Neda Agha-Soltan, the deceased protester, left; Neda Soltani, the political refugee, right.
Neda Soltani is the ordinary Iranian woman whose image spread last summer in an instant around the world. She's a symbol of the brutality of the Iranian regime and the resilience of Iran's movement for democracy.
She's also still alive.
A woman named Neda did indeed die last summer on the streets of Tehran, gunned down by members of an Iranian militia. Her full name was Neda Agha-Soltan. But mixed in with the tragic footage of that Neda's death, broadcast around the world in a viral video that galvanized world opinion against the Iranian regime, was a compelling Facebook snapshot of a smiling young beauty in a flowered headscarf.
Her name was Neda, too -- Neda Soltani.
What follows is the incredible story of what happened when the age of social media collided with political upheaval in a land behind a curtain -- and how it even forced a 32-year-old graduate student into political exile.
In her small apartment in the city of Offenbach, Germany, where she has been granted political asylum, Neda Soltani is working to piece back together her life. She looks older now than she does in her famous photo. Understandably: The past year has been an ordeal, one that was thrust upon her against her will.
Until last year, Neda Soltani was a teaching assistant for English literature at Tehran's Islamic Azad University, where she was doing graduate work on feminine symbolism in the work of Joseph Conrad. She wasn't a supporter of the regime, but she also didn't belong to any sort of active opposition group, even in the heady days after the disputed election. She was focused on her academic career above all else; while Iranians were marching in the streets, she was correcting her thesis. She led the prosaic life of Tehran's silent apolitical majority. "I worked for 10 long years to get my position at the university," she told Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung in February. "I was earning my own money, I had friends, I would go out and I had fun."
All that changed on June 20 of last year, when a choppy video appeared on YouTube depicting the gruesome and chaotic death of a young Iranian woman. Neda Soltani watched the clip, not knowing it was the beginning of the end of her own life as well.
The process began innocuously enough, resting on a foundation of journalism's most basic building block: competition for a scoop. Working only with the first name heard on the YouTube video, international news organizations raced one another to unearth more information on the young women who died on camera. Forgoing fact checks, editors in New York and London allowed small details to get lost in translation as they communicated with their reporters on the ground: "Agha-Soltan" lost its hyphen, "Agha" was dropped entirely, or "Soltan" picked up an "i". These errors even found their way into HBO's valedictory documentary airing tonight. In portraying the reporter from the Guardian who purportedly first determined her name, the film briefly includes a screen shot of his story from last June that itself was published under a misleading headline: "Neda Soltan's family ‘forced out of home' by Iranian authorities."
That's where Facebook comes in. On June 21, eager Green Movement supporters decided to dedicate a page on the social networking site to the "Angel of Iran." Serendipitously, the martyr herself had a personal Facebook from which they could borrow her portrait. Framed as a standard passport shot, the photo showed an attractive young woman with a relaxed and innocent smile who wore a head scarf that revealed several inches of dark brown hair. It was a perfectly adequate resource for activists looking to inspire sympathy -- except for the fact that the likeness, like the Facebook page from which it was taken, belonged to Neda Soltani, the quiet, unbloodied scholar of English literature.