Narges Mohammadi, a professional engineer, is a 51-year-old Iranian wife and mother of two, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence imposed in May 2016 for spreading propaganda against the state. She is held at the notorious Evin prison in Tehran. Her husband, Taghi Rahmani, to whom she was married in 1999, moved to France in 2012 with their two teenage children, Kiana and Ali, twins, whom she has not seen in eight years, after serving 14 years of prison sentences. He is a journalist, a profession to which Narges turned after being banned from working as an engineer.

She was awarded the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize last week “for her fight against the oppression of women in Iran and her fight to promote human rights and freedom for all.” Norwegian Nobel Committee Chair Berit Reiss-Andersen, describing Mohammadi as a “freedom fighter” said: “In awarding her this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to honor her courageous fight for human rights, freedom, and democracy in Iran.” She continued: “Her brave struggle has come with tremendous personal costs. Altogether, the regime has arrested her 13 times, convicted her five times, and sentenced her to a total of 31 years in prison and 154 lashes.”

Mohammadi was a student activist. While at university she wrote articles supporting women’s rights in students’ newspapers. She was detained several times and banned from belonging to certain organisations. Later, after she was banned from working as an engineer, she began writing for reformist newspapers and published a book of essays, “The Reforms, the Strategy and the Tactics.” She joined the ‘Defenders of Human Rights Centre,” headed by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Shirin Edabi, and later became the vice president.  Mohammadi has been an advocate for equality and women’s rights, and for the abolition of the death penalty. She assisted incarcerated activists and their families.

Iran is a Shiite theocracy, which emerged after the overthrow of the autocratic rule of Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, who presided in 1953 after the overthrow of the government of Mohamed Mossadeq by British and US intelligence agencies, for attempting to nationalize the oil industry. This and the enduring support of the West for the violent suppression of democracy by the Shah through various means, including torture by Savak, the regime’s secret police, against opponents of the regime, resulted in a mass uprising in 1979 and the overthrow of the Shah.  A bitter and murderous struggle ensued between the Western backed forces professing liberal democracy, and the more nationalist oriented forces headed by the organized Shiite theocrats under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeni.

The Shiites won after a prolonged struggle and have established the Islamic Republic of Iran that has a Supreme Leader, who is appointed by the Assembly of Experts, also called the Council of Experts, that can also dismiss him. Members must be approved by the Guardian Council, which is in turn appointed by the Supreme Leader. A president is elected by popular vote and can serve two four-year terms. All presidential candidates must be approved by the Guardian Council which has not been hesitant in rejecting many. The chief justice is appointed by the Supreme Leader and his only qualification is that he be an “honourable” person. The chief justice appoints the minister of justice. The entire constitutional system is therefore tightly sewn up to ensure autocratic Shiite rule. The hostility of the Shiite theocracy is driven by the 1953 overthrow of the Mossadeq government, the decades long support for the autocratic regime of the Shah and by revulsion of western ‘decadence,’ particularly in the United States, which it has deemed ‘The Great Satan.’  

Iran has had to contend not only with western hostility led by the US, which has imposed sweeping sanctions on the accusation that it is building a nuclear bomb, but with an expanding middle class, anxious for upward economic, political and social freedoms which is being restricted both by the stifling of economic opportunities and by an autocratic system that is restricts opportunities for the expression of opinion. The Green Revolution of 2009 which brought out hundreds of thousands of Iranians on the street to protest the rigging of the elections against Houssain Mousavi in which thousands were beaten and dozens killed, including the notorious murder by a sniper’s bullet of Neda Agha Soltan, whose photograph, as she lay dying, bloodstained, was circulated worldwide.

The killing of Masha Amini in September 2022 for failure to wear a hijab sparked an extensive uprising led by women over many months during which thousands were beaten, hundreds killed and hundreds more imprisoned. Many were executed. It is in these conditions that the indomitably brave, Narges Mahammadi, has remained in Iran to struggle with Iranian women who are doubly oppressed because they are women. Explaining in 2020 why she was dedicating herself to advancing human rights for women, she said: “In my opinion, supporting human rights efforts and actions aimed at achieving freedom and justice anywhere in the world, whether in Iran or any other country, is very important and very heart-warming.” But the last word belongs to her 16-year-old son, Ali: “I was very happy and proud of my mom.” 

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