Editor’s Note: Video by Muhammad Darwish and Alessia Tinti
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Sixteen-year-old Ali vividly remembers the last time he saw his mother at home. She made him and his twin sister, Kiana, eggs for breakfast, told them to study hard, said goodbye and sent them to school. When they returned, she was gone. They were eight.
Their mother is Narges Mohammadi, a woman whose name has become synonymous with the fight for human rights in Iran – a battle that has cost this activist almost everything.
On Friday, she won the Nobel Peace Prize for “her fight against the oppression of women in Iran and her fight to promote human rights and freedom for all,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced in Oslo.
Mohammadi has been a prisoner for most of the past two decades. She has been sentenced repeatedly for being the voice of the voiceless, for her unrelenting campaign against the death penalty and solitary confinement – which she has had to endure for weeks at a time.
She is currently serving a sentence of 10 years and 9 months, accused of actions against national security and propaganda against the state. She was also sentenced to 154 lashes, a punishment rights groups believe has not so far been inflicted, and travel and other bans.
But not even the darkest cells of the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran have crushed her powerful voice.
In an audio recording from inside Evin, shared with CNN before the Nobel Peace Prize was announced, Mohammadi is heard leading the chants of “woman, life, freedom”- the slogan of the uprising sparked last year by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Jhina Amini in the custody of the country’s morality police. She was arrested for allegedly not wearing her headscarf properly.
The recording is interrupted by a brief automated message – “This is a phone call from Evin Prison” – as the women are heard singing a Farsi rendition of “Bella Ciao,” the 19th-century Italian folk song that became a resistance anthem against Fascists and has been adopted by Iran’s freedom movement.
“This period was and still is the era of greatest protest in this prison,” Mohammadi told CNN earlier in written responses to questions submitted through intermediaries.
Outside the prison walls, a brutal crackdown on protest by Iranian authorities largely quelled the movement sparked by Amini’s death and the morality police resumed their headscarf patrols in July. Iranian activists this week accused them of assaulting a teenage girl for not wearing a headscarf in a Tehran metro station, leading to her hospitalization with serious injuries. Iranian authorities said low blood pressure was the cause.
Mohammadi, in comments received Thursday by CNN, said the government’s behavior had once again “raised our concerns” and was “indicative of its concerted efforts to prevent the truth from coming to light regarding Armita Geravand.”
Narges Mohammadi is being held in the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran, Iran, pictured last October.
Mohammadi knows all too well the price of speaking publicly. In August she was sentenced to an additional year in jail for her continued activism inside prison after she gave a media interview and a statement about sexual assaults in jail.
She was already serving time for publishing a book last year about Iran’s brutal prison methods, titled “White Torture: Interviews with Iranian Women Prisoners,” as well as a documentary film telling the stories of prisoners held in solitary confinement – a punishment Mohammadi herself has endured.
But she remains undeterred. Mohammadi recently sent CNN a lengthy letter railing against four decades of the Islamic Republic’s mandatory hijab and calling out what she says is the hypocrisy of a religious state using sexual violence against female detainees.
When it came to power four decades ago, she writes, the religious regime used the compulsory hijab to “showcase the image of domination, subjugation and control over women” as a means to control society.
“They couldn’t put an abaya and turban on half of the population, i.e., men in society,” her letter reads. “However, they easily adorned half of Iran’s population with ‘mandatory hijab,’ veil, chador, manteau, and dark-coloured trousers to present the odious face of the despotic religious system to the world.”
“Imagine Iranian women who, for 44 years, have been forced to wear a head covering, long coats, and dark-colored pants in the summer heat, and in some places, black chadors.
“Worse than that, they have been under psychological pressure to strictly adhere to compulsory hijab, all to preserve the image of religious Islamic men and ensure the security and purity of women. Now, those same women are experiencing sexual assault and harassment against themselves.”
In her letter and responses to CNN, Mohammadi details incidents of sexual violence against her and other female detainees at different facilities dating back to 1999.
Political prisoners and women held on criminal charges were assaulted by security forces, prison authorities and medical personnel, she says.
According to Mohammadi, sexual violence against women detainees has “significantly increased” since the protests that swept Iran last year, leading her to describe the abuse as now “systematic.”
Courtesy of Narges Mohammadi
Narges Mohammadi with her children, Kiana and Ali, in a picture taken earlier.
