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Middle East

Neda – the tragic face of Iran's uprising

Joan of Arc she was not, nor the Unknown Protester who stopped the tanks in Tiananmen Square, because that young man, 20 years ago, chose his fate and his prominence, deliberately stepping out of the crowd into the tank's and the cameras' sights.

Not so Neda: the young Iranian woman whose quick, brutal death from a Basiji militia man's bullet during a demonstration on Saturday created the Iranian uprising's first figurehead chose nothing except to be there.

Having found the courage to come out on to the street, she may have quailed: video shot moments before her death show her and her companion looking on from the sidelines as demonstrators surge back and forth. Should they go back? Had they made a mistake coming? She was in jeans and headscarf, the uniform of the city's young women, aged 26 or 27, we understand, therefore under 30, like 60 per cent of Iran's population: a modern Iranian Everywoman. She worked at a travel agency, so she was connected with the great world every day.

This is vague because all journalists have been banished from these terrifying streets. Yet within hours of her death a thousand bloggers and twitterers had immortalised her, ducking and diving through the regime's increasingly demented efforts to isolate their country, transforming her from a blood-soaked corpse into a heart-rending symbol of the uprising.

The launch pad for Neda's posthumous glory was a bare minute of shaky film. She goes over backwards in the throng and the man with the mobile phone spots the movement and leaps towards it. The camera catches her splayed legs, the blood already oozing onto the street. Those near her crowd around to help but the cameraman moves beyond them and for a long moment focuses on her white face which is flat on the pavement, the eyes swivelling but the head deathly still.

Then suddenly the blood surges from nose and mouth and it's like a scene from a slaughter house, the people who have come to her aid scream, but it is somehow poetically appropriate that her companion chooses this moment to cry, "Don't be afraid, don't be afraid, Neda my dear, don't be afraid..." Because she's already dead, and there is indeed nothing more to fear. As one of the bloggers who eulogised her wrote, quoting the 13th century Persian poet Rumi: "When you leave me/ in the grave,/ don't say goodbye./ Remember a grave is/ only a curtain/ for the paradise behind..."

Rarely has the butchery of an innocent – the bullet came from a rooftop sniper – been captured with such cruel completeness; never has such a scene been sent so quickly around the world, despite everything the authorities could do to thwart it. The consequences, too, were almost instantaneous. Protesters vowed to rename the street where she died Neda Street. A protest in her name drew 1,000 people to Haft-e Tir Square in Tehran before police broke it up. Officials prevented her supporters holding a memorial service in a mosque yesterday. One blogger wrote of Neda as "my sister": "I'm here to tell you my sister had big dreams," she wrote. "My sister who died was a decent person ... and like me yearned for a day when her hair would be swept by the wind ... and she longed to hold her head up and announce, 'I'm Iranian'... my sister died because injustice has no end..."

Yesterday the BBC's Farsi service reported that Neda's full name was Neda Agha-Soltan, and that she had been stuck in traffic in her car with her music teacher when she decided to get out "because of the heat" – "just for a few minutes", said her fiancé, Caspian Makan "[and] that's when she was shot dead".

Too much information already. The myth is more glorious without it.