Change sparked by Iran protests ‘irreversible,’ says jailed activist who won Nobel

Despite having no prospect of release and enduring pain of separation from her family, Narges Mohammadi insists protest movement that erupted against regime last year still alive

Iranian women's rights campaigner Narges Mohammadi is seen at her home in Tehran on September 4 2001. (Behrouz MEHRI / AFP)
Iranian women's rights campaigner Narges Mohammadi is seen at her home in Tehran on September 4 2001. (Behrouz MEHRI / AFP)

PARIS (AFP) — Rights campaigner and 2023 Nobel Peace laureate Narges Mohammadi said in a September interview with AFP that she retained hope for change in Iran, despite having no prospect of release from prison and enduring the pain of separation from her family.

In the interview, where Mohammadi gave written answers to AFP from Evin prison in Tehran, she insisted the protest movement that erupted one year ago in Iran against the Islamic Republic is still alive.

First arrested 22 years ago, Mohammadi, 51, has spent much of the past two decades in and out of jail over her unstinting campaigning for human rights in Iran. She has most recently been incarcerated since November 2021 and has not seen her children for eight years.

While she could only witness from behind bars the protests that broke out following the death on September 16, 2022 of Mahsa Amini — who had been arrested for violating Iran’s strict dress rules for women — she said the movement made clear the levels of dissatisfaction in society.

“The government was not able to break the protests of the people of Iran and I believe that society has achieved things that have weakened the foundations of religious-authoritarian rule,” she told AFP.

Noting that Iran had even before September 2022 seen repeated protest outbreaks, she added: “We have seen cycles of protests in recent years and this shows the irreversible nature of the situation and the scope for the expansion of the protests.”

File: Narges Mohammadi, the Iranian women’s rights campaigner, imprisoned by Iran, who won the Nobel Peace Prize on October 6, 2023 (AFP/Narges Mohammadi Foundation)

‘Realizing democracy’

She said that after “44 years of oppression, discrimination and continuous repression of the government against women in public and personal life” the protests had “accelerated the process of realizing democracy, freedom and equality in Iran.”

Mohammadi said the protests opposing the Islamic republic had involved people “beyond urban areas and educated classes” at a time when religious authority was “losing its place” in society.

“The weakening of the religious element has created a vacuum that the government has not been able to fill with other economic and social factors, as the government is essentially ineffective and corrupt.”

But she was bitterly critical of what she described as the “appeasement” by the West of Iran’s leaders, saying foreign governments “have not recognized the progressive forces and leaders in Iran and pursued policies aimed at perpetuating the religious-authoritarian system in Iran.”

Mohammadi said she was currently serving a combined sentence of 10 years and nine months in prison, had also been sentenced to 154 lashes and had five cases against her linked to her activities in jail alone.

“I have almost no prospect of freedom,” she said.

Iranian journalist Taghi Rahmani, whose wife activist Narges Mohammadi is held in Iranian prison, poses during a photo session in Paris, on October 19, 2022. (JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP)

‘Indescribable suffering’

But she said she “kept the hope of seeing the light of freedom and hearing its voice” and in prison organized discussions in the women’s wing of Evin as well as singing and even dancing.

“Prison has always been at the core of opposition, resistance and struggle in my country and for me it also embodies the essence of life in all its beauty.”

“The Evin women’s wing is one of the most active, resistant and joyful quarters of political prisoners in Iran. During my years in prison, on three occasions, I shared detention with at least 600 women, and I am proud of each of them.”

But for Mohammadi, the cost of her activism has also been immense, meaning she has missed much of the childhood of her twin children Kiana and Ali who now live, along with her husband Taghi Rahmani, in France.

In this June 9, 2008 file photo, Iranian Narges Mohammadi, right, from the center for Human Rights Defenders, listens to Karim Lahidji, president of the Iranian league for the Defence of Human Rights, during a press conference on the Assessment of the Human Rights Situation in Iran, at the UN headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. (AP/Keystone/Magali Girardin)

As well as not seeing them for eight years, restrictions placed by the prison on her telephone calls mean she has not even heard their voices for more than a year and a half.

“My most incurable and indescribable suffering is the longing to be with my children from whose lives I departed when they were eight.”

“The price of the struggle is not only torture and prison, it is a heart that breaks with every regret and a pain that strikes to the marrow of your bones.”

But she added: “I believe that as long as democracy, equality and freedom have not been achieved, we must continue to fight and sacrifice.”

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