Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize this year to Iranian feminist and human rights worker Narges Mohammadi, 51. It was the second time that an Iranian woman had won, the first having been attorney Shirin Ebadi in 2003. Mohammadi, although trained as a physicist, worked as a journalist and activist in Ebadi’s center in the early zeroes of this century. She was first arrested in 1998 and spent a year in jail at that time, but subsequently has been in and out of prison.
She is currently in Evin Prison on multiple charges, including spreading propaganda against the government, with 10 years, nine months left on her sentence. She issued a statement on hearing the news: “I will continue to fight against the relentless discrimination, tyranny and gender-based oppression by the oppressive religious government until the liberation of all women.”
She supported last year’s movement for “Woman, Life, Liberty” from behind bars, have long criticized compulsory veiling.
Mohammadi’s causes included women’s rights, of course. But she has also campaigned for human rights more generally, including the right of women to be safe from sexual harassment even in prison and of prisoners to be safe from torture and from the death penalty.
Although many observers in the United States will applaud this award as a black eye for the self-styled Islamic Republic of Iran, the fact is that Mohammadi would be critical of American policies as well. That is, if we are to listen to her prophetic voice with approval, we must do more than use her politically to denigrate our enemies; we must take to heart the implications of her ethical witness for our own society, too.
For instance, there were 18 executions of prisoners in the United States in 2022, up 64% from the total of 11 killed by the state in 2021. Although the US executes many fewer prisoners each year than Iran or Saudi Arabia, and although the number in the US has fallen significantly since the 1990s, it still does execute prisoners, and Ms. Mohammadi deeply believes that is wrong. She might well be in jail here if she lived in the United States, from protesting in front of city halls and jails. Only 13 states still permit executions in the US, and half of those killed in 2022 were executed in Texas and Oklahoma.
Moreover, 7 of these executions were seriously botched. In one instance, it took 3 hours of trying to get a fatal intravenous line into the arm of an Alabama convict. Some initial attempts to kill the convict were called off because of difficulties with the intravenous injection or because proper protocols has not been followed.
Between 46% and 54% of Americans believe in capital punishment, depending on which poll you believe. So Mohammadi might well be in a minority on this issue in the US, as well.
As for torture, Karen J. Greenburg wrote this week about the scandal that the Guantánamo Prison Camp still has not been closed. One of the difficulties has been that some prisoners were so badly tortured that no court, including a military tribunal, can now conduct a legitimate trial.
There has never been a reckoning by the US establishment with the Bush administration’s extensive use of torture.
If Mohammadi had been an American she might have been put on trial, as Josie Setzler was, for protesting torture at Guantánamo.
As for sexual abuse of female prisoners by male guards in federal prisons, a Senate report from last year makes it clear that this is a real issue and that it hasn’t been adequately addressed by the Bureau of Prisons.
Regarding women’s rights, I doubt Ms. Mohammadi would approve of Nebraska jailing a woman for two years for giving abortion pills to her daughter. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that she would not like our current Supreme Court much at all. She rails against religious theocrats’ repression of women.
So a warm congratulations to her, and to her cause, of women’s rights and human rights in Iran. But we owe it to ourselves also actually to listen to what she is saying and to take to heart the principles for which she has spent so much of her life in jail, torn from her husband and children.