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Jailed Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi wins the Nobel Peace Prize for fighting women’s oppression

Mohammadi, an engineer by training, has been imprisoned 13 times and sentenced to 31 years in prison. She has remained a leading light for nationwide, women-led protests, sparked by the death last year of a 22-year-old woman in police custody

Jailed Iranian women's rights activist
Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi, at the UN headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, in 2008.MAGALI GIRARDIN (EFE)

Imprisoned Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday in recognition of her tireless campaigning for women’s rights and democracy, and against the death penalty. Mohammadi, 51, has kept up her activism despite numerous arrests by Iranian authorities and spending years behind bars. She has remained a leading light for nationwide, women-led protests, sparked by the death last year of a 22-year-old woman in police custody. Those demonstrations grew into one of the most intense challenges ever to Iran’s theocratic government.

Berit Reiss-Andersen, the chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, began Friday’s announcement with the words “Woman, Life, Freedom” in Farsi — the slogan of the demonstrations in Iran. “This prize is first and foremost a recognition of the very important work of a whole movement in Iran with its undisputed leader, Narges Mohammadi,” Reiss-Andersen said. She also urged Iran to release Mohammadi in time for the prize ceremony on Dec. 10.

For nearly all of Mohammadi’s life, Iran has been governed by a Shiite theocracy headed by the country’s supreme leader. While women hold jobs, academic positions and even government appointments, their lives are tightly controlled. Laws require all women to at least wear a headscarf, or hijab, to cover their hair as a sign of piety. Iran and neighboring Afghanistan remain the only countries that mandate that.

In a statement released after the Nobel announcement, Mohammadi said she will “never stop striving for the realization of democracy, freedom and equality.” “Surely, the Nobel Peace Prize will make me more resilient, determined, hopeful and enthusiastic on this path, and it will accelerate my pace,” she said in the statement, prepared in advance in case she was named the Nobel laureate.

Mohammadi, an engineer by training, has been imprisoned 13 times and convicted five. In total, she has been sentenced to 31 years in prison. Her most recent incarceration began when she was detained in 2021 after attending a memorial for a person killed in nationwide protests sparked by an increase in gasoline prices. She has been held at Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, whose inmates include those with Western ties and political prisoners.

Amnesty International called for Mohammadi’s immediate release. “Her recognition today by the Nobel Peace committee sends a clear message to the Iranian authorities that their crackdown on peaceful critics and human rights defenders will not go unchallenged,” Amnesty Secretary-General Agnès Callamard said in a statement.

Mohammadi’s brother, Hamidreza Mohammadi, told The Associated Press from Norway where he lives that he has not been able to speak with his sister but knows the prize “means a lot to her.” “The prize means that the world has seen this movement,” but it will not affect the situation in Iran, he said. “The regime will double down on the opposition. ... They will just crush people.”

Mohammadi’s husband, Taghi Rahmani, who lives in exile in Paris with their two children, 16-year-old twins, said his wife “has a sentence she always repeats: ‘Every single award will make me more intrepid, more resilient and more brave for realizing human rights, freedom, civil equality and democracy.’” Rahmani hasn’t been able to see his wife for 11 years, and their children haven΄t seen their mother for seven, he said.

Their son, Ali Rahmani, said the Nobel was not just for his mother: “It’s for the struggle.΅ “This prize is for the entire population, for the whole struggle from the beginning, since the Islamic government came to power,” the teen said.

Women political prisoners in Evin aren’t allowed to use the phone on Thursday and Friday, so Mohammadi prepared her statement in advance of the Nobel announcement, said exiled Iranian photographer Reihane Taravati, a family friend who spent 14 days in solitary confinement in the prison before fleeing to France this year.

Mohammadi is the 19th woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize and the second Iranian woman, after human rights activist Shirin Ebadi won in 2003. It’s the fifth time in its 122-year history that the Nobel Peace Prize has been given to someone who is in prison or under house arrest. Last year, the top human rights advocate in Belarus, Ales Bialiatski, was among the winners. He remains imprisoned.

Mohammadi was in detention for the recent protests of the death of Mahsa Amini, who was picked up by the morality police for her allegedly loose headscarf. More than 500 people were killed in a heavy security crackdown, while over 22,000 others were arrested.

But from behind bars, Mohammadi contributed an opinion piece for The New York Times last month. “What the government may not understand is that the more of us they lock up, the stronger we become,” she wrote. In a first reaction from Tehran, the semi-official Fars news agency dismissed Mohammadi as someone who “persisted in creating tension and unrest and falsely claimed that she was beaten in prison.” Abuse in Iranian prisons — something Mohammadi has campaigned against both outside of and behind bars — has been widely reported by the U.N. and human rights groups.

In Tehran, people expressed support for Mohammadi and her resilience. “The prize was her right, She stayed inside the country, in prison and defended people, bravo!” said Mina Gilani, a girl’s high school teacher. Arezou Mohebi, a 22-year-old chemistry student, said the prize was “an award for all Iranian girls and women,” and described Mohammadi “as the bravest I have ever seen.”

Political analyst Ahmad Zeidabadi said the prize might lead to more pressure on Mohammadi. “The prize will simultaneously bring possibilities and restrictions,” he wrote online. “I hope Narges will not be confined by its restrictions.” Before being jailed, Mohammadi was vice president of the banned Defenders of Human Rights Center in Iran, founded by Nobel laureate Ebadi.

The Nobel prizes carry a cash award of 11 million Swedish kronor ($1 million). Winners also receive an 18-carat gold medal and diploma at the award ceremonies in December.

Unlike the other Nobel prizes that are selected and announced in Stockholm, founder Alfred Nobel decreed that the peace prize be decided and awarded in Oslo by the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee. The independent panel is appointed by the Norwegian parliament. The Nobel season ends Monday with the announcement of the winner of the economics prize, formally known as the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.

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