Portraits of Two Islamist Women: Escape from Freedom or from Tradition?1



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Marziyeh Dabbagh: Escape from Tradition Through Militant Shi’ism

In contrast to Rahnavard, Marziyeh Hadidchi Dabbagh belongs to an older generation of women who became politically active years after marriage. Although she does not acknowledge it, her activism allowed her to break through the limitations of tradition and channel her energy and creativity into new directions. In the process, Dabbagh crafted a very different identity for herself, though she seemed to have convinced herself and others that it was all for the sake of Khomeini and Islam, rather than any autonomy developed on her part.


Dabbagh was a confidante of Khomeini in Paris in 1978 and also served as one of his bodyguards. She participated in the Iran-Iraq War (1981-1988), serving as a military commander on the battleground. She later served four terms in the Majlis until 2000. In the late 1980s she went to Moscow, as part of a delegation to negotiate with Mikhail Gorbachev. For much of the last two decades, she has headed the Islamist Women’s Society, which is affiliated with the government.45
Dabbagh, was raised in a very strict and traditional family in the western city of Hamadan in the early 1940s. Her father was a small bookseller who also taught ethics. Unlike Rahnavard, who married a comrade while she was in graduate school studying the arts, Dabbagh experienced an arranged marriage at age 13. The couple soon moved to Tehran, a turning point in her life where her social isolation increased. In her interviews, Dabbagh remembers these difficult years in the late 1950s after she had moved to Tehran and speaks of the great sense of injustice she felt: Why shouldn’t girls study? Why shouldn’t they choose their own husbands? There were many other questions, for none of which I had an answer. I had to find answers to my questions, to understand who brought about this cruelty, injustice, and discrimination against women, to learn how the distinction between me, as a “woman” and the other sex, “man” was created. I had many discussions with my husband. He said, “I don’t know the answers; you should talk to someone who knows. It is best that you study theology because all comes from the Qur’an, the Tradition, and the rules of Islam.”46
Seemingly, Dabbagh wanted to know why she had been deprived of a higher education, a chance to select her own husband, and perhaps even an opportunity for a professional career, while many other women she met in Tehran were not so deprived. She was questioning the theological reasons for gender subordination in her own life. Her husband’s permission provided her with a way out of her highly troubled life. She could now leave the house for weekly lessons with a male theologian, Haji Ali Khavansari. Still, she remembers, something was sorely “missing” in her life: “Though I was studying I still had not found the one I was missing (gomshodeham).” In 1963, Ayatollah Khomeini was placed under house arrest because of his opposition to the shah’s reform program, the so-called “White Revolution.”47 At this point, Dabbagh decided to join the circle of Khomeini, where she could learn more about his militant interpretation of Shi’ism.
By her account, from the moment she first glanced at Khomeini, he became the very center of her life. This was the religious figure she had once seen in her dreams, the one she was missing.48 Now, Dabbagh’s only wish was to join Khomeini’s circle of close comrades. But how did this highly traditional woman, the mother of four children and a housewife, free herself from her numerous familial obligations to accomplish such a task? She writes that on the way back from her first visit with Khomeini she cried the entire way. Soon she became severely depressed and ill from her strong desire to follow the path of Khomeini. After seeing Khomeini only once, she claims:
I was crying, I was no longer calm. I was distraught in a way that my entire life was disturbed. For three or four months that was all I did. I cried. I was ill. I couldn’t eat. During my illness, I kept asking my husband to sell our house and belongings so we could move to Qom, so that I might be a maid in the house of Aqa [Khomeini], to see him once a day, to ask him my difficult questions. In fact, when Khomeini was exiled [to Iraq] not much later, I truly became ill. For about 42 or 43 days I was unconscious.49
After her recovery, Dabbagh continued to plead with her husband to move to the city of Qom to enable her at least to be near some of Khomeini’s comrades and supporters. Her husband did not agree to this but eventually allowed her to join a study group in Tehran that was sponsored by a protégé of Khomeini known as Ayatullah Sa’idi.50 Dabbagh and sixteen other women with similar inclinations met at the back of a nearby mosque for private lessons. There was now a guiding principle in her life. She recounts that she no longer experienced her periodic “Satanic temptations” such as the desire for “buying a dress, going on a trip, or having a dinner party.”51
