Iranian Women and Gender in the Iran-Iraq War
Iranian Women and Gender in the Iran-Iraq War
By Mateo Mohammad Farzaneh
August 2, 2022
Mateo Mohammad Farzaneh (MMF): As a war volunteer with the Iranian Red Crescent, I remember seeing women give to the war effort what they had in their possession, from a pair of gold earrings to a dozen eggs, all with joy and resolution. They allowed and encouraged their men to march to the front lines knowing well what possibilities laid ahead. Women fought alongside men and supported their efforts behind the scenes. Then I saw them welcome their men back, carrying them to the martyrs’ cemetery. I wrote this book because their actions needed exclusive attention, and because they are part of our larger understanding of Iranian women and gender.
From the first day of the war, barely anything was mentioned by the officials or the media about their uncommon participation, and the Islamic Republic reserved the most positive accolades such as chivalry, patience, and patriotism for male war volunteers. Female participants were only mentioned as humans who fulfilled their domestic and reproductive duties, and that seemed quite unfair. I thought that needed to change. I wanted to echo the voices of these women who participated in the longest conventional war of the twentieth century, and to provide an opportunity for everyone to understand how and why they engaged in a conflict that, despite its decades-long ceasefire, has not ended for many.
Female nurses, doctors, one pilot who flew reconnaissance missions, photographers of war, combatants, intelligence operatives, first responders, and explosive trainers.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
MMF: In the book, I used a lot of stories that women had written or spoken of about their participation in the war, which then I substantiated with interviewing some of them. There are stories that put Iranian women in a greater context outside the war as they discuss their social and economic challenges before the 1979 revolution and after. The historical background into the war and the history of Iranian women and gender in the twentieth century that is provided identifies a major academic gap, one which mostly separates women based on scholars’ preference of secular and western-inspired females over religious or conservative women.
In the rest of the book, I discuss how women participated in the war from the most mundane to the most skilled and critical tasks. Female nurses, doctors, one pilot who flew reconnaissance missions, photographers of war, combatants, intelligence operatives, first responders, and explosive trainers. The contextualization of their roles is achieved by critically analyzing sources that they produced or documents such as testaments, photographs, and interviews.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
MMF: It might be interesting to mention that historical fields of inquiry that I had never engaged in during graduate school were those related to were women, gender, and war. My intellectual curiosity pushed me towards the once ignored fields, which consequently changed my perspective. I ended up writing exactly about women and war and in the process learned how significant women are in shaping the history of Iran.
My first book, The Iranian Constitutional Revolution and the Clerical Leadership of Khurasani (Syracuse University Press, 2015), was about the role of a Shiite jurist, Muhammad Kazim Khurasani, who lived in Najaf but played a major role in success of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution (1906-11). For that book, I had to get familiar with Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), provide a narrative of the constitutionalist movement, and elaborate on where Khurasani’s actions could be identified in matching his role as a jurist in supporting of constitutionalism.
I remain committed to learning more about role of women in other sociopolitical events in Iran. Iranian Women and Gender in the Iran-Iraq War is not, however, a complete change of direction. I think of it as an extension of the main inquiry into how Islam affects social affairs on local and national levels. This work departs from my first book, since that event took place over one hundred years prior to the war and its consequences were similar as Islam and clerics played a role in how constitutionalism and then the war, respectively, evolved.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
MMF: I wrote this book with the hope that it would be stimulating enough for anyone who is interested in the history of Iran, the history of Iranian women and gender, the history of the Iran-Iraq War, or a combination thereof. Since it is the first of its kind, it is positioned to attract the uninitiated and provide them with an opportunity to learn about Iran or conservative Muslim women (as a general label in this case) as it has many real stories of women war participants. Enthusiasts of Iranian studies, of course, would hopefully appreciate the nuanced ideas offered in studying an inclusive history of women and gender. Anyone in the fields of history, anthropology, sociology, war, or Middle East studies would benefit from it as it is a multidisciplinary work.
I hope to ensure that the voices of these many women are not lost in the scholarship, which up until now has concentrated largely on women who are inspired by the western definition of liberation feminism or the cultural affinity that they have with the West. I wish that those who want to learn about how Iranian woman challenged their gender roles months after the establishment of the Islamic Republic read the book and appreciate not only Iranian women’s somewhat unprecedented participation in a conventional war, but also how they defied the wishes of the theocratic rulers who were all men. These women refused to be sidelined, and I hope that should attract some readers.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
MMF: Currently, I am working on another book project about marginalized women in Iran. By marginalized, I mean the women who, during the secular monarchical rule of the Pahlavi shahs (1924-1979), were pushed to the margins of the society by either the state—given its unfriendly disposition to religious and conservative women—or the women’s families—who did not allow them to take advantage of the many modern programs such as free secondary education or vocational training exclusively made for them.
