June 20, 2009. Tehran, Iran.

As early as the day was, the sun beat down, harsh and unrelenting, on 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan and her singing teacher. They looked on as crowds marched through the heart of Iran’s capital. After the chaotic protest and the traffic surrounding it had moved past her building, Agha-Soltan stepped out onto the sidewalk to catch the breeze — but the street was quiet, and the air was thick and heavy. As the crack of a gunshot rang out, Neda fell to the ground. Before the bullet that had lodged in her heart killed her, she told her teacher, “It burned me.”

1. Protesters show their solidarity with Neda
Protesters show their solidarity with Neda

Within days of her death, Barack Obama called the images of Agha-Soltan’s last moments “searing” and the tragedy “heartbreaking” and “fundamentally unjust.” Millions viewed amateur YouTube videos that had captured Agha-Soltan’s death, and poems dedicated to her blanketed the Internet. Her first name means “voice” in Persian — by the next morning, to many, she had become the voice of the 2009 protests against then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

May 28, 2013. Istanbul, Turkey.

As Ceyda Sungur stood planted in the grass of the park, her curly brown hair billowed across her face. The pepper spray soaked her red cotton sundress and stained the simple white bag she carried over her shoulder. Holding neither a stick nor a weapon, she turned away from the police officer dressed in black and shielded by a gas mask. She had sprinted from her office in the Urban Planning Department of Istanbul’s Technical University to face the line of bulldozers that were set to demolish Gezi Park, one of the last remaining green spaces in Istanbul. When she entered the park, a line of riot police greeted her. Just moments later, she became an Internet celebrity — “The Lady in Red.”

2. The -Lady in Red-
The Lady in Red

February 19, 2014. Carabobo, Venezuela.

Genesis Carmona’s hair swayed with the movement of the motorcycle; her brown and gold purse still swung from her arm; the laces of her sneakers were still neatly tied, but her white shirt was stained with blood. She hung limply in the arms of the man perched precariously on the motorcycle seat.

Genesis Carmona being rushed to the hospital before her death
Genesis Carmona being rushed to the hospital before her death

A year ago, Carmona had been named Miss Tourism Carabobo 2013. On February 18, 2014, the former beauty queen was marching with opposition protesters in Carabobo when gunmen on motorcycles fired into a crowd of more than 3,000 protesters. A bullet lodged in Carmona’s head, transforming her from a university student demonstrating with her peers to a victim of violence. A fellow protester transported her to a local clinic, where she died of her wounds. In the month and a half following her death, over 60,000 Twitter posts featured Carmona.

***

Iconography in protest is not a new phenomenon. The student known as “Tank Man,” who stood in front of a line of armored vehicles in Tiananmen Square, has become a metonym for the student demonstrations against the Chinese government in 1989. In 1967, one student became “Flower Power” — a symbol of the peaceful protests of that era — after placing flowers down the rifle barrels of riot police during a 250,000-person Vietnam War protest in Washington, D.C. Many of the enduring photos of the last decade feature young, mostly female student protesters. In their deaths or acts of protest, these women — notably Neda Agha-Soltan in Iran, Genesis Carmona in Venezuela, and Ceyda Sungur in Turkey — have come to represent the larger movements in which they took part.

Sungur did not want the attention that the Reuters photograph gave her. “A lot of people no different from me were out protecting the park, defending their rights, defending democracy. They also got gassed,” she told the press. Sungur was not, reportedly, very political. Despite her modesty in the interview, Sungur became the face of the protests that swept Turkey in May 2013. The photograph has even been re-created in cartoons, posters, and stickers. In Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city, it was transformed into a billboard.

Like Sungur, Agha-Soltan was not political, but she was studying philosophy and taking voice lessons in a country that forbade women from singing in public. According to relatives, she had come to the protests against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad because she believed in fighting for her freedom.

Nor was Genesis Carmona active in politics. President Nicolas Maduro may have lamented her death on a speech on national television, but she nonetheless became the face of the anti-government demonstrations in Venezuela. Hundreds attended her funeral and mourning services.

So how and why did these three women, who reportedly were not overly political, become icons in their respective protest movements?

***

The day that Ceyda Sungur became an icon, she and others were speaking out against the Istanbul municipal government’s plan to destroy Gezi Park in Taksim Square and replace it with an Ottoman-themed shopping mall. However, as Gulay Turkmen, a sociology Ph.D. candidate at Yale University who was present in Istanbul during the protests, told The Politic, the ramifications of the Turkish protests were not limited to the nine-acre park. “There were a lot of tensions that had been building in Turkey concerning the policies of Prime Minister Erdogan,” Turkmen said.

Conservatives, Erdogan and his party had already indicated their intention “to ban abortion and restrict alcohol consumption.” Many protesters were concerned for their secular lifestyles and the already notable lack of parks in the capital. Others objected to Erdogan’s response to the Syrian Civil War. Sungur protested, at least in part, because she was concerned by the lack of transparency and accountability in the municipality’s development plans. Although the protesters represented a variety of interests, opinions, and demographics, the majority was young and educated. More than half were women, and many had not participated in politics before. Ceyda Sungur shared all of these traits.