By 1967 Dabbagh had proved herself the most dedicated member of the group and was groomed for the next stage of the movement, becoming an underground revolutionary. Her new assignment was to travel to small and large cities and lecture among women, in order to gain new adherents for Khomeini. But in order to avoid the dreaded Savak, and find a way into urban military circles, where she looked for new recruits to the Islamist cause, Dabbagh needed to change her traditional appearance. She had to look like a modern woman and she had to drive a car. But how could she drive a car when Khomeini explicitly had recommended against women’s driving? The solution was very simple and was suggested by Khomeini himself. In the Shia tradition of Islam it is incumbent on each believer to follow a living religious scholar as a marja’taqlid (source of imitation) and to receive guidance from him on all difficult matters of life. But one can choose to change the marja’ one follows and select another. Khomeini, through one of his disciples who trained Marziyeh, advised her “to find another marja [one who did not object to women’s driving], and to ask for his permission to learn [driving]; there would be no problem.”52 He thereby taught her how to circumvent the technicality of ignoring his own rulings on this matter. And how was Dabbagh to learn driving from a strange, unrelated man? Again, this was very simple, since Shi’ism, as a pragmatic religion, has a solution for such a problem as well. Dabbagh would arrange a non-consummated temporary marriage between the driver and a close relative, whereupon the driver became mahram (related) and she could take lessons from him.53 Finally, she had to change her appearance. She took up multiple identities for different lectures, pretending sometimes to be the wife of a nonexistent engineer.54 In this way she was able to work within the military circles, among a group of officers’ wives. Dabbagh’s transformation shows that for the good of the cause almost anything was possible and acceptable. At the same time that Khomeini was criticizing the advocates of women’s rights for wearing Western clothes, for driving cars, for mingling with men, unrelated to them by birth or marriage, and blaming the government for encouraging such “immoral” acts, his close follower Dabbagh was doing all this and much more. Yet because her actions were for the greater cause of bringing about an Islamist revolution, she was encouraged, rather than reprimanded.
In 1972, the Savak arrested Dabbagh, who then was in her thirties, and severely tortured her.55 After a second detention, when her health clearly began to fail, Savak officers decided to release her. It was not politically prudent to have a mother of eight (seven girls and a boy by this time) martyred in the Shah’s prisons. Soon Dabbagh left Iran for Europe; she traveled to England and France where she participated in hunger strikes on behalf of Iranian prisoners. She went to Saudi Arabia and distributed Khomeini’s clandestine fliers among Muslim pilgrims in Mecca. In Syria, she helped set up a military camp where anti-Shah combatants were trained. With the help of dissident Shia cleric Imam Musa Sadr, a Palestinian commando (Abu-Jihad), and the activist Dr. Mustafa Chamran, Dabbagh trained a new generation of young Iranian combatants in paramilitary tactics. She recounts that “after completion of guerrilla and destruction tactics” they secretly were sent back to Iran via the Persian Gulf, often armed with explosives.56 During these years, her parents and her married oldest daughter raised her children. Dabbagh tells us that her husband, who was supportive of her political activities, played only a nominal role in the life of the children. He held a job in the southern city of Ahwaz, away from the family, and visited only every two or three months. Thus, in effect, neither the mother nor the father of Dabbagh’s children was living with them in the seven years before the Revolution.57
In 1978, after Khomeini was expelled from Iraq and went to France, Dabbagh finally got her wish. She joined him in Paris and became his close advisor, bodyguard, and housekeeper. Dabbagh, who had adored Khomeini for much of her adult life, remembered a special night in Paris as the best memory of her life:
The best and the most beautiful night of my life was the night I entered the house of the Imam [in France] and I was given the responsibility of running it. I truly could not go to sleep until morning; I kept saying to myself, `Marziyeh, is it you? Could it be that God had been so kind as to place on your shoulders the responsibility of being a slave [keniz] at the house of the Imam?’ After performing my prayers I was sitting and thinking when I heard the rattling of tea glasses in the kitchen. I quickly went to the kitchen and saw that the Great Imam had brewed tea. He had placed a tea glass and a saucer in a tray and with his blessed hands was carrying it to his room. I said, `Haji Aqa, why you?’ He said, `I wanted to lend a hand to my wife.’ I took the tray from his hands and carried it myself to the room. I will never forget this memory.58
Dabbagh, the revolutionary woman who left her husband and children to the care of her parents and her older daughter, who lived a clandestine life for years, and who travelled abroad to train commandos, has two passionate memories in her life: the night in 1963 when she first dreamt of Khomeini and received her “calling,” and the night in 1978 when she exchanged common words with him in a Paris kitchen. Even years after his death, the adoring sentiments that Dabbagh expresses toward Khomeini are very similar to what Fromm terms the authoritarian character. Followers were told repeatedly that “the individual is nothing and does not count. The individual should accept his personal insignificance, dissolve himself in a higher power, and then feel proud in the strength and glory of this higher power.” Their idealism should lead them to willingly become a “dust particle” in this higher order.59 Dabbagh expresses this same desire for total annihilation in morbid terms, “I always wished someone cut me up and made a carpet of me for under his feet. My feelings about him were the same until his death and will always remain the same. I wish we died and he lived and led society.”60

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