Sisters and Mothers: Iranian Women's War Memoirs

By Norma Claire Moruzzi, Fatemeh Sadeghi,
Submitted to Session P4803 (The Conflicted Legacies of the Iran Iraq War, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Gender/Women's Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
For Iranians, the orthodox representation of the Iran-Iraq war has been as a national experience of Sacred Defense. This hegemonic narrative (presented in books, films, and state-sanctioned political history) has been extremely male-dominated, and has been conventionally assumed to reinforce conservative gender and social expectations. But in recent years a number of women’s memoirs have been produced (often as oral histories facilitated by another writer) and several have become enormously popular, both because of and in spite of official support. These authors and their texts (Masoumeh Ramhormozi’s Last Sunday/Eternal Fragrance; Zahra Hoseyni with Azam Hoseyni’s Da; Masoumeh Abad’s I’m Alive; and Ghadam Kheyr Mohammadi with Behnaz Zarrabizadeh’s Daughter of Sheena have been valorized by conservative state authorities and for the most part ignored by feminist critics; both sides characterizing these women’s stories as conventional models of Islamic feminine virtue. But even those women’s memoirs that have been most publicly approved by the state offer a complexly ambiguous representation. Da (Kurdish for “Mother”) has been especially celebrated and distributed by the government as an example of “sisterly” Muslim sacrifice. But Hoseyni’s account raises its own questions about women’s private responsibility and public role. Is she a simple civilian just doing what she has to do, or an exceptional national heroine? Can the ethic of radical (wartime) self-sacrifice absolve the incongruity of a woman adamantly upholding feminine conventions of duty and decorum, while actively fleeing domestic responsibilities and familial obligations?
This paper examines a number of recent Iranian women’s memoirs of being on the frontlines of the war, and the extent to which they (often unexpectedly) challenge conventional representations of the war and of women’s proper national role. A paradox of wartime is that to the extent that it removes men from their conventional social roles, both public and private, it enables women to enter more into public life, including entering more into public life with men. Compared to other conditions of widespread male absence (migration for remittance work, etc.), women’s wartime transgressions of gender expectations are often considered admirable rather than immodest. The emergency ethos of collective effort and self-sacrifice makes the otherwise unthinkable possible, and provides women with unexpected opportunities. This paper explores the extent to which the contested legacy of Iranian women’s wartime experience still resonates within state and society arguments over the formation of a new, post-revolutionary Iranian female subject.