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Profile | Nationalist, Religious, and Resolute: Narges Mohammadi

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI

10 May 2012 22:38Comments

Imprisoned for no offense other than defending her fellow Iranians' human rights.

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Muhammad Sahimi, a professor at the University of Southern California, is a columnist for Tehran Bureau and contributes regularly to other Internet and print media.
[ comment ] Throughout Iran's history, going back several millennia, women have always played influential roles. I have previously described women's crucial contributions during the 150 years preceding the 1979 Revolution to the Iranian people's struggle to establish a democratic political system and the true rule of law. Despite the promise the Revolution held out of a democratic political system, it did not take long for the reactionary Islamic groups to reveal what type of society they actually envisioned for Iran. Rumors began to spread that compulsory veiling would be imposed on women by the new revolutionary government. As sporadic attacks on women who were not wearing Islamic hejab began, it gradually became clear that many of the revolutionary leadership's promises regarding women's rights would not be delivered.

Thus, on March 8, 1979, International Women's Day, less than one month after the revolutionary government had come to power, the first demonstrations by women against the prospect of compulsory veiling were held. These were truly courageous acts in the context of the era. The revolutionary government and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in particular, were immensely popular at that time. The government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan (1907-95) denied that compulsory veiling would be imposed, but leading conservative figures had already begun speaking about the "necessity" of women "covering" themselves.

The right to dress as they chose was not the only right that was gradually taken away from Iranian women: the family protection laws that had been passed during the Pahlavi era, which had significantly expanded women's rights, were cancelled; women were barred from holding judgeships and several other important positions; and the legal age of marriage for girls was reduced to nine (in the 1990s, it was raised to 13). The backward thinking which held that women should stay at home to be mothers and wives underwent a revival. These developments, together with the political repression and the gross violations of the rights of not just women, but practically every Iranian citizen by the Islamic Republic, motivated women to struggle more actively than ever before for their rights and the elimination of sexual discrimination.

The focus of the present article is one courageous woman who has been at the forefront of the struggle for respect for human rights and the rule of law in Iran since the mid-1990s: Narges Mohammadi, who has been hailed internationally for her work on behalf of human rights. In 2009, she was honored with the Alexander Langer Award, named after the Italian-German peace activist and journalist. Last year, she received the Per Anger Prize, named after the famous Swedish diplomat who played a major role in rescuing Hungarian Jews from arrest and murder by the Nazis. I have already profiled the lives of other such lionesses, including attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh, Shiva Nazar Ahari, and several university activists.

Narges Mohammadi was born on April 21, 1972, in Zanjan, a town about 170 miles northwest of Tehran that has a history of progressive, left-leaning politics. After graduating from high school in Zanjan, she was admitted to the Imam Khomeini University in Qazvin with a major in applied physics. There, she was one of the founders of a student organization called Tashakkol Daaneshjooei Roshangaraan (Illuminating Student Group -- that is, a group that sheds light on complex issues). She also played an active role in a student group whose goal was to climb the tallest mountains in Iran; due to her political activities, however, she was not allowed to take part in their climbs. She was arrested twice during her years at the university.

Mohammadi began her career as a journalist writing for Payaam-e Haajar, a magazine dedicated to women's issues. The periodical was published by Azam Alaei Taleghani, daughter of Ayatollah Seyyed Mahmoud Alaei Taleghani (1911-79), the popular, progressive cleric and ardent supporter of Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh. (The magazine was closed by the judiciary in April 2000.) Mohammadi wrote about human rights, women's rights, and issues important to university students. She wrote as well for several other reformist publications, all of which were eventually closed by the judiciary. In 1999, she married nationalist-religious journalist and thinker Taghi Rahmani, whom she had met at university. They have five-year-old twins, Ali and Kiana.

Rahmani, who spent a total of 14 years in the Islamic Republic's prisons, recently left Iran for exile in France. He said that when he asked his wife to go with him, Mohammadi refused, because she wanted to continue her efforts on behalf of human rights in Iran. Rahmani has said that his wife's work on behalf of human rights began when he was first arrested as her husband. Rahmani, together with a large number of other nationalist-religious figures, was arrested on March 9, 2001, in a raid by agents of the Ministry of Intelligence on a gathering at the home of Mohammad Basteh Negar, Azam Taleghani's husband. Rahmani was incarcerated for over a year; after posting bail, he was released on April 17, 2002. Arrested again on June 15, 2003, this time he was incarcerated for 22 months. Rahmani has also said that after their twin children were born, both he was wife became even more aware of the significance of respect for human rights. By his account, Mohammadi was influenced by Haleh Sahabi, a nationalist-religious figure herself and daughter of Ezatollah Sahabi, leader of the Nationalist-Religious Coalition, who passed away last year. At his funeral, Haleh Sahabi suffered a heart attack during a confrontation with security agents and died as well.

In 2002, the Center for the Defenders of Human Rights was founded by five prominent attorneys, Shirin Ebadi, Mohammad Seifzadeh, Abdolfattah Soltani, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, and Mohammad Sharif. (Seifzadeh and Soltani are currently imprisoned, and Dadkhah will be incarcerated soon, after his "conviction" and jail sentence were reaffirmed by an appeals court.) When Ebadi, who headed the Center, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2003, it received more recognition. Mohammadi and another female activist, Zhinous Sobhani, joined the Center. Mohammadi, who was elected as Ebadi's deputy and head of the Center's committee on women's rights, often represented Ebadi and the Center at international conferences. Sobhani, who was also active in an NGO dedicated to clearing all the mines remaining from the Iran-Iraq War, was appointed as the Center's secretary. (Sobhani has been imprisoned since January 15, 2009, presumably because she is an adherent of the Baha'i faith, which is not recognized by Islam.)

