Women Who Fought In Iran-Iraq War Search For Recognition
Mateo Farzaneh was recently visiting the Iranian city of Khorramshahr, a border city that put up a battle against Iraqi forces in 1980 during the Iran-Iraq War. The city fended off troops for 34 days before the Iraqis finally occupied it. Inside a mosque that is famous for its resistance to the foreign occupation, Farzaneh noticed an oversight.
“I walked in and I saw a ton of portraits of men as being the martyrs and people that sacrifice everything. But there was not a single photograph of women,” Farzaneh told KGOU’s World Views.
In his forthcoming book, Iranian Women and Gender in the Iran-Iraq War, Farzaneh hopes to show the contributions of the Iranian women.
“There are literally hundreds of thousands of women that participated in the war,” Farzaneh said.
He says some women volunteered to join the war effort, while others participated involuntarily. Some served in combat roles, others were intelligence officers. They were battlefield nurses, doctors and surgeons. They drove trucks to the war zone. They organized soup kitchens to provide meals for the soldiers.
“They want to be identified not as a superior beings to their male counterparts but actually as equals: People that did the same amount of work suffered the same way if not worse, but did not get recognized for it,” Farzaneh said.
Some women have already told their wartime stories, like Zahra Hosseini, the author of One Woman’s War: Da (Mother). Hosseini was a 17 year old living in Khorramshahr when the war broke out.
“She did everything from washing dead bodies, to burying people, to shooting dogs that were after the bodies that were left around the cemetery because it was so many people and nobody was there to bury them, to transferring patients, to actually picking up a gun and shooting, to actually transferring ammunition from one depot to another,” Farzaneh said.
Hosseini’s memoir has become one of the of the top-selling books of all time in Iran, according to Farzaneh.
Most of the women who participated in the war were rural, religious and from lower socioeconomic classes. While these women came from a Shiite religious background, they also considered themselves patriots.
“Zahra Hosseini was protecting her city, her Khorramshahr in essence,” Farzaneh said. “She talks about how she's doing this for the love of God and for the love of her religion. But at the same time she loves every inch of her streets, every inch of her land she says, and that's very, very important to her. So you have a sort of a secular nationalist thing going on inside the minds of these people such as Zahra Hosseini.”
Not all the Iranian women who were involved in the war came from poor backgrounds. A few were educated at Western universities and served as battlefield surgeons, nurses and anesthesiologists. Other worked with the corps of engineers.
“They might not have had the idea of religious sort of impetus that everybody else used, but they did it for the love of the country,” Farnazeh said.
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Suzette Grillot: Mateo Farzaneh, welcome to World Views.
Mateo Farzaneh: Thanks for having me.
Grillot: Welcome back to World Views, actually. You've been here before. So thank you for coming back. So of course we talk about Iran a lot on this program. It's one of our favorite subjects. And you were here last year talking about some of the things going on in Iran. But I want to talk about your current project because you're focusing on women in Iran for this current book you're working on. And in particular focusing on the role of women in the Iran-Iraq War of the 80s. So tell us a little bit about what drew you to that subject. Why are you focusing on women in the war? And then what is it about women in the war that we should know?
Farzaneh: So I am actually from the south of Iran, the southwestern region of Iran where the war affected the lives of millions of people, including mine and my family. So what happened was I had done some research, some papers that are published about the Iran-Iraq War and usage of Shiite ideology by the state to entice men to go to war and volunteer for martyrdom. So on and so forth. So in my research I came across names of women here and there but nothing substantial. And a few years ago I visited the border town of Khorramshahr, which was captured by the Iraqis after 34 days of putting up a battle against the Iraqi army in 1980. And in the mosque which is legendary for resistance to the occupation, I walked in and I saw a ton of portraits of men as being the martyrs and people that sacrifice everything. But there was not a single photograph of women and that was my aha moment. I said well nobody's trying to even let the public know that there were women involved. So I started to work on the project casually, not for a book size project, but maybe an article or two. And then I came across all these memoirs that are coming out now by women that were actually participants in the war. There are literally hundreds of thousands of women that participated in the war. Some involuntarily were brought in by default to participate. Some actually volunteered. And they served in almost 17 different roles, 16, 17 different roles. It included women that actually volunteered for combat. Women that actually were intelligence officers or operatives of the state. Women who were nurses and doctors and surgeons in the battlefield. Women that did transportation, they drove ambulances, they drove buses and trucks to the war zone. And we had thousands upon thousands of women that actually organize soup kitchens throughout the country that provided pretty much most of the meals that were provided to the war participants that were predominantly men. And one thing that I noticed in this work, and I like to kind of emphasize that in my work and here in this interview, is that all of these women that I've written about the war, they want to be identified not as a superior being to their male counterparts but actually as equals: People that did the same amount of work suffered the same way if not worse, but did not get recognized for it. And I thought that would be a great message that pretty much all women are trying to have the same message globally not just particular to Iran but especially for an audience in the United States. I think it's very very important to know that Muslim women, Iranian Muslim women, and non-Muslim woman of Iran, because we had Armenian women, Jewish women and Zoroastrian women, the minority religious groups of Iran that actually contributed in more than one way to the war efforts.
