Narges Mohamadi is a human rights activist, journalist, former political prisoner and former member of the policy-making council of the Former Members of the Office for Strengthening Unity (Advar Tahkim-e Vahdat). She is also the vice president and speaker for the Center for the Defense of Human Rights, and the chairwoman of the Iranian Peace Council. She has gained recognition around the world for her many human rights activities and her long prison sentences.
Mohamadi was born on April 21, 1972 in the city of Zanjan to a religious and politically active family. Her grandfather worked in the local bazaar, and her uncle was a political activist. Before the Islamic Revolution, her uncle was incarcerated; in prison he joined the Mojahedin-e Khalgh (MEK). He spent another 5 years in prison after the revolution. Mohamadi says her uncle was instrumental to the development of her character. From him, she learned to deeply value human dignity and peace. Prior to the Revolution, the MEK was well organized and popular in Zanjan, and a number of Mohamadi’s close relatives were a part of the organization. Several of these relatives were executed by the Pahlavi regime and several more were executed by the government of the Islamic Republic. These events helped to motivate Mohamadi to pursue her interest in defending human rights later on in life.
Although Mohamadi’s father came from a very religious family, her father did not impose strict religious mores on her. She had the freedom to live as she wanted during childhood; for example, she was not forced to wear a scarf or participate in religious activities. Even at this young age, Mohamadi had a passion for music and singing. Her talent for singing led her to take voice lessons.
Mohamadi finished high school in Zanjan and went on to study solid-state physics at the International University of Qazvin. While at university, Mohamadi met Hasan Zarafshan, a prominent Religious-Nationalist political activist and athlete in Qazvin. Zarafshan quickly became an influential person in Mohamadi’s life. Mohamadi started attending Zarafshan’s hiking outings, and grew interested in his theories about the connection between Islam and freedom. She developed a passion for hiking and rock climbing, and after relatively little training scaled several glaciers on the mountain Alamkooh. Narges joined all of Zarafshan’s outings until Zarafshan suddenly died of a heart attack while hiking on Alamkooh during Ashura of 2003.
Mohamadi’s friendship with Zarafshan led her to meet someone who would play an even larger role in her life. Before he passed away, Zarafshan would regularly visit the Mowlana bookstore in Qazvin. Mohamadi learned about the bookstore from Zarafshan and began going there herself. In 1996, it was at Mowlana that she met Taghi Rahmani, a political activist who had just been released from prison after serving a sentence given to him on account of his political activities. At the time, Rahmani was giving lectures at Mowlana, which his father owned and which had become a gathering place for Religious-Nationalist activists. Mohamadi began attending Rahmani’s lectures about the contemporary history of Iran. The two soon began to spend more time together, and eventually were married.
Taghi Rahmani (born 1959 in Qazvin) is a journalist, author, political activist and a member of the Religious-Nationalist Council in Iran. Rahmani has spent a third of his life in prison. He was first arrested in 1981 for writing for a magazine called Pishtaz, which published content influenced by the ideas of Ali Shariati. He was sentenced to three years in prison for contributing to the magazine. In 1986, he was arrested for writing about religious modernization in the newspaper Movahed. This time, he was sentenced to eleven years. After his release in 1996, he started working for both the monthly magazine Iran Farda and the weekly magazine Omid Zanjan. On March 10, 2001, he and some of fellow Religious-Nationalist activists were arrested. He was released a year later, on April 16, 2002, on bail. Rahmani, along with his friends Hoda Saber and Reza Alijani, was then arrested again on June 15, 2003 by order of Judge Saeed Mortazavi and sentenced to 22 months in prison. Most recently, he, Hoda Saber and Reza Alijani were detained for several days after the 2009 presidential elections for supporting the opposition candidate Mehdi Karoubi. After the government began to crack down on political activists in 2011, Rahmani immigrated to France.