The demonstrations began on May 28, and on that day, only 40 to 50 people peacefully occupied Gezi Park to protest the advancement of the bulldozers. The protest was soon marred by violence. The police set fire to the tents of people sitting-in to stop the demolition of the park. They used water cannons and tear gas to displace the protestors, including Sungur. The crackdown was broadcast on TV and caused a wave of supporters to join the protestors in the park. “All of a sudden,” said Turkmen, “you could see hundreds of thousands of people.” By mid-June, over seven million people were occupying Taksim Square, a historic site of protest, and the busy city center of Istanbul.

The photo of Sungur caught in a spray of tear gas spread throughout Turkey and the rest of the world on the internet, despite Erdogan’s attempts to limit the influence of social media in Turkey. Turkmen suggested that the picture changed the minds of many Turks. “It was clear that Ceyda was unarmed, and that was significant because the discourse from the government during that time was that the police were retaliating against the protesters’ violence, as opposed to attacking them unprovoked.”

Women stand at the forefront of many of the protests in Turkey
Women stand at the forefront of many of the protests in Turkey

Turkmen saw firsthand the mobilizing effects of the image. She recalled after the protest, how an old woman invited protesters into her home. The woman had been throwing lemons from her balcony to protestors, because they are thought to counteract the effects of tear gas. When Turkmen asked why she was helping the demonstrators, the woman replied, “I saw the photo of the ‘Lady in Red,’ and I got frustrated and angry at the police. Before that I thought that the protestors were just causing chaos and breaking down the windows. But after that I realized that the police were acting violently.”

Agha-Soltan was a similarly undistinguished figure amid the protests following Ahmadinejad’s 2009 reelection. Some believe that her killer was a sniper; others believe it was a volunteer of the paramilitary militia, Basij. Many Iranians were shocked at the defenseless state she was in when she was killed. At the same time, most people were not immediately aware of her role in the protest, Narges Erami, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Yale, explained. The government filtered a slew of websites, and most of the country did not even have access to the Internet. The significance surrounding her and her death was not “the result of social media at all,” Erami explained, “but capturing the video of her death changed the view of what participation meant in the aftermath of the elections for those inside Iran.”

Mehdi Karroubi, who ran against Ahmadinejad, called Agha-Soltan a martyr. “A young girl who did not have a weapon in her soft hands, or a grenade in her pocket, became a victim of thugs who are supported by a horrifying intelligence apparatus,” he stated on his website. A 41-year-old, going by “Alireza,” told The New York Times, “We know a lot of people have died, but it is so hard to see a woman, so young and innocent, die like this.” After the state tried to stop her family from burying her, there were mourning ceremonies for Agha-Soltan held throughout Iran and around the world.

The mistreatment of Agha-Soltan’s family, as well as her youth and innocence, catapulted her to iconic status in Iran, whose culture is infused with the theme of martyrdom. The position of women in Iran was a significant grievance of the 2009 protests. Thousands of women had been arrested in Tehran for not adhering to strict Islamic dress codes, and thousands of women took part protesting those arrests that year. A young Iranian woman, calling herself Parisa, told CNN, “I see lots of girls and women in these demonstrations. They are all angry, ready to explode, scream out and let the world hear their voice. I want the world to know that as a woman in this country, I have no freedom.”

***

Though these three protestors were all female, the role of women in protest is, as Turkmen put it, “nothing new.” Turkmen hypothesized that Sungur’s gender influenced her iconic role in the movement because of societal dispositions. “My guess is that the Turkish patriarchal mentality might have mobilized some people. In Turkey, women are generally seen as fragile — in street fights, for example, the understanding is that you shouldn’t hit a woman because she can’t even fight back,” she said. “If it was a man in the photo, people might have thought that he had been fighting the police. But many people would have been outraged that a woman was being attacked.”

As Turkmen pointed out, the photo also has strong feminist overtones, given Sungur’s nonviolent resistance male authorities — the policeman in front of her, and the physical representation of the government of Turkey looming in the background. Turkmen contended, “The photo was important because it inspired other women to imitate Ceyda’s bravery and it confirmed assumptions that the police [were] responsible for the violence.”

Although Ceyda Sungur, Genesis Carmona, and Neda Agha-Soltan came from remarkably different countries and represented different causes, all three were young female students who involuntarily came to embody their respective movements. Photos and videos of their assaults or deaths spread across social media. Turks, Iranians, Venezuelans, and the rest of the world were outraged by the violence inflicted against these young women. To those of a patriarchal mindset, this sympathy stemmed from cultural stereotypes about the weakness and innocence of women.

In fact, the media in the U.S. and elsewhere may have magnified this sexist response. “Since Middle Eastern countries are portrayed as more patriarchal societies,” Turkmen posited, “the fact that women are icons in many different countries might be underlined more by the Western media than they would have done if the protestors were all men; it seems more interesting to them, even though the women have been participating in protests for a long time.” Despite the different responses to these women’s actions, there is little doubt that their iconic roles influenced international perception of the resistance movements in which they participated.

It remains to be seen whether the images of Sungur, Agha-Soltan, and Carmona will be viewed by posterity as textbook representations of their respective movements, or forgotten as historical footnotes. It is doubtless, however, that thanks to the expanding roles of social media and women in protest movements across the globe, more stories like theirs will be told in years to come.

Published by Charlotte Finegold

Charlotte Finegold is a staff writer for The Politic from Highland Park, New Jersey. Contact her at charlotte.finegold@yale.edu.

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