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Activist Narges Mohammadi: 'I'm committed to human rights'

Ivana Drmić
December 21, 2020

Iranian activist and journalist Narges Mohammadi reflects on the role of social media in light of protest movements in Iran, freedom of expression and the death penalty.

Iranian human rights activist Narges Mohammadi
Image: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto/picture-alliance

DW: What message does your imprisonment send to activists in Iran?

Narges Mohammadi: The state is against strengthening civil institutions, because strengthening civil society means weakening the despotic regime. Iran uses violence to counter this by locking civil rights activists in isolation cells. One of the main accusations against me was my involvement in civil society. I was imprisoned and harsh court sentences were pronounced against me because I was a member of the Organization for the Defense of Human Rights and co-founded the civil rights movement "Fight against Death Penalty" as well as other feminist organizations. By arresting people like me, they want to set an example. The message to all civil society activists is: Look, these serious consequences await you if you try to get organized. 

The death penalty against three Iranian citizens was suspended in July, following an international backlash on Twitter. Nevertheless, two months later, the Iranian wrestler Navid Afkari was executed despite the international outrage. Why are some social media campaigns more successful than others?

After the street protests in 2017, 2018 and 2019, the state began to threaten and frighten people. In June 2020 the execution of three young protesters was announced, later in August/September another five young people were to be executed, and then Navid Afkari was executed. The message of the state apparatus was clear: whoever protests will be executed. But the news of the imminent execution of the three young people triggered far-reaching protests on social media. Therefore, the state had to back down. Instead, Navid Afkari was executed to prove the threat was true. Afkari's case was presented as if it was a retaliatory punishment requested by the private plaintiffs. In my opinion, however, this is a construction that is supposed to hide the fact that a confession was extorted here. His execution was a message from the state to its citizens in two ways. The first was to say: You once managed to avert the execution of the three young people, but it will not happen again, we will not back down from you. And secondly: Whoever protests will ultimately pay for it with his life, even if it goes through the courts.

Wrestler Navid Afkari was executed in Iran
Wrestler Navid Afkari was executed in Iran in September 2020, sparking international outrage.Image: mashreghnews

In light of the trending #FreeNarges campaign and the simultaneous backlash the movement caused, how would you assess the role of social media in Iran?

Social media and cyberspace in Iran are not controlled by any single faction. The state has invested a lot of money in its online presence and has set up a powerful "cyber army." One of the leaders of this cyber force was the first to point out my well-groomed appearance after my release, and many others followed him.
However, when the hashtag #FreeNarges was trending, many people campaigned for my freedom. My full commitment is based on the assumption that resistance and struggle take place in life.
I'm committed to human rights and peace and against the death penalty. I fight against solitary confinement in prison to eliminate torture as a threat to life, and I am devoted to feminist causes so that women can have their rights and live a fulfilled life.

For the religious despotism and patriarchy in Iran, it is unacceptable that women demand participation. Even their appearance, their joy, their hair, and the color of their lips become causes of offense. I preferred to go to prison to set an example for life.

Caricature: Navid Afkari's execution
Caricature: Navid Afkari's execution

In the face of oppression and injustice, I took upon myself exhaustion and despair to show the beautiful face of protest, struggle and steadfastness. I showed my joy and satisfaction, putting some lipstick on that I did not have in prison. Also, a hairband that a fellow prisoner sentenced to death knitted for me, and I wore a bracelet that a woman who has been in jail for ten years made for me.

In spite of the suffering of these women, which has taken root in my soul, I have come before the public. I also have a message for my fellow countrymen and friends worldwide: that laughter, contentment and the future, indeed life, belongs to us and that we want to dance in the streets. It's not an easy goal in a religious state and in a patriarchal culture and society where men are on top and women are at the bottom. You have to be patient if you want to see development.

Protests in Iran
Protests in IranImage: dpa

Is the death penalty used as an instrument against the right to freedom of expression in Iran?

In Iran, the death penalty has always had the goal of suppressing and destroying oppositional political forces and groups, exerting pressure and spreading fear among the people.  The state has used this tool to strike back and to control the expressions of discontent among the people, following repeated and violent street protests in the past three years. For this reason, dozens of people are currently being held and will soon be sentenced to death.

Do you have support in Iran? What kind of support do you wish for on an international level?

The topic of human rights has gained considerable public awareness in Iran, which means important support for us. I am grateful for the political and ideological support at home and abroad; the knowledge that one is not alone warms one's heart and helps me to keep my promise and continue to work for human rights, the abolition of the death penalty and for equality in Iran. That human rights organizations from all over the world support the movement in Iran is necessary and positive and helps us not to despair. I will gladly repeat this: In order to realize democracy and human rights and to bring about peace, we need the participation of people from all over the world. 

This interview was first published in German for the DW magazine "Weltzeit."