The book also focuses on the lives of marginalized women during the Islamic Republic, a period in which it tried hard to further limit female participation in civil society but failed in its quest. The Islamic Republic had promised this group of women who were disenfranchised during the monarchy that they would have the opportunity to contribute in an “Islamic” setting with social mores that would be approved by all conservative families. But once those majority women once saw that the state’s promise had turned out to be a farce, they took initiative and forced their way into the sociopolitical sphere although the patriarchy did not allow for a successful integration of their talents. Their struggle continues.
But I have one short and two long projects before I complete the history of the marginalized women. I am working on an article and a book manuscript that I am co-writing with two scholars inside Iran. The book is about the history of Iranian women in sports. We are hoping to have it published before the next Olympic games in 2024. The article was born out of our research on the book and, once we saw how influential Armenians had been in Iranian sports, we decided to write a piece about Iranian Armenians and their contributions to sports.
J: Why has the Iran-Iraq War not been studied more deeply?
MMF: The war has not been the subject of multidisciplinary studies away from military and geopolitical studies. What is published in Iran is mostly ideologically and politically charged. There are several reasons for that. For one, the Islamic Republic has taken ownership of the narrative of the war as it believes it was solely fought by its supporters. Truly, the war defines the Islamic Republic, and everything that it says it stands for: anti-colonialism, anti-poverty, and demarginalized people’s involvement in state affairs, to name a few. Connected to those reasons, it is keeping the most significant sources secret, citing national security as justification for not making them available.
The other reason is related to Iranian scholars’ personal takes on the subject matter, as it is directly connected with the Islamic Republic. The sources that major institutions such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp, for example, have published are available and are a great place to start, even though they are extremely subjective. However, I think some scholars would not consider them as “real” sources because of that, which is unfortunate. Historians know that even with such biased views in some sources, many things can still be extracted from them. This is what I call the “scholar’s emotional response,” which leads to forgetfulness as a way to distance oneself from the subject, they are mandated by the principles of the profession to detach from it and look at everything with extreme objectivity as difficult as it is.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pages 6-11)
This book predominantly focuses on the role of female participants in the war and how the war turned into an opportunity for women to demonstrate their abilities and commitment to Iran and Islam. They challenged the patriarchal view of female incapacity and of intrepid prowess as strictly part of Iranian masculinity. But like other women who have participated in wars at other times elsewhere in the world, Iranian women fought a war made by men and were dragged into it even while the patriarchy continued to frame it as solely a masculine endeavor.
As Joan Scott asserts, “high politics as a gendered concept” also assigned gender roles during this war. A small portion of the upsetting of such gender roles was owing to Khomeini’s open reception of women’s involvement, but it was also overwhelmingly owing to the women’s own challenging attitude and their desire to change their gender roles based on the promises of equal treatment made to them. Women who participated in the war were the victims of the male-dominated high politics that (mis)managed the war with failed strategies. The Iran-Iraq War created a situation in which the leadership needed to balance Islamic ideological values with the practical concerns of waging a conventional war. In one of the most violent periods in Iran’s history, women took this opportunity in the wider history of their struggle for inclusiveness to pave the way for more political clout in the future but only inched toward success.
Iranian women had to face and challenge their expected gender roles and build new gender relations as they were thrown into the stormy waters of war: not having a patriarch (mard-e bala sar, literally meaning “a man above one’s head”) meant carrying the burden of proving themselves to be a worthy mother, wife, daughter, and sister. They had to continue life in the most dignified manner, and that, as we shall see in the following chapters, was never easy. Some of the women were forced to remarry because the absence of a man in their lives might mean a negative view of them in society. Many others refused to remarry even when there was no hope that their husbands would return from the battlefield or imprisonment. Many overcame such challenges and withstood the vast cultural negative attitudes toward a manless woman to build a new life for themselves and their children, with or without marrying a second time. Female displacement occurred domestically and often internationally once women without men were forced to look for safety outside of the war zone. As a key outcome of war and the displacement of families, some women were forced into prostitution.
Physical battery as part of general violence against women is most often a direct result of war-induced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Women are often on the receiving end of the psychological torment that men who return from the battlefield or captivity experience. Frustration, nervousness, intolerance, and aggressiveness are translated into one form of violent behavior or another, and women are predominantly affected by them. Iranian women were no exception to this phenomenon and faced these same challenges after the war ended.