Grillot: So it's interesting to hear about all of the roles in which these women played. I mean some of them are fairly traditional. We expect women to be nurses, for example, medics, cooks. That seems to be pretty common. But they were actually, there were women in combat, women on the front lines during this war and yet this is something that was not well known. And and we we often asked the question you know about women's liberation or the role of women in Iran today. And yet they have been engaged in these kinds of activities for some time.
Farzaneh: Absolutely. And even the Iranians that actually live inside Iran, if they were not involved in the war in some ways, I can't imagine they couldn't be, because the war raged for eight years. But suppose the ones that didn't care enough for the state or for the war itself because it was so dramatic, even those people inside Iran don't know about this. So when I traveled to Iran and I tell people I mean to research about this kind of oh we didn't know that I wouldn't actually participated. And then I point to many, many memoirs that have recently been coming out by women that actually have participated. The most famous being the story of a 17 year old girl, Zahra Hosseini, who was involved from minute one when the Iraqis actually came to occupy the city of Khorramshahr. As a native, she stood against them and she did everything from washing dead bodies, to burying people, to shooting dogs that were after you know the bodies that were left around the cemetery because it was so many people and nobody was there to bury them, to transferring patients, to actually picking up a gun and shooting, to actually transferring ammunition from one depot to another. All of these things are vividly written in her memoir which is over eight hundred pages and it's one of the top selling books of all time in Iran named 'Da' or 'mother' which is in Kurdish and Luri dialect means mother and she has dedicated that to her mom and all the women in Iran. And she wants all the women to know that there are women like her that actually stopped to to kind of defend the country and defend their cities, they did not expect anything from the state to kind of pay them back in some ways. The only thing that they want is recognition.
Grillot: So I was going to ask you where it is you get your information about this considering, you know, there might not have been as much data at least official data on this but some memoirs as a place where you're finding most of your information, which is also interesting because you've noted elsewhere that a lot of women who participated in the war were actually writing letters to men on the front lines, or to the soldiers, to encourage them and actually you know tell them to keep up the fight. So they were actually even I don't know cheerleaders from afar in some ways while they were writing to the people they didn't necessarily know they were just writing to encourage, right?
Farzaneh: Absolutely. One of the things that the soup kitchens did, they would actually get together once a week or twice a week. And this is not documented, it's only coming through the memoirs and kind of talking to people that were involved in the day when these things were happening, and they would actually get together, get some paper, get some pens, and have these women actually write to the fighters. And this is all put in a very patriotic-slash-religious sort of a context that we are living the times of six A.D. when the Shiite Imam was basically murdered by a group of usurpers from Damascus. And they're saying, we didn't have a chance to defend the Imam then, but we do, we are reliving basically the same catastrophe that was lived then. So we want you to continue. We are your sisters, we are your mothers, and we are your loved ones. And we are not begging you but we're just here to tell you that we're here to support you in any way possible. So these were actually these letters were put inside the cheese sandwiches and or the cheese vegetable sandwiches which is very traditional in Iranian culture. And they were sent.
Farzaneh: And you hear from men, when you hear men's memoirs, when you read about them, they like these letters were just amazing because they were sitting in their bunkers, in their trenches, not knowing what would happen and they would get these deliveries and there would be no pictures because they wouldn't send pictures, obviously, but they would get these letters that were signed than they could imagine how these women had gotten together to make these things for them to eat at the same time they would care enough and take the time to actually address these things. So it was a very personal thing for them which was very, very effective.
Grillot: It's very interesting. Did you find any commonalities among the women that were involved in the war in terms of from a certain social class, social economic class, or you know educated, not educated? I mean would that was that kind of a range. We mentioned that the 17 year old with a young with the older I mean it was kind of a widespread thing that women were involved?
