over hijabis.”

    I don’t even know where you got this from. No where did I say that people do no sympathize with chadori women over hijabis. I said that I imagine it would be more difficult for someone to sympathize with people who (in appearance-through clothes or whatever else) represent a different religious identity.

    I could pick apart your statements to no end, but then I would be taken to futile and sophomoric bickering.

    Bottom line is that I simply present the notion that these “perceptions” I have may have some basis in reality, but ultimately it is up for you to decide for yourself by answering the questions I raise.

    No need to get heated here. The questions are valid, and at the end if you would like to say that their implications (because I never answer the questions personally) are baseless, that is your opinion. Someone else might have a different take :)

  • Diana

    @ Henna

    There are definitely tons of pictures of Iranian women during
    this time, who were part of the green movement, pictured in
    hijab, chador, etc. In fact, this was the beauty of it. There were so many people, so different in age, appearance, religious practice, etc. out for the same cause.

    Neda’s death was undoubtedly tragic; I am just commenting
    on the way her death was used by media.

    I agree with your idea that other perspectives would be great.
    If you are speaking about MMW, the posters are from all
    different backgrounds and countries and we try to cover
    all the bases. Unfortunately, there is just more
    availability of topics found in Western Media. Hopefully
    we can get some more diversity :)

    @ Dina:

    It is not a question of who is more of a target; I agree with
    you when you say that “of course the latter”. This however
    has nothing to do with how the documentary used her death to
    paint one picture. Nor does it have anything to do with the way
    her images were used internationally after her death.

    I agree with everyone here who is saying there were protesters
    with chador, with hijab…I am agreeing when you say that
    maybe the reason she was killed and not another person is because
    she was an easier target. Lastly, I agree that her death was gruesome and tragic.

    What I keep on reiterating is that even though all this (above)
    is agreed upon,I do not think that Neda’s death would have
    been used the same way if she were a different person. I do
    not think people would have found a picture of her in hijab
    or chador (which by the way there are pictures of her in both)
    and used that as a mask as they chanted “We are Neda!”

    @ PinkMuslimah

    Yea, Zahra Rahnavard didn’t get as much attention.

  • Rochelle


    Your questions are well-intentioned, clearly. I’m sorry if I came off mean-spirited, but this is a touchy subject, as I’m sure you know.

    You are bringing up a valid point of “hey, I wonder what kinds of assumptions the Western media are making by looking at Neda.” This is a very shrewd and important question. However, I would also add, not counter, your point by saying “what assumptions are YOU making in your analysis of the situation?” Unfortunately, you cannot brush this critique off by saying “i was just asking the question, not answering it.” Your question itself was not raised in a vacuum but after a series of assumptions.

    One assumption, I propose, is that perhaps you are ignoring the role that Iranians themselves, and particularly the ‘green movement’ had in hermeneutics of Neda’s death. Who first coined the term “we are Neda”? One implication of your post – and please correct me if I’m wrong – is that this was primarily from ‘Westerners’. Really?

    Another implication that I find especially troubling in your post is that perhaps the importance of Neda’s death is heightened to the Western eye than it is to Iranians, because it’s “easier to sympathize with someone with the same religious identity.” This not only implies that Neda was not religious, and wants to ‘tear down the regime’ (using pinkMuslimah’s words here) – which is erroneous – but that the primary reason for Neda’s ‘fame’ comes from the hands and mouths of Westerners and not Iranians themselves. If you agree that the initial ‘spin’ (ugh) of Neda’s death came from Iranian leaders, then you admit that Westerners were mostly copying their interpretations. Thus it is unfair to question the coverage in Western media if they are simply repeating what Iranians are saying for themselves, unless you think that ANY Western coverage is inappropriate, and I doubt you are this nativist :)

    This assumption is troubling, not only because it makes offensive and misleading conclusions about Neda but about the green movement in general — that it is irreligious, western, etc. I am not saying that you argue this point, however, pinkmuslimah is certainly doing so by implying that Neda did not fit the category of a “woman who dresses modestly, attends the masjid, does her prayers, and wants only to reform the IRI” (which, by the way, might be the most offensive thing I’ve read in the last week – implying that Neda was trying to overthrow the regime AND wasn’t a ‘real’ Muslim to boot.)

    But your question also assumed something much deeper — that westerners are inhibited from seeing injustice occur outside their community; that the green movement is looking for western sympathy because they themselves want to be western; that Neda’s death was somehow overblown or the pure denunciations of it was too one-sided. Whether one admits it or not, this is moral relativism at its finest.

