PARIS – Iranian campaigner Narges Mohammadi has for decades campaigned on the most sensitive issues in the Islamic republic, opposing pillars of the clerical system including capital punishment and the obligatory hijab, and defiantly refusing to give up her campaigning even behind bars.
She has not seen her children for eight years, has spent most of her recent life in prison and acknowledges there is no immediate prospect of release.
Yet still she insists her struggle is worthwhile, saying the protest movement that erupted one year ago in Iran against the Islamic republic is still alive.
First arrested 22 years ago, Mohammadi, 51, has spent much of the past two decades in and out of jail over her unstinting campaigning for human rights in Iran. She has most recently been incarcerated since November 2021.
The activist “is the most determined person I know”, her husband Taghi Rahmani, who has been a refugee in France since 2012 with their two children, twins now aged 17, told AFP.
“She has three causes in her life — respect for human rights, her feminist commitment and justice for all the crimes that have been committed,” said Rahmani.
While she could only witness from behind bars the protests that broke out following the death on September 16, 2022, of Mahsa Amini — who had been arrested for violating Iran’s strict dress rules for women — she says the movement made clear the levels of dissatisfaction in society.
“The government was not able to break the protests of the people of Iran,” she told AFP in September in written answers from Tehran’s Evin prison where she is held, describing the protest wave as “irreversible.”
‘Voice of the voiceless’
Born in 1972 in Zanjan, in the northwest of Iran, Mohammadi studied physics before becoming an engineer. But she then launched a new career in journalism, working for newspapers that were at the time part of the reformist movement.
In the 2000s, she joined the Center for Human Rights Defenders, founded by the Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2003, fighting in particular for the abolition of the death penalty.
“Narges had the possibility of leaving the country but she always refused… She became the voice of the voiceless.
“Even in prison, she does not forget her duties and provides information about the situation of the prisoners,” said Reza Moini, an Iranian human rights activist based in Paris who knows her well.
In her book “White Torture”, Mohammadi denounced prisoners’ conditions of detention, in particular the use of solitary confinement, which she says she herself also suffered.
Regular updates about the situation in prison are posted on her Instagram account run by her family.
Mohammadi and fellow inmates during the anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death staged a symbolic protest in the yard of Evin by burning their headscarves.
‘Heart that breaks’
Mohammadi told AFP in September she was currently serving a combined sentence of 10 years and nine months in prison, had also been sentenced to 154 lashes and had five cases against her linked to her activities in jail alone.
“I have almost no prospect of freedom,” she said.
Amnesty International describes her as a prisoner of conscience who has been arbitrarily detained.
Mohammadi has missed much of the childhood of her twin children, Kiana and Ali, as well as the pain of being apart from her husband Rahmani.
“In 24 years of marriage, we had just five or six years of living together!” he said.
As well as not seeing the children for eight years, restrictions placed by the prison on her telephone calls means she has not even heard their voices for more than a year and a half.
“My most incurable and indescribable suffering is the longing to be with my children, from whose lives I departed when they were eight,” she told AFP.
“The price of the struggle is not only torture and prison, it is a heart that breaks with every regret and a pain that strikes to the marrow of your bones.”
But she added: “I believe that as long as democracy, equality and freedom have not been achieved, we must continue to fight and sacrifice.”