War and Gender in the Islamic Republic of Iran

This panel was compiled by the Conference Program Team from independently submitted paper proposals


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Iranian women participated in various capacities in the conflict against Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). Not only they carried guns, went on surveillance missions, cared for the injured, guarded ammunition depots, organized food drives, and voluntarily donated their material possessions, but most dramatically they encouraged the men in their lives to fight to the bitter end. In response, Iraqi soldiers killed, injured, physically assaulted, raped, and detained Iranian women as prisoners of war. There is very little historical analysis about their struggle, and they are rarely mentioned in mainstream media and a portion of the society disdains their involvement in the war.

On the frontlines that stretched along Western Azarbaijan, Kurdistan, Kermanshah, Ilam, and Khuzistan provinces, women participated in several capacities and their actions included but were not limited to reporting for the state media, preparing war propaganda, providing paramilitary or paramedic training to other women, performing paramedic duties, and operating as intelligence and counter intelligence officers. With the exception of their journalistic duties, the rest of these responsibilities were organized under the auspices of the Revolutionary Guard Corp (Sipha-i Pasdaran), the Mobilization Force (Basij), the Jihad Reconstruction Corp (Jahad-i Sazandigi), and the Red Crescent (Hilal-i Ahmar).

Historical primary sources about women’s involvement in the war provided by the state are scattered. Additionally, access to even these scattered sources is challenging, as is the case for war records, generally. For this paper, however, I have searched through a collection of sources at Esfahan’s Sepah Pasdaran and Jahad Sazandegi Records Office and Abadan Red Crescent and Basij, in addition to the Iranian president’s bureau of women and family issues, which includes some files on women veterans and the Red Crescent.
As far as other historical primary sources are concerned, those that are provided by the grassroots organizations and neighborhood basij branches, I have examined a variety of interviews and testaments of men and women about the role of the latter. Some are unpublished and are stored as stories at various locations and some have been published in nongovernmental literature. These are local publications with an insignificant number of circulation (under 1000), which makes them inaccessible for anyone outside the areas in which they are produced.
The number of women casualty is still debatable but it ranges between 7,000-10,000 souls.

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The Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 was the longest military conflict of the 20th century. The war was an important stepping ground in the consolidation of Iran’s theocratic state, which had assumed power less than two years before the war broke out. The Islamization of the old monarchical state was, thus, anchored in the war effort. In order to sustain and (re)produce the Islamic identity of the state, the Iranian regime launched, soon after the end of the war, a wide-ranging process of creating and supporting cultural entities ranging from museums, galleries, films, music, to annual commemorative events, or building monuments throughout the country to memorialize the “Sacred Defense.” State-sponsored websites, publications, charity organizations, and bureaucratic structures are the ideological pillars on which the state is reconstituting its national-religious project. Women were assigned a special role in the war during which the idea and model of “Muslim woman” was constructed and propagated. There is a proliferation of women’s narrations of war, speaking to their suffering, displacement, and resistance. Through the analysis of extensive empirical data from government archives, this paper will explicate the state’s approach to archiving and framing of this war as the continuation of the religious-national project of Islamization. The paper aims at unpacking the cultural form and the ideological content of the archives of the Iran‐Iraq War and will argue that the state project is more than “keeping alive” the memory of war. The act of archiving and creating a repertoire of memorization serves the purpose of state control and exercise of power.