    Perhaps you did not mean to make these assumptions. That’s cool. I’m just ‘asking the question’. At the end of the day, I would say that while I think the point you raised is 100% valid, I vehemently disagree that we only sympathize with people of our same religious/ethnic/racial/gender/class/insert-identity-here belonging. Not only that, but I think that even assuming this may be the case cannot be brushed off as an innocuous ‘question’ but can indeed be virulent, damaging, and dividing. I’m not trying to be mean to you or put you down — but I think its important for somebody to raise the long-term implications of your post.

  • mariam from iran

    dear Rochelle , as a iranian woman who live in iran , I should say Diana is completly right,if a woman who wear chador was instead of Neda and her interests was going to vollyball class and memorizing holy Quran class(as I know many women like this who were in protests),you will not see any documentary about her life and those noise western media produced about Neda.this is reality like it or not.what you see in the media is not whole truth about iran, with watching videos and photoes you cant know a country of near 80 milion with different races and cultures.

  • Diana

    @ Rochelle:

    You are absolutely right…of course. I am coming from somewhere based on my experiences or my identity. I will not disagree with you on this point. I felt that this was the spirit of the documentary. I felt as though they used her story to paint one picture or one perspective, or show one “type” of Iranian woman.

    As I am sure you already are well aware of, Iranians are very much varied in their perspectives, their religious and political ideologies, and their identities. Add to that fact the polarized and perhaps cuttingly emotional experiences/responses most Iranians have because of the tumultuous socio-political history of the country that extends even to first generation American-Iranians and we have ourselves a subject that will elicit many heated responses. With that said, I do not feel as though the documentary covered this wide range. In this sense it was biased and it did use Neda’s death to highlight key points about the regime which I believe it felt would mirror Neda’s opinion.

    “But your question also assumed something much deeper — that westerners are inhibited from seeing injustice occur outside their community; that the green movement is looking for western sympathy because they themselves want to be western; that Neda’s death was somehow overblown or the pure denunciations of it was too one-sided. Whether one admits it or not, this is moral relativism at its finest.”

    I am not assuming any of these things. My critique was of the documentary, not of Iran or of the green movement or of Neda. I know you are familiar with what we do here. I was critiquing the way western media (being HBO here) presented this Muslim woman and the other Muslim women in the documentary. Anyone looking at the video can objectively say it was biased. All the women (who are Muslim) had almost the same thing to say regarding the treatment of women in Iran (this has nothing to do with if I personally agree with it or not). Even the commentary on the politics of Iran was one sided and we all know, there are many sides.

    The assumptions I make are that the documentary used Neda’s story to portray this one side. They used the testimony of women who perhaps had the same ideas as Neda. The other assumption I make is that the West (protestors, media, international figures, etc.) may not have been so receptive to the story, so quick to respond, so fast to blow it up if Neda did not look like other women or if she represented (in look) ideals or a religion that they could not identify with. She was marketed by this documentary as “any girl, anywhere”.

    These assumptions are based on the documentary’s repeated use of this slogan, the mass production of masks using a picture of her that was “religiously anonymous” if you will, the fact that her story was so widely viewed as opposed to other perhaps equally tragic tales of Muslim women and the fact that the western world identified with her enough to chant “we are Neda!”, and come out in protest in such large numbers.

    I do not feel put down but, I disagree with your last point. People fear what they do not understand and at times are even hostile to it and it may affect their ability to educe a normal human response to tragedies. By the way I say some people, not all people. I am not talking about me or you or Muslims or MMW or someone in particular, but there are people who sympathize more with people of their same “religious/ethnic/racial/gender/class/insert-identity”. If this seems like unwarranted cynicism forgive me but I think I have enough examples to pull from. This cynicism is only virulent if it use it as a justification to do the same and I am not. Simply recognizing a pattern of behavior is not harmful in of itself.

  • Rochelle

    @ Mariam:

    I have lived in Iran, and I didn’t mention it because its irrelevant, just like the fact that you live in Iran doesn’t make you more qualified to represent ‘nearly 80 million people of difference races and cultures.’ I know you mean well, but can we move beyond the nativism, please? No one can be objective here, including me or you.

    @ Diana:

    I think I see where you’re coming from a bit better now, so thanks for that. But the only thing I would add is that sometimes I really question why we expect media representations to be ‘balanced’, and am thinking more and more that even the term ‘balanced’ is subjective. Sorry to be too meta, but I wonder what you think are legitimate perspectives and which aren’t. Surely you can find somebody in the USA to say any goddamn think you want, but that doesn’t mean this perspective is representative of the USA. There are 80 million people in Iran and 80 million perspectives. Which ones do you choose to feature?

    You seem to be implying that one person’s perspective is just as valid as any other, and that majority rules. So if 60 per cent of Iranian women thought they were repressed, would this be enough to say “Iranian women are repressed”? 80 percent? If there were objective laws on the books that discriminated against women, would that be enough to justify saying “Iranian women are discriminated against” even if you have no individual woman saying so?