In June of 1997, Narges Mohamadi worked for the student division of Mohammad Khatami’s presidential campaign at his campaign headquarters in Qazvin. The same year she also founded the reformist student organization Roshangaran at the International University of Qazvin. Her first job as a journalist was with the magazine Payam Hajar – which she worked for until it was shut down by the government in 1998. She was arrested twice as a student for her activist work. Unfazed, after graduating from college, Mohamadi began a career in political activism.
Her first job was at the Religious-Nationalist campaign headquarters during the parliamentary elections of 1999. The violence with which the government met the student protests of 1999 later that year only strengthened Mohamadi’s resolve to work in political activism. In 1999, Rahmani asked Mohamadi to marry him. They were married on March 4,2000, and now have a daughter named Kiana and a son named Ali. After marrying Rahmani, Mohamadi began to direct her energy to supporting Religious-Nationalist activities and publications.
With the widespread arrests of Religious-Nationalist activists and members of the political organization the Freedom Movement of Iran (Nehzat-e Azadi) in 2000, Mohamadi’s activist career entered a more serious phase. She took it upon herself to contact the wives and children of those arrested and become the voice of their pain and suffering. These activities brought her in close contact with the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi.
In 2001, while Rahmani was serving one of his sentences, Mohamadi was also arrested and imprisoned in Sepah Prison in the village of Eshratabad. This was the first time she had been arrested since she had graduated college. Though she was soon released on probation, Mohamadi then expanded her political activities. She helped to establish several committees and programs at the Center for the Defense of Human Rights. Specifically, she helped found the Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, organize seminars on human rights, and publish a monthly report on the state of human rights in Iran. Mohamadi was later elected as vice president of the Center for the Defense of Human Rights.
Although the government increased its pressure on the Center over the years, the Center managed to found two additional institutions. Mohamadi worked with both institutions. One was the National Peace Council, which was founded in November of 2006. Mohamadi served on the council’s executive board. Another was the Committee for the Defense of Free and Fair Elections, which aimed to monitor elections in Iran according to Iran’s inter-parliamentary statement of 1999. Mohamadi was a founding member of this committee. Mohamadi was summoned to court several times on account of her and the Center’s increased activity.
In 2008, the Center for the Defense of Human Rights planned to hold an event on Human Rights Day to honor Taghi Rahmani for his activist work. However, the Center was shut down by the authorities before it could hold the event. The government continued to pressure members of the Center even after it shut down the organization. In April of 2009, the Islamic Republic placed a travel ban on Mohamadi. Regardless, with the birth of the Green Movement, Mohamadi again increased the level of her activism. The government again responded by placing more restrictions on Mohamadi and the other activists who supported the movement. Mohamadi now had two children, a fact which exacerbated the effects of the government’s persecution. She was soon dismissed from her job, and not long thereafter, on June 10, 2010, she was arrested. The stress of these events seriously affected her health, causing her to have muscle spasms and a bout of temporary paralysis. The state of her health was so bad that even the prison authorities feared for her safety. They released her in July because her health showed no signs of improvement.
Despite her release from prison and starting treatment for her medical issues, Mohamadi’s health recovered only slowly at first. It began to recover much faster after she was reunited with her children. Her children had stayed with their grandmother in Zanjan while Mohamadi was incarcerated, and they were shocked by the state of their mother’s health when they first saw her. In December of 2010, Mohamadi was tried and initially sentenced to eleven years in prison. The Appeals Court reduced her sentence to six years, though her sentence has not yet been executed.
Despite her suspended sentence, Mohamadi continued to engage in activism. She openly displayed sympathy for families of those murdered or imprisoned for political reasons, participated in women’s movements, and defended the rights of religious and ethnic minorities. She encourages everyone to rise above political factionalism by identifying herself with all activists defending human rights rather than a particular political movement. She commonly expresses this sentiment by saying: “I am just a human rights activist.” Although she is close to the religious-nationalist political circles, she has never neglected to support the rights of religious minorities, such as the Baha’is.
