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Nobel committee chair Berit Reiss-Andersen holds up a phone with a picture of 2023 Nobel peace prize winner Narges Mohammadi.
‘Democracy is in decline’ says Nobel committee chair Berit Reiss-Andersen, as she gives the award to Iranian women’s rights campaigner Narges Mohammadi. Terje Pedersen/NTB

Nobel peace prize 2023: award for Iranian women’s rights protester highlights fight against declining democracy around the world

One hundred days after Iranians first protested the killing of 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini for wearing her hijab incorrectly, Narges Mohammadi sat down in her prison cell to write a letter to the country’s women. She promised: “We shall not back down until the moment of victory, meaning the establishment of democracy, peace, human rights and an end to tyranny”.

In recognition of her indomitable spirit – and the bravery shown by thousands of Iranians at the forefront of the woman-life-freedom movement – Mohammadi has won the 2023 Nobel peace prize.

The Nobel committee recognised her “fight against the oppression of women in Iran and her fight to promote human rights and freedom for all”. But it also pointedly extended the accolade to all of those women who have taken to the streets in protest against the oppressive theocratic government, including more than 500 demonstrators who were killed, thousands injured and 20,000 arrested.

Women’s fight for rights and justice

Mohammadi is not the first Iranian woman to win the Nobel peace prize. In 2003, lawyer Shirin Ebadi was awarded the distinction for her work promoting human rights which had also seen her imprisoned by the regime. Ebadi gave me this statement after this year’s announcement:

I have known Narges Mohammadi for many years. She was the spokesperson for the Defenders of Human Rights Centre which I co-founded. For her activities, Narges has been in prison for a long time. She is still in prison now. I hope that the Peace Prize awarded to Narges for her brave work for women’s and human rights will help to bring more attention to Iran and women’s fight for democracy. Because it is women who will open the doors to democracy in Iran.

Read more: Nobel peace prize: Narges Mohammadi wins on behalf of thousands of Iranian women struggling for human rights

The executive director of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, Maria Butler, commented that: “Too often in times of conflict women are seen only as victims, their contributions to justice and peace-building are overlooked, and their voices excluded.”

Since it was established in 1901, the Nobel Peace Prize has only gone to 19 women including Mohammadi, compared to more than 90 men. If Mohammadi is the “symbol of what it means to be a freedom fighter in Iran”, as the chair of the Nobel prize committee Berit Reiss-Andersen has said, she is also a powerful symbol for all women and girls around the world.

It’s also significant that alongside Mohammadi, in the shortlist assembled by Henrik Urdal, the director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) was Mahbouba Seraj, who is fighting a similar campaign for the rights of women in Afghanistan. As Seraj wrote in August, this year about the takeover of her country by the Taliban in 2021:

The women of Afghanistan went from existence – from being part of society, from working, from being part of every aspect of life as doctors, judges, nurses, engineers, women running offices – to nothing. Everything they had, even the most basic right to go to high school, was taken away from them.

Declining democracy

When she announced the prize winner, Nobel committee chair Berit Reiss-Andersen said that the choice of Nobel peace laureates over the past few years had reflected a decline in democracy around the world. Just as Mohammadi’s 2023 award represents the struggle of all Iranian women against oppression, the 2022 award to Ales Bialiatski from Belarus was also aiming to represent a broader struggle for democracy in an autocratic country.

Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, announces the winner of the 2023 Nobel peace prize.

The award to Bialatski, who remains in prison having been jailed without trial in 2021 for his role in pro-democracy protests, reflected the value of civil society against the dictatorial powers adopted by the Belarus president, Alexander Lukashenko, in 2016. Bialiatski shared the award with Russian human rights organisation, Memorial and the Ukrainian human rights organisation Centre for Civil Liberties. As the Nobel committee put it: “Together they demonstrate the significance of civil society for peace and democracy.”

The 2021 award went to two journalists: Maria Ressa in Philippines and Dmitry Andreyevich Muratov in Russia. Ressa, the founder of the investigative news website Rappler, consistently risked her life and liberty to bring to light abuses of power under the authoritarian rule of former president, Rodrigo Duterte. She has spent years fighting multiple charges filed against her by the Duterte government in order to stay out of prison. She and a Rappler colleague are appealing against a cyber libel conviction which could have a seven-year prison sentence.

Muratov won for his leadership of the opposition newspaper and website Novaya Gazeta in Russia. He has since been declared a “foreign agent” by the Kremlin. He moved the editorial offices and staff of Novaya Gazeta to Latvia soon after Russia invaded Ukraine, but has stayed in Moscow where he faces regular harassment.

International IDEA, an independent organisation which tracks democracy around the world, said that at the end of 2021, “nearly one half of the 173 countries assessed by International IDEA are experiencing declines in at least one sub-attribute of democracy”.

Whether these are legal clampdowns on public right to protest, as in the new Public Order Laws in the UK, illegal military-backed coups on democratically elected governments as seen in various African countries such as Gabon and Niger in 2022 or deliberate attempts to exploit religious divisions, such as by India’s Modi government, respect for democratic principles is under pressure.

Making the Nobel award to Mohammadi, committee chair Reiss-Andersen said that she hoped that offering solidarity with the jailed human rights activist and the broader woman-life-freedom movement in Iran would spark change.

“But I would also like to remind you that it took three Nobel prizes before apartheid fell in South Africa, she added: "Peace is not a quick fix.”

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