2023 Nobel Peace Prize Winner is Narges Mohammadi, Iranian Activist

Narges Mohammadi’s family/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS
Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize, shows a victory sign, in an undisclosed location in Iran, in this handout image obtained on October 6, 2023.

DUBAI – The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded Friday to Narges Mohammadi, an imprisoned Iranian human rights activist and the fifth person to receive the prize while incarcerated.

Norwegian Nobel Committee Chair Berit Reiss-Andersen said the prize was awarded “for her fight against the oppression of women in Iran and her fight to promote human rights and freedom for all.”

The prize will cast an international spotlight on the struggle for women’s rights in the Middle Eastern nation, where women have taken to the streets in protest under the banner “Woman, Life, Freedom,” following the death in custody of a young woman in September 2022.

While the protests have subsided, the issues that provoked them have not, with reports emerging of another young woman falling afoul of authorities in the past week for not wearing proper Islamic headgear, and ending up in a coma.

The incident took place soon after the anniversary of the other young woman’s death. Authorities have denied any wrongdoing or foul play. Activists, including Mohammadi, have cast doubt on their assertions.

“Her brave struggle has come with tremendous personal costs,” Reiss-Andersen said about Mohammadi. “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.”

“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,” Reiss-Andersen said, describing Mohammadi as a “freedom fighter.”

In the 1990s, Mohammadi studied physics before working as an engineer and becoming an advocate for equality and women’s rights, and campaigning to abolish the death penalty. In 2011, she was arrested for the first time for her efforts to assist incarcerated activists and their families.

Accused of “spreading propaganda,” the 51-year-old is now serving 10 years in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. There, she works to oppose the conditions inflicted on her and fellow female inmates, specifically the use of torture and solitary confinement.

Mohammadi’s Instagram page carried a message of gratitude following the news but added that it was impossible to speak to her the day the prize was announced. “As you may know it is impossible to make a phone call in Evin prison for political prisoners of the women’s ward on Fridays,” the post read, “so we have to wait until tomorrow to hear from Narges and give her the good news.”

In a statement, Iran’s Foreign Ministry condemned the committee’s decision, calling it a “political move in line with the interventionist and anti-Iranian policies of some European governments.”

Iran often responds to criticism of its human rights record by accusing European and American officials of using biased, insincere concern for women to promote interventionist policies.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said Friday on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, that “the most worthy symbol of world peace” was not Mohammadi but Qasem Soleimani, the late leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force. Though he was revered at home, he drew the ire of the United States and others as he violently expanded Iran’s influence in the region, including backing militias in Iraq that targeted U.S. soldiers and allied forces, as well as propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Soleimani was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad on Jan. 3, 2020.

Last year, Mohammadi published the book “White Torture,” on Iran’s use of solitary confinement and sensory deprivation against her and fellow prisoners.

“The aim of white torture is to permanently break the connection between a person’s body and mind to force the individual to recant their ethics and actions,” she wrote.

Mohammadi wrote the book’s preface during a brief furlough from prison for medical reasons last year. She closed the section with a pledge: “They will put me behind bars again, but I will not stop campaigning until human rights and justice prevail in my country.”

This year, on the anniversary of the death of Mahsa Amini, the young woman arrested for a dress code violation who died in the custody of Iran’s morality police last year, Mohammadi staged a protest inside Evin Prison. She and three other women burned their headscarves, according to a post on her social media page.

Earlier this week, after reports circulated that a teenage girl was in a coma after a confrontation with Iran’s morality police, Mohammadi slammed Tehran’s response, describing it as “indicative of its concerted efforts to prevent the truth from coming to light,” according to a post shared on her Instagram page.

Mohammadi’s determination to continue working despite her imprisonment “carries a powerful message,” said a fellow Iranian activist and former colleague, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

“Narges Mohammadi is one of the very few who not only has stayed in Iran but remains active, whether she is out or imprisoned,” she said. Her example is an inspiration within the activist community and among young people who continue to face attempts by the country’s leadership to quash dissent, the activist added.

Iran is carrying out waves of arrests targeting activists, journalists and intellectuals in an attempt to stamp out dissent and tighten social restrictions. After protests erupted following Amini’s death last year, Iranian authorities arrested some 20,000 people.

Mohammadi’s husband, Taghi Rahmani, is an activist who also spent years in Iranian prisons and now lives in exile in France with their twin children.

He told The Washington Post in May that they met while college students at Imam Khomeini International University in Qazvin, Iran. “She was full of life and zeal for living,” he said.

In one case, he recalled, university officials ordered the uprooting of a field of poppy flowers – a symbol of love in Persian culture – that annually bloomed on campus. Mohammadi went straight to the campus clergy to protest.

“You massacre people, and now you are massacring these flowers,” he recalled she told them. Mohammadi enjoys other pastimes, such as rock climbing and singing, “but of course every song that she sings is about freedom and liberty,” Rahmani said.

“One thing that I really love about her is that she always lives for others,” he said. “Even when I’m talking about these things [about her], she says: ‘No, it’s not about me. Talk about other people.’ It’s really her mission in life to be the voice for the voiceless.”

“She always believes that it has to come from you,” he said. “She always says, you get up and do it.”

Mohammadi has been previously honored by Reporters Without Borders, the PEN America Literary Gala and the United Nations’ World Press Freedom Prize for her work defending human rights and her commitment to journalism under threat.

Mohammadi and two other Iranian journalists recognized by the United Nations “paid a hefty price for their commitment to report on and convey the truth,” said Zainab Salbi, chair of the international jury of media professionals who chose the press freedom prize winners.

“We are committed to honoring them and ensuring their voices will continue to echo worldwide until they are safe and free,” Salbi said.

Past detained people to receive the Nobel Peace Prize include German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky in 1935, Myanmar democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991, Chinese rights activist Liu Xiaobo in 2010 and one of last year’s winners, Belarusian human rights advocate Ales Bialiatski.

Arguably the most famous of the prizes set out by Alfred Nobel in his will, the Peace Prize includes a gold medal and an award of more than $1 million for an individual or organization most contributing to “fraternity between nations,” reducing standing armies or holding peace conferences. The definition has since been expanded to include humanitarian work and the struggle for human rights.

While it was once politicians and leaders winning the prestigious prize, in recent years the honor has increasingly gone to organizations and individuals promoting human rights and humanitarian work. Amid war in Europe, last year’s prize went to human rights activists and organizations in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, while in 2021, it was awarded to Russian and Philippine journalists for promoting freedom of expression.

The last political leader to receive the prize, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2019, for peace efforts with neighboring Eritrea, came under criticism after a brutal civil war erupted in the northern part of the African country.

Alone among the prizes, which are handed out by Scandinavian institutions, the Peace Prize is awarded by a five-member Norwegian committee chosen by the Norwegian parliament, in accordance with Alfred Nobel’s wishes.

The possible political motives of the award are always closely scrutinized to see what message the committee is sending the world. There were 351 candidates for the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize – the second-highest number ever, according to the organization.

The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded 103 times between 1901 and 2022. Other famous Peace Prize winners include girls’ education advocate Malala Yousafzai, civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King Jr. and Catholic humanitarian Mother Teresa.

Earlier this week, the Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded to two scientists whose research laid the groundwork for messenger RNA vaccines that transformed the threat of the coronavirus pandemic. On Tuesday, three scientists who probed the blurry realm of the electron were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics.

The Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded Wednesday to three scientists for their fundamental discoveries in nanotechnology – particles once considered impossibly small to make, with applications in television screens and LED lamps. On Thursday, Norwegian novelist and playwright Jon Fosse won the Nobel Prize for literature.