On Oct. 6, 2023, Narges Mohammadi – an imprisoned Iranian human rights activist – won the Nobel Peace Prize. The Norwegian Nobel Committee commended “her fight against the oppression of women in Iran and her fight to promote human rights and freedom for all.” Since the 1990s, Mohammadi has advocated against the death penalty, solitary confinement and women’s rights. “I will never stop striving for the realization of democracy, freedom and equality,” she said in a statement released by her family after the Nobel was announced. “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 was unable to attend the award ceremony in Oslo on Dec. 10, 2023 due to her imprisonment.
2023 #NobelPeacePrize laureate Narges Mohammadi has dedicated her life to fighting against the oppression of women in Iran and promoting human rights and freedom for all. For this the Iranian regime sentenced her to 31 years in prison. She has been in prison since 2015. pic.twitter.com/xNIpr4baWa
— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 6, 2023
Iran has come under increasing scrutiny and pressure since the September 2022 death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, in police custody. She had been detained by the morality police for allegedly “improper” hijab. Her death sparked three months of nationwide protests. “Women, Life, Freedom” was the rallying cry of the movement, largely led by young women. The United States and European powers extensively sanctioned Iranian officials, intelligence organizations and security agencies in connection with Amini’s death and the bloody crackdown on protesters. More than 500 were killed and some 20,000 were detained.
The prize was for “all the human rights activists who have been fighting for change in Iran for many decades in a society that has unjust laws,” Mohammadi’s husband, Taghi Rahmani told The New York Times. “It is a recognition of the Women, Life, Freedom movement in Iran.”
President Joe Biden lauded Mohammadi for “unshakable courage” and called on Tehran to release her. “This award is a recognition that, even as she is currently and unjustly held in Evin prison, the world still hears the clarion voice of Narges Mohammadi calling for freedom and equality,” he said. The United States “will continue working to support Iranians’ ability to advocate for their own future, for freedom of expression, for gender equality, and to end gender-based violence against women and girls everywhere.”
Mohammadi has paid a heavy price for her work, including several years in prison away from her husband and children. She has been arrested 13 times, convicted five times, and sentenced to a total of 31 years in prison as well as 154 lashes, the Nobel Committee noted. As of 2023, she was serving a 10-year sentence for actions “spreading anti-state propaganda.” Yet even from inside infamous Evin prison, she has continued to organize protests, criticize the regime, and share testimonies of fellow prisoners who have been abused by security forces. “When prison drags on for many years, you have to give your life meaning within confinement and keep love alive,” she told The New York Times in June 2023.
Timeline: Mohammadi’s Activism
Born in 1972 in Zanjan, Mohammadi studied physics at Imam Khomeini University in Qazvin. She became politically active during her studies. Mohammadi was detained twice in the 1990s after she founded the Illuminating Student Group of young dissidents. Although she was engineer by training, Mohammadi wrote articles for reformist publications, including Payaam-e Haajar, a magazine focused on women’s issues that was shuttered by the judiciary in 2000.
In 2003, Mohammadi joined the Defenders of Human Rights Centre (DHRC), a group founded by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi. Mohammadi later became vice president of the group. Mohammadi also was a founding member and elected president of the National Council for Peace, founded in 2008 to tell the international community that Iran did not seek conflict. Ebadi had called for the establishment of the organization when many Iranians feared that the United States might attack Iran.
In 2010, she was detained again and spent a month in solitary confinement until she was released for medical treatment of a neurological disorder. In October 2011, she was charged with “colluding against national security, generating propaganda against the state, and being part of the DHCR.” She was sentenced to 11 years, later reduced to six years. Her health worsened; she was released on bail for medical treatment in 2013.
In October 2014, Mohammadi lambasted the government for prisoner abuse and political hypocrisy in a speech honoring dissident journalist Sattar Beheshti, who had died in prison in 2012. “How is it that members of parliament suggest a plan for ‘the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice,’ but nobody spoke up two years ago when an innocent human being named Sattar Beheshti died after being tortured by his interrogator?” she asked. A video of the speech went viral.
In May 2015, Mohammadi was arrested and charged with “gathering and colluding with intent to harm national security,” “spreading propaganda against the system” and “founding and running an illegal organization.” While in prison, she was sentenced to 16 years, later reduced to 10 years. Her health continued to deteriorate, and in August 2018 she was temporarily transferred from Evin Prison to the Imam Khomeini Hospital.
In prison, Mohammadi staged multiple protests over conditions, especially the lack of medical care. In January 2019, she went on a hunger strike over the “illegal, inhumane and unlawful” treatment of prisoners. She led a second hunger strike in December in sympathy with nationwide protests over economic conditions. She was transferred to Zanjan Women’s Prison as punishment. In an open letter in September 2020, Mohammadi described prison abuse as a “clear message that [the regime] knows no legal, logical or religious bounds in denying the rights of dissidents who will suffer ever more until they die, break or repent.”
