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Review: Iranian Women and Gender In the Iran- Iraq War by Mateo Md Farzaneh

A war, big or small, can transform a society beyond recognition. American sociologist Charles Tilly argued that war helps the state perpetuate itself by adding new layers of state-ness. Beyond this, war sometimes helps advance the cause of feminism. The world wars of the twentieth century created conditions for waves of feminism in the European heartland. We now hear stories of bravery, resilience and sacrifice by Urkainian women in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. And yet, there is little scientific research on the contribution and role of women during war. It is widely recognised that they bear the worst brunt of war atrocities, which can vary from rape to other kinds of violence. This book is the first major academic study of women’s role and contribution to the Iran-Iraq war that lasted eight years. Its author, now an academic working with North Eastern Illinois University, USA, served as a war volunteer. Several anecdotal accounts of his experience as a war volunteer are part of the main narrative.

457pp; Syracuse University Press

The objectives of this volume are two-fold: firstly, to examine women’s role in the Iran-Iraq war, and secondly, to look at how gender roles were impacted in post-war Iran owing to the participation of women in the war. Scholarship on modern Iran, particularly after it went through the revolution in 1979, has pointed out the increasing suppression of women’s rights, which enjoyed considerable state support during the pre-revolution regime. According to the author, owing to war, the Islamic Republic presented opportunities to women by default. War created conditions of helplessness, which forced Iran’s conservative Islamic regime to reluctantly withdraw its patriarchal tentacles, and let women evolve their emancipatory trajectories.

These changes were often piecemeal and some may find them insignificant. But they did trigger processes of self-emancipation for Iranian women. Among the benefits that are now available include women’s right to be present at soccer matches held in Teheran’s largest stadium, the very existence of an all-female cockpit crew that flew more than 160 passengers from Teheran to Mashhad, and the conferring of full Iranian citizenship rights to children from mixed marriages between Iranian women and non-Iranian men. According to the author, these examples of changes could not have occurred at other times.

Basiji (mobilized volunteer force) women carrying G-3 automatic assault rifles march in a Tehran rally on 12 February 1987 towards the end of the eight year long Iran-Iraq war. (Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images)
Basiji (mobilized volunteer force) women carrying G-3 automatic assault rifles march in a Tehran rally on 12 February 1987 towards the end of the eight year long Iran-Iraq war. (Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images)

The most valuable part of this monograph is the section on what the author calls “the captive quartet”, a group of four women. These four women were kept captive in various locations roughly for 40 months with the complete knowledge of Saddam’s regime. Fatimah Nahidi was the oldest in the group that included Shamsi Behrami, Masoumeh Adab, and Halimeh Azmoudeh. Masoumah Abad has written the most detailed account in her memoir, Man Zendeham (2015-2016) which translates to “I am Alive”. The difficult choice for her was whether to bury the story in her mind and carry its burden forever, or deal with these painful memories by writing an account. Now a medical doctor, she has two grown up children. She carries the pain caused by the wounds of war as a medal of honour. Such memoirs do pose some challenge as a historical source, according to the author, which I would argue is a valid methodological question. This is because one is not too sure about the accuracy of her memory of locations and names of individuals, among other things. Another one of the quartet, Fatimah Nahidi, has also published an account of her experiences.

Women offered varied services in war. Iranian women carried guns, gathered intelligence, served the wounded, buried the dead, and guarded ammunition depots. They further organised kitchens, cooked food, reported news, drove trucks, washed , cleaned, ironed, and sewed uniforms. But their participation came with a price. They were raped, displaced, lost loved ones, and miscarried. They often lost limbs, were exposed to chemical warfare agents, and went missing. In its version of war history, through publications and television programmes such as Nimeh-ye-penhan-e mah (The Hidden Half of the Moon), the Iranian state did present its own narrative of the contribution of women. But state representation is rather limited and never complete, which is apparent by the fact that Iranian print media used some variation of the word zan (women) only 93 times (0.004 %) in the more than 20,187 articles printed about the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. Alternatively, various Persian-language websites also discuss it in a superficial way and is available to those who are interested in knowing more about the war. One instance of this is that the Paygah-e- Ettelaat Resani-e Howzeh (Seminary Information Propagation Center) has dedicated a few pages to information about women in war.

Author Mateo Mohammad Farzaneh (Courtesy www.mateofarzaneh.com)
Author Mateo Mohammad Farzaneh (Courtesy www.mateofarzaneh.com)

According to female war volunteers, they participated either to defend their nation, their religion or both. One driving factor is the Shiaite ideology, which has a powerful component pertaining to sacrifice. Their participation occurred either in the framework of the military and its related organisations such as militia groups born after the Revolution of 1979 – or self-forming female groups. Many women lived in provinces of Kurdistan, Kermanshah, Ilam, Khuzestan, which were more active war zones. They also contributed to various responsibilities organised under the auspices of new paramilitary groups such as Sepah-e Pasdaran-e-Enqelab-e Eslami( Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, or Sepah) and the Basij–e-Mostazafeen (Mobilization force of the oppressed, or Basji). Other post-revolutionary groups included the Jahad–e Sazandegi (Jehid Construction Corporation or Jahad), or the Jamiat e-Helal–e Ahmar–e Iran (Red Crescent Fellowship of Iran, hereafter Helal–e Ahmar).

Some of the chapters, especially the ones titled Female Prisoners of War and Women Without Men are very illuminating. The chapter titled Iranian Women, 1925-1980 presents a historical perspective on the conditions of women in Iran in its pre-Revolution phase. For many of the participants, the war is not bitter, but a glorious moment with a rewarding after life granted by God to martyrs. This reasoning has to do with the core values of Shiaite Ideology. All in all, this rare book fills a vast void in scholarship to do with war and gender. Hopefully, it will encourage further work in the genre on various such wars all over the world that are either occurring now or have happened in the past.

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Central University,New Delhi. He is the author of a forthcoming book, Shikwa-e-Hind: The Political Future of Indian Muslims.

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