In a speech titled "No to War, Yes to Peace and Human Rights" that Ebadi delivered at the Center on November 19, 2007, at the height of the Bush administration's threats to attack Iran, she proposed the founding of a National Council for Peace to convey the message to the world that the "Iranian people are peaceful, as history has demonstrated; they have had war and revolution and are tired of both." The Council was formally established on July 4, 2008 with a membership of 72 well-known figures, later expanded to 83. Mohammadi was elected as the group's president, with reformist journalist Isa Saharkhiz as her deputy, Soltani as spokesman, and Hossein Shah Hosseini, a member of the central committee of the National Front, as treasurer.

Due to her human rights and political activities, Mohammadi was summoned to the Revolutionary Court in April 2009. Her "offense" was membership in the Center for the Defenders of Human Rights. She was released after posting bail of about $50,000, but a few nights later security forces raided her home and arrested her again. She was also fired from her job at the Iran Engineering Inspection Corporation. During her subsequent incarceration, Mohammadi became very ill. She was afflicted with muscular paralysis over much of her body, which doctors attributed to the severe stress she experienced in prison. Even the Ministry of Intelligence acknowledged her illness, except it claimed that she was already ill before her arrest and her condition "merely" worsened while in custody. She gradually improved after she was released from prison.

Mohammadi has been represented by prominent attorneys associated with the Center for the Defenders of Human Rights, most of whom have themselves been arrested. She is currently represented by Center cofounder Mohammad Sharif. Last July, she was prosecuted in a show trial and sentenced to 11 years of incarceration. An appeals court subsequently reduced the sentence to six years.

Last month, on April 22, Mohammadi was arrested in Zanjan, and then transferred to Evin Prison, presumably to begin serving her sentence. She has reportedly been taken to Ward 209 of the prison. Her husband described her arrest:

Apparently there was a man and a woman, and they asked Narges to go with them, but Narges asked to see their identification cards, which they refused to present. They struggled for a half an hour until at 12:00 p.m. she went with them. The reason she went with them was that the forces wanted to enter the house, and she agreed to go with them because she didn't want the children to be frightened. At 5:00 p.m., Narges' parents went to [the] Zanjan Intelligence Office and were told by officials that she had been transferred to Tehran. Since then we have no more news on her, except for what prisoner families told us.

The judiciary has made bogus accusations against her, including the claim that she was "trying to purchase some foreign currencies." According to Rahmani, he and Mohammadi wanted to buy an apartment, for which they needed to take out a small bank loan. But they could do that only if they first purchased some government-issued bonds. They ultimately did not buy the apartment, so they had to sell the bonds, which is apparently the basis of the bogus charge.

In an interview, Rahmani said that he and his wife cannot set aside their ideals and stop their work. As he put it, "We [Iranians] need [at the very least] a minimum democracy. We cannot be behind Turkey in this respect." Speaking tenderly of his children and wife, Rahmani said, "For some time we were living in other people's homes. Not because we did not have our own home, but because we did not have security and had to move from one place to another. The Ministry of Intelligence had ordered us not to live in Tehran. Thus, we were moving back and forth between Zanjan [Mohammadi's hometown] and Qazvin [Rahmani's hometown]. Whenever Narges or I was arrested, Ali said, 'The bad men took Dad, took Mommy. They are bothering our dad again.'" There are reports that Mohammadi's health has deteriorated again after her most recent arrest. Signatures are being sought for an online petition calling for her release.

Last year, Mohammadi wrote a letter to the judiciary in which she said,

I do not know how to write of the suffering and pain inflicted upon my young family. When I first entered prison I was a healthy individual, but when I left the prison I was frail and overtaken by a disease for which I cannot find a remedy or a cure. Physicians and specialists have examined me but no one can figure out what is wrong with me. I have repeatedly asked for my passport so that I can travel outside the country in hopes of finding the right care, but my pleas fall on deaf ears. I have two four-year-old children who need me, but how can I care for them? My young children have been left with painful memories, memories and visions that affect them at nights, in their dreams. I remember one night my children could not fall sleep, they were both speaking in their dreams.

Earlier that night they had witnessed the security officers come to our home and scream obscenities and indignities on Taghi [Rahmani]. I remember little Ali was walking around the house and muttered to himself, "Get out of my house.... Leave my father alone." After they finally took Taghi, my little girl, Kiana, spread out on the cold mosaic tiles of the foyer and as tears streamed down her face, she asked for her father. I was helpless and like a stone statue gazed at my four-year-old daughter, not knowing what to do. I am a human being, a mother, a wife. How much more of this pain and suffering must I go through?

Such is the state of human rights and political repression in Iran. Narges Mohammadi, Taghi Rahmani, and hundreds of others who have been incarcerated have committed no offense other than to defend human dignity and the basic rights of the Iranian people. Crucially, Mohammadi, Ebadi, and others at the Center for the Defenders of Human Rights have always said that there is no conflict between true Islam and respect for human rights. Regardless of the merit of such a proclamation, the ruling hardliners find it far more dangerous than the statements of those who maintain that the two cannot coexist. It is due to their steadfast belief in the compatibility of Islam and human rights that the Center's members, as well as the nationalist-religious activists, have always been subjected to the most severe pressure.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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