    A lot of people say that something should be more ‘balanced’ as a euphemism for saying they disagree with the presentation presented. ‘Balance’ is not always an autonomous, objective end. Some perspectives, are, like-it-or-not, illegitimate depending on the hegemonic discourse. We don’t look at documentaries on the holocaust and say “wait! we need have more balance of opinion by interviewing Nazis! So why ARE jews so evil?” “Let’s make a film about South African apartheid – but wait, we should interview some white apartheid-ists else come off as too one-sided.”
    See my point?

    You can’t deny the importance that Neda’s death has in the Green Movement, both domestically and internationaly It doesn’t seem like you’re questioning that, but rather the representation of that to Western audiences. So just a thought experiment I guess: What would this documentary look like if was truly ‘balanced’? What would a ‘balanced’ representation accomplish in your eyes? And by making something ‘balanced’, isn’t that IN ITSELF serving a political purpose, devoid of all unbiased ‘scientific’ reporting?

    No need to answer all this — I don’t really have answers myself. Just saying.

  • Ayman Fadel

    According to a column by Jim Zogby, there is some confusion in the international media about the picture of Neda. I’ve not heard this before. Is it true? Did the HBO documentary address this issue?

    Abusing the Living and Dead

    The story is true, Neda Agha-Soltan was murdered, but the picture that spread virally is not of her. Careless journalism, to be kind, picked up the Facebook photo of one, Neda Soltani, a quite lovely Iranian teaching assistant and student of English Literature at Tehran University. Despite the mistaken identity, the photo stuck.

    A piece on Foreign Policy’s website last week ( carefully traces not just the carelessness that lead to the mistaken identity, but more disturbingly the consequences for the living Neda who is the innocent victim of this error.

    In any event, it’s all very sad and very criminal, regardless of the hypocrisy and confusion of some media and commentators who are looking for the “perfect” victim and don’t care about other victims.

  • Diana

    @ Rochelle:

    I do agree with you points here. Any opinion, story, or critique is subject to some bias and subjectivity, we are humans after all, with our own experiences/takes/views. I just did my job, which was to say that there was a bias here, and critique the representation of Muslim women here.

    @ Ayman:

    Yes, what you are saying is true that there was a confusion with the pictures and such. The HBO documentary did not address this, but they did use the right pictures of Neda Agha-Soltan (the woman who was actually killed) but, while I was watching the documentary I noticed they did call her Neda Soltani at times which is the name of the other woman who was mistaken for being Neda Agha-Soltan.

    All the photos used by HBO in the documentary were of Neda Agha-Soltan (the woman killed) though–at least they got that right :)

    I agree it is a very unfortunate situation and it actually ruined the life of Neda Soltani (the living woman) to the point where she felt pressured by the Iranian government to perpetuate their story that no, Neda (Agha-Soltan) is still alive–to avoid the stir that Neda Agha-Soltan’s death caused I suppose. She left her life in Iran to seek asylum elsewhere.

  • Antonia

    I was very pleased to find this review after watching the documentary this morning and feeling a little unsettled afterward–not only about the content of the story, but also, as you point out, the biases present throughout. Do you know of any Iran academics or experts who have expressed other interpretations of her life and death, ones that were not included in the documentary, or who have focused on members of the Green Movement who are not Neda-like (at least the way she was represented in this documentary)? Thanks much for writing this.

  • Diana

    @ Antonia:

    Your welcome! I do not know of any Iranian academics or experts who have commented specifically on Neda’s death, except for the ones in the documentary.

    Although, Oxford’s Queen’s College established the Neda Agha Soltan Graduate Scholarship in Philosophy but, this is said to be linked to the fact that Oxford fellow, Mr. Arash Hejazi was actually on the scene with Neda as she died (he is the doctor that appears in the documentary).

    Also Khadijeh Moghadam, an Iranian woman activist (member of Mothers for Peace) has said:
    “A week after Neda was killed, the mother participants of the Green Movement, using the experience of the women’s movement, especially the Campaign, showed up in Laleh park and adjacent streets, Behesht-e Zahra, in front of Evin prison, the Revolutionary court, and the Judiciary building and demanded the end of killings, the prosecution of those responsible, and the release of those imprisoned for their beliefs. This was an unprecedented move in the history of the women’s movement in Iran.”

    There are also various articles focusing on Iranian woman being at the forefront of the Green Movement, which are perhaps more indicative of the diversity of Iran’s women: (this one mentions Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who is not “Neda-like” but she was a big big player in the Green Movement and very publicly recognized)