The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded on Friday to imprisoned activist Narges Mohammadi for her fight against the oppression of women in Iran, many of whom are removing their hijabs despite a harsh crackdown.
Mohammadi’s award comes after a wave of protests swept Iran following the death in custody a year ago of a young Iranian Kurd, Mahsa Amini, arrested for violating Iran’s strict dress rules for women.
A 51-year-old journalist and activist, Mohammadi has spent much of the past two decades in and out of jail for her campaign against the mandatory hijab for women and the death penalty.
Speaking to AFP, the head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee urged Iran to release Mohammadi, a call echoed by the United Nations.
“I appeal to Iran: Do something dignified and release the Nobel laureate Narges Mohammadi,” committee chairwoman Berit Reiss-Andersen said.
The recent protests in Iran “accelerated the process of realising democracy, freedom and equality in Iran”, a process that is now “irreversible”, Mohammadi told AFP last month in a letter written from her prison cell.
She and three other women held with her at Tehran’s Evin prison burned their hijabs to mark the anniversary of Amini’s death on September 16.
Mohammadi, who flaunts long black curls and had been mentioned as a possible winner ahead of the announcement, was honoured “for her fight against the oppression of women in Iran and her fight to promote human rights and freedom for all”, Reiss-Andersen said.
“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,” she added.
Mohammadi is the vice-president of the Defenders of Human Rights Centre founded by Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, who herself won the Peace Prize in 2003.
Iran is ranked 143rd out of 146 countries on the World Economic Forum’s gender equality ranking.
Authorities cracked down harshly on last year’s “Woman, Life, Freedom” uprising — the words Reiss-Andersen used to begin Friday’s announcement, in English and Farsi: “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi”.
A total of 551 protesters, including 68 children and 49 women, were killed by security forces, according to Iran Human Rights, and thousands of others were arrested.
The uprising has continued, albeit under other forms.
In what would have been unthinkable a year ago, women now go out in public without the headscarf, in particular in Tehran and other big cities, despite the risks.
A 16-year-old girl is currently in a coma after being attacked on Sunday by female police officers tasked with enforcing the mandatory hijab among other things, according to the Kurdish-focused rights group Hengaw.
Wearing the hijab is one of the pillars of the Islamic republic.
Authorities have stepped up controls, using surveillance cameras among other things, and have arrested actresses who post pictures of themselves on social media without the hijab.
In September, Iran’s conservative-dominated parliament announced heavier penalties for women who refuse to wear it.
‘No prospect of freedom’
“This year’s Peace Prize also recognises the hundreds of thousands of people who in the preceding year have demonstrated against the theocratic regimes policies of discrimination and oppression targeting women,” Reiss-Andersen said.
She called Mohammadi the “undisputed leader” of the uprising.
Mohammadi’s family said the prize was a “historic and profound moment for Iran’s fight for freedom”, while the United Nations called for “her release and the release of all human rights defenders jailed in Iran”.
Incarcerated this time since November 2021, Mohammadi has not seen her children, who live in France with her husband, for eight years.
Considered a “prisoner of conscience” by Amnesty International, she told AFP in her letter that she had “almost no prospect of freedom”.
She is the second Iranian to win the Nobel Peace Prize after Ebadi.
If she remains behind bars, Mohammadi will not be able to make the trip to Oslo to receive her award at the annual prize ceremony on December 10.
The Peace Prize has on five occasions honoured jailed activists, including last year when it went to Ales Bialiatski of Belarus, whose prize was accepted by his wife, and Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010, whose chair remained empty.