Narges Mohammadi, Iranian Rights Activist, Receives Nobel Peace Prize

Narges Mohammadi, Iran’s most prominent human rights activist and an inmate in the country’s notorious Evin Prison, was awarded the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, in an effort by the Norwegian Nobel Committee to support women’s rights in Iran.

Ms. Mohammadi, 51, has spent most of the last decade in and out of prison, charged with “spreading anti-state propaganda,” and she is currently serving a 10-year sentence — part of Iran’s long campaign to silence and punish her for her activism.

But even from inside prison, where she has suffered severe health problems, including a heart attack, she has remained one of the most outspoken critics of Iran’s government.

In response to a major uprising, led by women, that rocked Iran last year after Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old, died in the custody of the country’s morality police, she has organized prison protests, written opinion pieces and led weekly workshops for female inmates about their rights.

By evening on Friday, Ms. Mohammadi had not yet been able to call her family or friends to discuss the prize. In a statement that her family released on her behalf in case she won the award, she vowed to stay in Iran even if that meant spending the rest of her life in captivity.

“Standing alongside the brave mothers of Iran,” she said, “I will continue to fight against the relentless discrimination, tyranny and gender-based oppression by the oppressive religious government until the liberation of women.”

She gave a written statement to The New York Times on Thursday from Evin Prison in Tehran, where hundreds of political prisoners and dissidents are held.

“I also hope this recognition makes Iranians protesting for change stronger and more organized,” she said. “Victory is near.”

The Nobel committee said this year’s prize additionally recognized the hundreds of thousands of people who have “demonstrated against Iran’s theocratic regime’s policies of discrimination and oppression targeting women.”

But it singled out Ms. Mohammadi specifically. “Her struggle has come at tremendous personal cost,” said Berit Reiss-Andersen, who leads the committee.

“She supports women’s struggle for the right to live full and dignified lives,” she added. “This struggle, across Iran, has been met with persecution, imprisonment, torture and even death.”

The Iranian authorities did not react publicly to the news of Ms. Mohammadi’s award by nightfall in Tehran. State-affiliated media and analysts close to the government dismissed the prize, calling it a Western plot to stir further unrest.

But her family, human rights activists and others celebrated, many from abroad. “We want the voice of the Iranian people to be amplified from the inside,” said Taghi Rahmani, her husband and a prominent political activist who now lives in Paris.

“Narges Mohammadi epitomizes the bravery of Iranian women who defy government repression to insist on their rights,” said Kenneth Roth, who was the executive director of Human Rights Watch for two decades before leaving last year. “She even treats prison as an opportunity to document and publicize that repression.”

He added, “The authorities’ brutality has proved no match for the determination of so many Iranian women like Narges to shatter the clerics’ retrograde restrictions.”

The jubilation was tempered for many by fear for Ms. Mohammadi’s well-being after so many years in prison.

Ms. Mohammadi’s 30-year effort to peacefully change Iran through education, advocacy and civil disobedience has long separated her from her family. Mr. Rahmani lives in France with the couple’s 16-year-old twins, Ali and Kiana, who have not seen their mother for eight years.

Ms. Mohammadi’s husband, Taghi Rahmani, in New York in May.Credit…Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet for The New York Times

Ali said he learned the news of the prize while he was in school on Friday — by checking his phone under the desk. “I couldn’t shout in class, but I was so happy,” he said later, at the family’s apartment in Paris. “We are afraid for my mom everyday. The Nobel Prize is a sign for her to continue straight on, to not abandon the fight.”

Mr. Rahmani said that his daughter, Kiana, told him, “I just want my maman; I want her back with us.”

Ms. Mohammadi has for years said that she strongly believes change must come from within Iran through the development of a robust civil society, so she has refused to leave, even when her husband escaped to avoid persecution.

Her activism has focused not only on Iran’s hijab law, which requires women and girls to cover their hair and bodies, but also on violence and sexual harassment against women, the status of women under the strictly religious government, and the rights of death row prisoners. She has also called for Iran to transition out of the Islamic Republic’s rule and into a democracy.

The family has expressed hope that the international attentionwill eventually persuade the Iranian authorities to release Ms. Mohammadi. But for the short term, Mr. Rahmani said, her relatives expect Iran to increase pressure on her in captivity alongside an official pose of dismissing the prize.

The Nobel Committee has occasionally awarded its Peace Prize to people in prison, including last year, when Ales Bialiatski, now 61, shared it with other human rights activists while awaiting trial in Belarus.

Ms. Mohammadi is the 19th woman to be selected for the prize since its inception in 1901, and the second Iranian woman to win. Shirin Ebadi, a human rights lawyer and Ms. Mohammadi’s longtime mentor and colleague, won in 2003. The two women worked together in Iran at the Defenders of Human Rights Center, which Ms. Ebadi founded.

“I hope that it helps Narges and other political prisoners to get released from prison and brings along with it freedom and democracy for all Iranians,” Ms. Ebadi said on Friday.

“The world must keep an eye on Iran,” she added.

Ms. Mohammadi was born in the central Iranian city of Zanjan to a middle-class family. Her path to activism began with two childhood memories: her mother stuffing a red plastic shopping basket with fruit every week, for prison visits with Ms. Mohammadi’s uncle; and her mother sitting on the floor near the television to hear the names of prisoners executed each day.

She studied physics in college, where she quickly became involved in activism, founding a women’s hiking group and another about civic engagement. She also met Mr. Rahmani, a well-known figure in Iran’s intellectual circles, while attending an underground class he taught on civil society. She moved to Tehran after graduation and began a career as a civil engineer and human rights activist.

The government forced her employer to fire her in 2008 and barred her from working in engineering.

Ms. Mohammadi is the author of “White Torture,” a book that documents through interviews the psychological torture and abuse of prisoners in Iran. Earlier this year, she won PEN America’s Barbey Freedom to Write Award. The United Nations also named her one of the three recipients of its World Press Freedom Prize.

Her activism took on renewed urgency last year, after the death of Ms. Amini, who was in the custody of the morality police, set off a nationwide uprising against the Islamic Republic.

The government responded with brutal force, killing at least 500 protesters, including children and teenagers. About 20,000 Iranians were arrested, the United Nations estimated, and the protests slowly diminished over many months.

Ms. Mohammadi remained defiant as prisons filled with Iranians accused of taking part in the protests. “What the government may not understand is that the more of us they lock up, the stronger we become,” she wrote in an essay published by The Times last month.

She added, “All of them, no matter how they were arrested, had one demand: Overthrow the Islamic Republic regime.”

Aaron Boxerman and Juliette Guéron-Gabrielle contributed reporting.

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