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Opinion: This Nobel prize is for all the women fighting for freedom in Iran

Opinion by Frida Ghitis

(CNN) — A year ago, the women of Iran electrified the world when they defied a brutal regime, stripping off their government-mandated head coverings, waving them in the air and even throwing them into bonfires in an uprising that came to be known by its motto, “Woman, Life, Freedom.”

One year later, after a ferocious crackdown, the women’s revolt has faded from the headlines. But if you thought the lack of global attention meant the cause has died, prepare to be inspired again.

On Friday, Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Mohammadi is a prisoner of the regime, but that has done little to quell her passion or her activism. Even within the walls of Tehran’s infamous Evin Prison, and despite cumulative jail sentences of more than 30 years and a ban on seeing her husband and her two children, Mohammadi has proven indomitable.

The Nobel committee awarded her this prestigious prize “for her fight against the oppression of women in Iran and her fight to promote human rights and freedom for all.” The committee also recognized “the hundreds of thousands of people who, in the preceding year, have demonstrated against Iran’s theocratic regime’s policies of discrimination and oppression targeting women.”

This Nobel prize is for all the women fighting for freedom in Iran.

And that fight continues. Even inside Evin Prison.

Just before the news of the prize broke, Mohammadi was in contact with CNN, managing to send an audio recording and a letter through intermediaries. The material is breathtaking; proof of a core of moral courage that most of us can hardly comprehend.

In the audio message, one can hear Mohammadi leading chants of “woman, life, freedom” by prisoners in Evin. Ponder that for a moment.

Evin is a chamber of horrors, as Mohammadi herself documented last year in her book, “White Torture,” which includes women’s testimonies of what transpires in the prison’s ward 209. Their accounts describe a place where intelligence officials interrogate women; where they are not only tortured and sexually abused, but where living conditions resemble medieval prisons during the Inquisition.

After the book was published, Iranian authorities added time to Mohammadi’s prison sentence. They have also punished her for her continuing activism. In August, the regime tacked on another year after she spoke to the media about sexual assaults in jail and pointed out what she described as the hypocrisy of a religious state’s use of sexual violence. (The Iranian government has denied the widespread allegations of sexual assaults against detainees, calling them “false” and “baseless.”).

The following month, she wrote an article in The New York Times with the headline: “The more they lock us up, the stronger we become.”

The brutality has apparently done little to quell the fires burning for freedom. In written answers to CNN’s questions, she says this “still is the era of greatest protest in this prison.”

In the audio recording shared with CNN, one can also hear women singing “Bella Ciao,” an Italian folk song linked to the fight against fascism that Iranian women have adopted as an anthem of freedom during last year’s street protests.

That uprising exploded when a young Kurdish-Iranian woman was detained for allegedly failing to wear her headscarf properly. Mahsa Amini, 22, died in the custody of the morality police. (She was actually known as Jina to friends and family, which means “life” in Kurdish. Jin, Jiyan, Azadi means “woman, life, freedom.”)

Amini’s death was the last straw. Iranian women, who were often joined by men, took to the streets to demand equality and an end to the repressive regime.

Mohammadi explained in her letter to CNN that mandatory hijab is a tool of subjugation and control over women, which by extension facilitates “control over the entire society,” and helps “to preserve the image of religious Islamic men.”

In response to the protests, the government imprisoned tens of thousands of protesters and their relatives, and executed an unknown number. It carried out purges of perceived critics from universities and the media.

The government imprisoned tens of thousands of protesters and their relatives, and executed an unknown number. It carried out purges of perceived critics from universities and the media.

The streets grew quieter. But if you think the movement – and the danger – ended, think again.

This week, 16-year-old Armita Geravand was hospitalized after she got on a train at a metro station in Tehran on Sunday. While it is still unclear what happened, a Norway-based group focused on Kurdish rights said she was “assaulted” by female officers of the morality police. In security camera footage showing only the exterior of the train, Geravand is seen entering the carriage, and then being carried out onto the platform. She is now reportedly in a coma in a military hospital in Tehran.

Authorities deny the accusations, saying she was hospitalized due to an injury caused by low blood pressure.

Geravand, it seems, may be one of the countless Iranian women who have refused to surrender to the crackdown. Women are still required to wear hijab, and they do it when entering government buildings or walking into a bank. But on the street, the quiet resistance continues. The defiance persists.

Resisting a violent regime requires courage, but doing it from inside one of the world’s harshest prisons requires a special kind of courage and an uncommon depth of integrity and commitment. For Nobel prize winner Narges Mohammadi, it’s a clear choice. “I am sure,” she wrote to CNN, “that the world without freedom, equality and peace is not worth living.”

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