“The victims had told their stories in the meetings they had with the officials who came to Qarchak prison for inspection,” Mohammadi writes. “In prison, I have heard the narratives of three protesting women who were sexually assaulted. One of them was a well-known activist of the student movement who, upon entering the prison, filed a complaint with the authorities and announced that after being arrested on the street, her one hand and one leg was cuffed and tied to the two rings on the top of the car door. And in that position, she was sexually assaulted.”
Mohammadi says she and another prisoner visited the prison’s “quarantine” area under the pretext of taking food to another inmate and that they saw the young woman there with bruises on her stomach, arms, legs and thighs.
For years, Mohammadi has been vocal about sexual violence against prisoners, breaking taboos in her conservative country. In 2021, she hosted a discussion via the Clubhouse social media app where women, including Mohammadi, shared their stories of assaults by government “agents” from the 1980s to 2021. She was penalized for this, according to Mohammadi and rights groups.
“Women who experience sexual harassment become filled with anger, fear, and insecurity, but when their womanhood is hidden and suppressed by ideological and religious claims, they will not only be angry and terrified, but they will also feel deceived and manipulated by the government, which is even more distressing,” she writes. Such sexual abuse “leaves such deep scars on their souls and minds that it is difficult to recover from, and perhaps they may never fully recover,” she added.
For refusing to be silenced behind bars, Mohammadi has been banned from speaking directly with her husband and children for the past 18 months.
“When your wife and the closest person to you is in prison, every single day you wake up worried that you might hear bad news,” her husband, Taghi Rahmani, told CNN in a recent interview in France, where he has lived in exile with their children since shortly after Mohammadi was imprisoned in 2015.
Rahmani and human rights groups have raised concerns about Mohammadi’s health and access to medical care after she suffered a heart attack and underwent surgery last year.
He proudly shows off prestigious international awards he has received on her behalf. She has an “endless energy for freedom and human rights,” he said.
Taghi Rahmani, pictured in Paris, says he met Mohammadi when she attended his underground contemporary history classes in 1995.
Rahmani, who was himself held as a political prisoner for a total of 14 years, met Mohammadi when she attended his underground contemporary history classes in 1995, he says.
For the past eight years, he has had to act as father and mother to their now teenage twins.
“Kiana always used to say when mom is here, dad is not. It’s not good,” he said. “But when someone chooses a path, they must endure all the hardships.”
Ali, like his father, is resolute, saying his mother must keep going “for Iran, for our future.”
“I am really proud of my mom,” Ali told CNN. “She was not always with us, but whenever she was, she took good care of us… she was a good mom and still is… I have accepted this kind of life now. Any suffering that I have to endure does not matter.”
He said he was so eager to find out whether his mother had won that he kept scrolling on his phone in class without his teacher noticing.
“Precisely at 11 a.m. my heart stops because I see that my mother won,” he said. “I exploded with joy.”
Kiana, who preferred to not speak with CNN, wants her mother by her side. Her father says Kiana believes that if you bring a child into this world, you must take responsibility and raise that child.
The pain of separation from her family is one Mohammadi lives with every single day. It is the cost of a sacrifice she has chosen to make, for the dream of a future freedom that has defined her life.
Ali and Taghi Rahmani, seen in their apartment in Paris, say they are proud of Mohammadi’s activism on behalf of Iranians.
“The moment I said goodbye to Ali and Kiana was not unlike the time I almost died in the tree-lined yard of Evin,” she writes to CNN, not specifying when that event was. “I picked the dandelions of Evin’s yard. I stood barefoot on the hot asphalt on July 14,” she said, referring to the day – only weeks after that final breakfast – on which she said goodbye to her children in prison before they left for exile in France. “My feet were burning but my heart was on fire. I sent the dandelions to the sky and my children’s hands, feet and childish faces passed my eyes and tears fell like spring rain.
“If I look at the prison from the window of my heart, I was more of a stranger to my daughter and son than any stranger and I missed out on the best years of my life and what went will never come back. But I am sure that the world without freedom, equality and peace is not worth living or even watching.
“I have chosen to not see my children or even hear their voices and be the voice of oppressed people, women and children, of my land,” she says.
Abhinav Thawait is a globe-trotting correspondent with a passion for international affairs. With a background in international relations, he offers a global perspective on the most pressing issues around the world. Abhinav’s curiosity takes his to the far corners of the earth, where he seeks to share untold stories and diverse viewpoints.