Nobel Prize Winner Narges Mohammadi Has Endured Personal Sacrifice Few Can Imagine

“Yesterday was one of the best and most glorious days in prison for all of us,” Narges Mohammadi said of winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Our work is not done to gain her freedom.

Narges Mohammadi’s husband Taghi Rahmani receives the Weimar Human Rights Award in place of his wife in Weimar, Germany, on Dec. 10, 2016. Mohammadi is currently serving a jail sentence; it has been almost nine years since she last saw her husband and children. (Michael Reichel / Arifoto Ug Alliance via Getty Images)

A chill went down my spine and emotion welled up in my chest as I heard the words “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” (“Woman, Life, Freedom”) spoken by the chair of the Nobel Prize Committee this past Friday over the live feed from Oslo at 5 a.m. This could only mean one thing I thought: Narges Mohammadi had been chosen for the Nobel Peace Prize

I had been anxiously texting with the young Iranian woman who helps run Mohammadi’s social media accounts in the minutes before the announcement was made. My thoughts immediately turned to what this high honor would mean for Mohammadi’s freedom and the broader movement for women’s and human rights in Iran.

For certain, it must mean we have to redouble our efforts worldwide to secure her release from an Iranian prison.

Mohammadi is an activist, author, journalist, wife, mother and an inspiration to all those who are fighting in ways large and small—from far away and even from inside the country’s prisons—to expand basic freedoms and ensure greater respect for human rights in Iran. She has been imprisoned over decades for speaking out and writing against Iran’s regime.

She has paid a steep personal price for her activism.

In and out of prison for the past two decades, she has been subject to prolonged solitary confinement and intense psychological torture, as well as denied access to medications, resulting in the worsening of already serious health conditions; in February 2022, she was temporarily released from jail for a brief period to undergo heart surgery.

It has been almost nine years since she last saw her husband and twin children Ali and Kiana, who are now in exile in France, and two years since she has been allowed even a phone call with them. Her husband Taghi, a journalist and former political prisoner, spoke poignantly to me when we spent several days together in May on how their now teenage children have spent their entire lives with at least one parent behind bars.

She has been at the forefront of this struggle for more than 30 years, since she was an undergraduate at Imam Khomeini International University, writing articles about women’s rights for her student paper and being arrested twice at meetings of a political student group. She went on to write for Payaam-e Haajar, a magazine dedicated to women’s issues, and later worked as a journalist.

In 2003, she joined Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi’s Defenders of Human Rights Center and became active in defending the rights of women, political prisoners, and ethnic minorities in Iran. Unjustly jailed for her activism and expression, Mohammadi interviewed fellow female prisoners about the abusive treatment they had endured, collecting their testimonials into a book entitled White Torture, which detailed the inhumane practice of solitary confinement.

“They will put me in jail again,” she wrote in the book. “But I will not stop campaigning until human rights and justice prevail in my country.” 

More recently, as eloquently described by the Nobel Committee, Mohammadi has become synonymous with the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement sweeping Iran since September 2022, following the death in custody of Mahsa (Jina) Amini, a young Kurdish-Iranian woman who was attacked and detained for allegedly wearing improper hijab. 

The Iranian regime has met the protests with brutality, further cracking down on free speech and arresting thousands for their participation in, or support of, the demonstrations, including dozens of writers and artists who use their words and creativity as vehicles to express political dissent. 

From the confines of Evin Prison, Narges has tirelessly and fearlessly spoken out against authoritarianism, drawing attention both to ongoing political events and to abuses against her fellow prisoners. She has sent missives to media outlets and the United Nations, organized joint protest letters with other jailed women, penned posts for her Instagram feed, and pulled off her mandatory headscarf in solidarity with the young women doing likewise in the streets of Iran.

In May in New York City, PEN America honored Mohammadi with the 2023 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, a tribute to her indefatigable bravery but also with the hope that by casting a spotlight on her story, it would galvanize media, governments and global institutions to her cause. 

The Nobel Peace Prize is recognition at the highest level of the deep-rooted power and potential of this movement for basic rights. The existential threat these jailed women pose to the regime is evident in the fact that in Evin prison, women are subject to greater restrictions on contact with the outside world than men.

Upon receiving the news, Narges said to her father:

“Yesterday was one of the best and most glorious days in prison for all of us. The women’s ward was filled with happiness, singing, and the chant ‘Woman, Life, Freedom.’ We all held hands and formed a big circle, and as we sang, ‘Hand in hand, we become a sea, a storm, a roar,’ we felt united.”

Take Action

Today, our work is not done to gain her freedom. And I encourage everyone to help.

We can share her words on social media, we can write to our representatives in government, we can urge greater support and protection—via fellowships and residencies, visas, and other opportunities—for Iranian writers, journalists and activists at grave risk.

It is the very least we can do to realize the potential of this Nobel Prize, to fight for her freedom and that of all others who suffer for what they say, think and write.

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Karin Deutsch Karlekar is director for Writers at Risk at PEN America, the free expression and literary organization.