Farzaneh: Yes. The women actually that were mostly involved and have taken the time to write these memoirs and publish them, the common denominator between all of them is that they come from a very low social class. They're mostly rural or provincial. We do have women from Tehran, from the capital, that participated. And they're quite religious. So their argument is mostly offered in a religious context, in the Shiite ideological context. But also they do not fail to tell us that they're patriots as well. So in the case of Zahra Hosseini was protecting her city, her Khorramshahr in essence. She talks about how she's doing this for the love of God and for the love of her religion. But at the same time she loves every inch of her streets, every inch of her land she says, and that's very very important to her. So you have a sort of a secular nationalists thing going on inside the minds of these people such as Zahra Hosseini. And you also have the religious component that is very interesting. You do have women that I imagine we could call them seculars, people that we're not so fond of the Islamic Republic or the system that come to power by that time, but all the same they did contribute in their own ways. These are the mostly very highly educated women that might have been educated in the United States or in the West somewhere else. And they were surgeons and they were nurses and anesthesiology technicians so on and so forth.
Farzaneh: We did have a corps of engineers of the army that did have actually women working in them as well. So they might not have had the idea of religious sort of impetus that everybody else used but they did it for the love of the country.
Grillot: So now that you're bringing some of this to light about Iranian women during this particular war, what is the reaction been now that you were kind of talking about the role of women? Obviously this memoir, you mention, is one of the bestsellers, so people understand that this has happened. And what is what are the implications for women today in Iran?
Farzaneh: One thing that I like to kind of point out and I do that in the book hopefully more effectively is that women in Iran, since the time of the Constitutional Revolution, which happened in 1906 to 1911, they've continuously tried to have their voices heard and they tried to be involved in the civil process that was taking place. So that's very very important. Although they hit up some walls along the way. But I see the whole thing as a historian. I see the whole thing as a continuity of something that has started over 100 years ago and is still continuing. So people that actually live in Iran and leave these read these memoirs, they're quite taken by these because they're actually words of someone that has done something. And in Iranian culture people, especially women, don't tend to talk about the most negative things that might happen have have happened to them.
Farzaneh: Let me give you an example of one. There are many instances that we know of that we hear about women that were actually assaulted or raped and killed by the enemy, or women that actually have written about being taken captive as prisoners of war and serving time inside Iraq's intelligence jails so on and so forth. However they cannot talk about the taboo, the taboo topics of rape and assault. And I think it's basically what people have to kind of understand the limitations of the culture and they kind of have to read between the lines because in many instances when you read the memoirs you kind of know where this thing is going, but at the same time women are being extremely brave and courageous to actually talk about it.
Farzaneh: For example in one of the books Amjadi talks about the name of the book is "I Am Alive." She talks about how this group of four women were held captive inside Saddam's jails for incommunicado for almost a year without any hygienic products being made available to them and they had to use their socks to kind of take care of their feminine needs.
Farzaneh: And that's very very heavy stuff even in the United States, I imagine, let alone in an Islamic society that these things are not talked about. And these women are extremely devout, extremely committed to their religion, but they are still courageous enough and we have to give them credit for that. They are courageous enough to actually talk about it, to write about it, and to put it out there in the open. So their vulnerability is way, way open. But at the same time there is a, you know, very brave and chivalrous thing that they're doing that they're talking about it which I think should be highlighted.
Grillot: Well as we finished today Mateo, you've said before that that in the past 10 years women have really in Iran have really advanced considerably. Some of us may not think that given the Islamic State that rules in Iran. But women are going to school they're becoming pilots doctors government officials filmmakers. So at the end of the day do you feel like women are doing well in Iran under this regime? Do you think that they'll continue to persist into the future and pushing for women's rights?
Farzaneh: Let me answer this this way. Women everywhere in the world are being prejudiced against and that's nothing new. In the case of Iran, that's also the same thing. The Islamic Republic is not any different in many ways in treating a woman. Some people might view what the Shah had done or what the monarchy had done was absolutely against women's rights in many ways. If you talk to Islamic feminists they would argue probably for that. But at the same time, during the Islamic republic there were many instances were by default or by intention, women were allowed to do things that they could have never imagined could do. So their best was actually brought out by the system as well.
Grillot: Very interesting. Thank you very much for being here with us.
Farzaneh: Thank you for having me.
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