Mohamadi was once again arrested on April 21, 2011, after her husband had immigrated to France. Though she was initially sent to Evin Prison, she was soon transferred to Zanjan Prison where most inmates are serving time for drug-related crimes. Rahmani’s mother says that Mohamadi’s imprisonment during this time was harder for her than all of her son’s 14 years of detainment combined. This statement indicates just how difficult Mohamadi’s incarceration in Zanjan prison was. While detained, Mohamadi’s health deteriorated once again. The doctors that examined her predicted that if she were kept in prison, she would die. Mohamadi was released for medical treatment that August.
Mohamadi resumed her activist work after her health recovered. Recently, the Islamic Republic has pressed charges against her for meeting with Catherine Ashton, who was the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy for the European Union at the time of the meeting. The government has also brought other charges against her because of her work organizing a seminar about environmental protection, and her criticism of a charter of citizenship rights promoted by President Hasan Rouhani.
International organizations and the international press have long recognized and supported Mohamadi on account of her activist work and her persecution by the Iranian government. She has tried to use this attention to further her goals of defending human rights in Iran. On July 2, 2009, Mohamadi was awarded the Alexander Langer Award, even though the Iranian government did not permit her to travel to Italy to receive the award in person. Shirin Ebadi accepted the award on behalf of her, and Mohamadi said some comments to the audience by phone. She said that she viewed her receipt of the Alexander Langer Award as proof that the world is beginning to recognize the accomplishments of human rights activists from all corners of the globe.
In 2011, Mohamadi was awarded the Swedish government’s Living History Forum prize. Every year, this award is presented to a human rights activist in a different part of the world in the name of a historical figure who worked to promote democracy in Sweden. During the award ceremony, the speaker of the selection committee had this to say about Mohamadi: “As a human rights activist, Narges Mohamadi deserves appreciation. She has paid a huge price for human rights and freedom of speech in Iran. She has been arrested many times, subjected to humiliation by government officials, and she is currently under house arrest [here, the speaker is referring to the travel ban that was imposed on Mohamadi at the time].”
In April of 2012, a number of high-profile international figures, including six Nobel Peace Prize laureates, issued a statement demanding that Mohamadi be released from prison. Shirin Ebadi, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Dalai Lama, Mairead Maguir, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Judy Williams, Lech Walesa, Mohamad Younes, the International Peace Organization and Albert Schweitzer were among the signatories of this statement. The statement reads:
“Narges Mohamadi, the Iranian human rights activist, was sentenced to six years in prison in an unfair trial, and she began serving this sentence on April 21, 2012. The main accusation made against her is that she was a member of and activist in the Center for the Defense of Human Rights. The Center was founded in 2001 by Dr. Shirin Ebadi and some her colleagues. Narges Mohamadi’s human rights activities were the reason for her dismissal from her job in 2009 and for the prison sentence she served thereafter. In prison, she was afflicted with muscular paralysis and had to undergo months of treatment to recover. Doctors believe the stress and hardships of her current prison sentence will cause her to relapse back into this illness. Narges has four-year-old twins who undoubtedly need their mother’s love and care.”
In 2012, Amnesty International chose Narges Mohamadi as one of the twelve most prominent human rights figures of the year. In a statement published on March 20 of that year, Amnesty describes Mohamadi’s six-year-prison sentence as unjust, and explains that though Mohamadi has been awarded several human rights prizes in years past, the Iranian government has not allowed her to leave the country to receive them. In its statement, Amnesty also notes the government’s closure of the Center of the Defense of Human Rights. It then demands that the authorities allow human rights advocates to work without fear of harassment or prosecution.
