Narges Mohammadi, a prominent Iranian defender of women’s rights, has been awarded the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize for her long struggle against the oppression of women in Iran. Mohammadi is serving several sentences in Evin prison in Tehran, accused, among other charges, of spreading propaganda against the state. She was honored by her committee for “her fight against the oppression of women in Iran and her fight to promote human rights and freedom for all.”
The award comes as women in Iran and around the world continue to protest their treatment in the country following the death of Mahsa Amini, who was in the custody of the morality police for allegedly violating the code of female clothing of the Islamic Republic.
According to the committee: “The motto adopted by the protesters – “Woman-Life-Freedom” – adequately expresses the dedication and work of Narges Mohammadi.”
The fact that the protests for Freedom of Women and Life have lasted so long in the face of repression by the Iranian state is remarkable in itself. This year, which has seen the latest wave of battles waged by women against religious authoritarianism, appears to be bringing about unprecedented change in the decades of struggle against one of the most repressive regimes in modern history.
Following the 1979 revolution in Iran, Islamic clerics led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took control of the government. The regime quickly introduced a series of oppressive laws aimed specifically at women. But despite the violence directed against them, they continued to lead the protests.
Narges Mohamaddi joined the struggle as a student in the early 1990s. After graduating in physics and working as an engineer, she began defending women’s rights and writing columns in reformist newspapers.
She was first detained in 1998 for her criticism of the Iranian government. In 2003 she was already working at the Center for Human Rights Defenders in Tehran, created by Shirin Ebadi, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that year, being the first woman in the Islamic world to receive the award.
Mohammadi has been arrested 13 times and sentenced five times to a total of 31 years in prison and 154 lashes. She was imprisoned in Tehran’s most well-known prison in 2022, when the Women-Life-Freedom protests began to gain global recognition.
Mohammadi organized solidarity actions with other inmates and was punished by the authorities by prohibiting her from visits and phone calls. Despite this, she managed to sneak out an article she wrote for the New York Timeswhich was published in September 2023 with the following headline: “The more they lock us up, the stronger we become.”
Women’s voices are raised in protest
Women-led movements have often been effective in forcing democratic change. Examples are abundant throughout history.
In Argentina, in recent years, the movement #Not one lesswhich seeks justice for femicides, led in 2019 directly to the creation by the government of President Alberto Fernández of a new Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity.
Women have featured prominently in the rights movement in Chile, both before and after the Pinochet dictatorship. The current feminist movement, which demands the right to abortion, has been strongly influenced by #Not one less.
As a result of their demands, legal protections for abortion were included in a new constitution that was prepared in 2022 to replace the constitution established under the Pinochet regime. In September 2022, a plebiscite rejected the new constitutional wording, but women continue to fight as the debate continues.
Meanwhile, Iranian women continue marching for their rights. A year after the movement came to life, it remains impossible to predict whether it will succeed in the face of savage repression by the clergy and their conservative supporters.
But the regime’s sense of invincibility – and the marginalization of women from politics – has been seriously called into question. Even if the security services try to repress the protesters, the fight will continue.
Even if the protests do not lead to the collapse of the regime, female voices demanding freedom of expression, bodily autonomy and political engagement may have already changed the social and political landscape in Iran.
The Nobel Prize jury has recognized the work of Narges Mohammadi during 30 years of struggle. But he has made it clear that the award is also for the “hundreds of thousands of people who, the previous year, demonstrated against the policies of discrimination and oppression of the theocratic regime against women.”
Women’s voices are becoming a serious threat to the legitimacy of the Iranian theocracy. Skeptics may say that in the past the regime has always successfully used violence and censorship to silence protests. But this new wave of protests has resonated around the world, raising the profile of the women’s struggle on the streets of Iranian cities and encouraging women around the planet to fight for their own rights and freedoms.