07/06/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT
For a regime built on martyrdom, it was perhaps the last thing the ruling clerics in Iran needed: the image of a young woman lying bloodied on a street in Tehran, apparently shot during an anti-government demonstration, the ghastly footage of her dying moments posted on the Internet for other Iranians—and the world—to see. Overnight the woman, 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan, whose last words were, "I'm burning, I'm burning," according to an account in the Los Angeles Times, has become a potent symbol of the rebellion that has plunged the country into upheaval over the disputed presidential vote.
Relatively little is known about Neda—she now only needs one name. In school she studied Islamic philosophy, had worked at a travel agency and loved to sing. Her music teacher told the Los Angeles Times that Neda was at the demonstration when she got stuck in traffic. She got out of the car and was killed as she stood there. "Without her throwing a rock or anything, they shot her," said the teacher. The BBC broadcast an interview with a young man, identified as Kasamin Makan, who said he was her fiancé. Makan said that Neda was not particularly political. All the same, said Makan, she was a patriot and an idealist. "She was just in love with her country," he said.
Ever since her death, protesters have carried her portrait during confrontations with Iranian security forces, hailing her as an innocent victim sacrificed to an oppressive regime. And the images of her death have been played over and over. As her fiancé said, "She was a young woman, but gave a big lesson to everybody....Neda just wanted freedom for everybody."