Mohammadi was denied contact with her family from September 2019 until July 2020. In July, her two teenage children tweeted a video begging the international community to “be the voice of their mother” and hold the Iranian regime accountable for prisoner abuse. She was released on October 7, 2020 after the court commuted her last sentence.
On Feb. 26, 2021, Mohammadi refused to appear in court to face charges brought a year prior for her activism while in prison. She also announced that she had filed a formal complaint alleging sexual harassment and physical abuse while in Evin prison.
On May 19, 2021, just six months after her release from prison, a Tehran court sentenced Mohammadi (in absentia) to 30 months in prison, two fines, and 80 lashes for propaganda, defamation and “rebellion” in reference to her activism. On June 12 and 17, 2021, she was physically attacked and threatened by state agents who did not identify themselves. Despite the intimidation, she participated in a rally outside the Interior Ministry to support protestors in western Khuzestan province. She and other activists were detained for five hours.
On Sept. 26, 2021, Mohammadi said that her pending sentence was finalized and would be enforced, including 30 months in prison and 80 lashes, would be enforced. “I will not allow the agents of this religious dictatorship to flog me even one time…I will not report to prison, she wrote on Instagram. “If they send me back to prison by force, I will certainly protest inside the prison.”
On Nov. 16, 2021, Mohammadi was arrested in Karaj while commemorating the two-year anniversary of the death of a protester. She was placed in solitary confinement and new charges were levied against her, including spying for Saudi Arabia. She was transferred to Qarchak prison on Jan. 19, 2022. Four days later, she was sentenced to an additional eight years in prison and 70 lashes for “assembly and collusion to act against national security.” The trial only lasted five minutes, according to her husband. The court also banned her from traveling abroad, participating in “institutions and parties” and “presence and activity in social networks and interviews” for two years.
Mohammadi’s health suffered after she returned to prison. In February 2022, she was hospitalized for shortness of breath and eventually released on furlough to have heart surgery. She refused to return to prison on the appointed date of April 12. Ministry of Intelligence agents arrested her and took her back to Qarchak prison that day. Mohammadi’s family alleged that the prison withheld medication for a lung condition. On June 23, she was hospitalized for shortness of breath and an irregular heartbeat but was returned to prison days later.
Mohammadi was transferred to Evin prison on July 20, 2022. In a letter published on her Instagram profile on August 4, she warned that COVID-19 was spreading among prisoners but that many were not tested.
On Oct. 9, 2022, Mohammadi was sentenced to an additional 15 months in prison for “propaganda against the state.” In November, she published “White Torture: Interviews with Iranian Women Prisoners,” to call attention to the physical and mental abuse suffered by women prisoners.
Mohammadi was the second Iranian woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Human rights lawyer and democracy activist Shirin Ebadi, a colleague of Mohammadi, won in 2003. Mohammadi joined the Ebadi center the same year.
Mohammadi is married to Taghi Rahmani, a prominent human rights activist, journalist and intellectual opposed to the theocratic system. Rahmani, born in 1959, was involved in politics even before the 1979 revolution. He was first detained by SAVAK, the shah’s secret police, at age 15 for passing out flyers for student activists. After the 1979 revolution, he served several stints in prison totaling 14 years on various charges, including organizing anti-revolutionary groups, acting against national security, and insulting religious entities.
Mohammadi met Rahmani in 1994 after he was released from prison. He was offering informal history classes at a bookstore in Qazvin, and Mohammadi participated. The two got married in 1999. In 2006, Mohammadi gave birth to twins Kian and Ali. Both parents spent extended periods in prison away from the children.
In 2012, Rahmani made the difficult decision to flee Iran with their children and settle in Paris. Mohammadi opted to stay. Rahmani recalled that she said, “I'm an activist, and an activist can't be active outside the country.” In an interview at the U.S. Institute of Peace on May 15, 2023, he acknowledged that “she’s much more dangerous than I am now”--and that he would have been more useful to the opposition had he, too, remained in Iran.
“The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize 2023 to Narges Mohammadi for her fight against the oppression of women in Iran and her fight to promote human rights and freedom for all.
“This year’s peace prize also recognises the hundreds of thousands of people who, in the preceding year, have demonstrated against Iran’s theocratic regime’s policies of discrimination and oppression targeting women. The motto adopted by the demonstrators – “Woman – Life – Freedom” – suitably expresses the dedication and work of Narges Mohammadi.
“Narges Mohammadi is a woman, a human rights advocate, and a freedom fighter. Her brave struggle for freedom of expression and the right of independence has come with tremendous personal costs. Altogether, the regime in Iran has arrested her 13 times, convicted her five times, and sentenced her to a total of 31 years in prison and 154 lashes. Narges Mohammadi is still in prison.”