Despite her prison sentences, illnesses, and responsibilities raising her young children, Narges Mohamadi has not stopped her activist work. This is because of how strongly she holds her political beliefs. One of her most important beliefs she learned from activist Ezzatollah Sahabi, who after serving 14 months of solitary confinement for political dissent quickly voiced criticism of the government once again. He said that although he knew his body would not be able to endure the hardships he would face after making his criticisms, he had to say them out of love for his country. Mohamadi believes that Iranians must engage in activism defending human rights for the sake of their country and children, lest Iran be doomed to the same fate as Iraq or Afghanistan.
Mohamadi’s religious beliefs are influenced by the writings of Ali Shariati and Ayatollah Taleghani. She believes that the religion must stand against any kind of dictatorship or tyranny.
The deaths of Hoda Saber and Haleh Sahabi had a great impact on Mohamadi. She had attended Saber’s history classes for years and learned much about practical methods of engaging in activism from him. And she feels that she owes her ability to deeply sympathize with others – even those who oppose her – to Haleh Sahabi, along with Azam Taleghani.
What interests Mohamadi most is finding effective ways to improve a people’s circumstances, not the specific form their improved circumstances take. For example, although she disagrees with Ayatollah Montazeri’s views on women’s issues, after meeting with him and speaking openly with him, she came to admire him for the honesty and courage he demonstrated during their conversation. Ever since then, she has talked about Montazeri with great respect. In Mohamadi’s opinion, what is important is how people act in the face of opposition, not their views on specific issues.
In a letter she wrote while in Zanjan prison entitled I Am a Mother, Mohamadi describes herself and her interests, and talks about the relationship between her activist work and her duties as a mother. She writes:
“I am a human rights activist, which means my cares and efforts are focused on improving the circumstances of people all over the world. I do not dream of power or any particular political position. What I believe in my head and my heart, and what I strive to move towards is living in a way whereby I can put a smile on someone’s face or love in someone’s heart. This is my dream and the reason for my existence. If I can put a smile on one person’s face or do something to improve the situation of one person, I have succeeded. These are the words of a mother trying to define motherhood, and this is prison.”
After writing a some thoughts about the story of Moses and his mother, she continues: “In my cell, my only friend is the word of God, and of course praising God is enough, otherwise I would have gone insane, being separated from my children. I open the word of God, and therein a sentence about Armageddon defines the meaning of motherhood for me again… God uses this sentence to illustrate the end of days: ‘The day that a mother leaves her child.’ I thought to myself, God uses many examples to show the difficulties of that day, but he completes it with the example of a mother leaving her child.”
Next in her letter, Mohamadi addresses her arrest and the moment she was separated from her children: “I was arrested just after I had brought my three-year-old girl home from the hospital, where she had had major surgery. The agents were waiting for me. It was my children’s bedtime. I put Ali on my legs. I gave him his bottle of milk, I sang him a lullaby and he fell asleep, but I could not make Kiana go to sleep. Every time I tried to leave her she would cry and yell, ‘kiss me, mommy,’ and I would return to her and kiss her. After three times, I left her, though it broke my heart.”
She finishes her letter with these sentences: “What can I say about the moment of separation, and the tears of my children. With every stroke, this pen takes a bit of my life. Writing about it is not easy for me, but I am writing so that it might not happen to any other child. I am an ill mother far from her children, and I talked about the mother of Moses and about my pain, to prove that a mother’s love is more powerful than any force. The root of this power is the love that God gave to mothers. Denying children this love and making mothers suffer separation from their children is an unforgiveable sin. I am writing this letter from prison with much hope, so that with God’s help, such pain and suffering will end in this land and in all other lands throughout the world. I have faith that one day, even if I am not alive to see it, through the love created by these sufferings, there will be a better future for my children and Iranian children and children the world round.”
Where is She Now?
Despite the government’s persecution and threats, Mohamadi continues to engage in activism supporting human rights. True to her motto “I believe in God and human rights,” she has not stopped or slowed her efforts to improve the state of human rights in Iran. She currently lives in Tehran. Unemployed, she spends her days with her children and participates in various human rights projects as she strives to make an impact for good.