During the monarchy, women served in the military but never as part of the cadre of men who made important decisions. After the Islamic Revolution, the government ordered the army to fire all women officers, and it was only in the ideologically agreeable paramilitary organizations that women became active. Yet even in paramilitary roles that were not gendered, women’s participation was influenced by their race and class, as we will see in the case of Kurdish and Arab women of the West and Southwest, respectively, who became involved in the war. In many aspects, gender roles remained the same before and after the revolution, but in some instances they changed drastically. The Pahlavi monarchy had granted women more freedom to socially engage outside home than any other regime in recent memory. Freedoms such as allowing women to join the police force and the army and to fly planes were unprecedented beginning in the 1960s and 1970s. After the revolution, however, women lost many of their rights to engage in such activities, were forced to wear the hijab, and were severely punished for not doing so. They were taunted if caught with a male companion unless they were married and told their testimony was worth only half that of a male witness. Such basic rights were replaced with different Islamic mores that the state forced women to follow. These cultural practices were already familiar to those who had been sidelined as disenfranchised women but were viewed as barbaric and draconian by those who had not experienced them previously or had embraced the new freedoms during the monarchy. In addition to losing significant basic rights by the time the war began, women were the first group of Iranians to feel the war’s wrath. As they lost their men, they were told to accept their fate: they were the Zaynabs of their time, and, hence, sacrifice was their duty.
Cynthia Enloe rightly argues that sacrifices are feminized during national crises, and prowess and chivalry become masculine attributes. The Iran-Iraq War as a national crisis was no different. Islamic edicts coming from the republic’s leaders, Khomeini chief among them, persuaded mothers and wives to sacrifice by taking on more duties at home and sending their men to war, and they portrayed the men as brave males who would be divinely rewarded for sacrificing their lives by ascending to heaven to live an eternal life of honor in the next world. Many women stayed home and guarded the family base and the home front by doubling as fathers, coaches, and in some cases breadwinners. High politics exclusively practiced by male politicians made the females pawns of their game. Men acted without women’s input in the war room, while women became the one group most affected by the former’s missteps when urgent decisions went amiss in response to the Iraqi onslaught. When President Abolhassan Banisadr refused to send or was prevented from sending troops to the Southwest in the early months of the war, or when political bickering in Tehran allowed the Iraqi army to advance farther inside Iran, women and children became the first victims. Mishandling of the conflict continued to put the lives of women in danger because they were on the front line of both offense and defense, and that negligence continued after the conflict was over, when everyone, including women, needed help to recover but didn’t receive it.
The same challenges that afflicted gender articulation during the war continued after it ended. These challenges were also related to ethnicity and class. Judith Butler’s suggestion that differences in class, ethnicity, and local culture affect women’s experience in conflicts and influence discussion of gender within societies rings true in this case. The majority of women who volunteered in the war were from the provincial areas bordering Iraq and home to various ethnic Iranians, such as Kurds, Arabs, Lurs, and Azeris, and by and large many of them belonged to the lower socioeconomic sector, which highlights Butler’s assertion. Women in these circumstances remain understudied because their traditional and religious articulation of gender does not fit the secular model. They worked closely with Sepah, Basij, and Jahad. Because of their revolutionary activities, their service as an arm of the Islamic Republic, and their religious expression of womanhood, struggle, and activism, they are not considered important research subjects within feminist studies. In fact, the pejorative term fatmeh commando (commando Fatimah) used against women associated with revolutionary organizations originates from such prejudices against a distinct group of Iranian women who do not necessarily have a western liberal perspective of women’s rights and gender roles.
Furthermore, local culture affected gender roles, too. Women belonging to the lower socioeconomic class of varied ethnicities in rural settings were more involved in the economy of the family and more liberated from the constraints of urban conservative culture, both of which continued during the war. The Kurdish woman Farangees Haydarpour, for example, came from a poor rural background and was very different from many other Iranian women before and during the war because her environment allowed her to express her gender without the usual social constraints seen in the city. But she challenged her gender role even further by hacking to death an Iraqi soldier who had invaded her village. Stories similar to hers affect the discussion of social gendering that continue in the public sphere today. The challenge here is daunting because women’s actions in the war must be contextualized as well as described: they effectively were in a war situation that was made more difficult for them by male machismo.
Despite being key participants in the war, women could not “avoid being women, whatever they [did],” to borrow from Mary Beard. …