Region

The Two Faces of the Fatemiyun (II): The women behind the fighters


Fatemiyun fighters’ graves in Behesht-e Zahra cemetery in southern Tehran. Three of the ten women interviewed had lost men in the war in Syria. Casualties among the Fatemiyun have been heavy. Photo: Mohsen Hamidi, April 2019

Fatemiyun fighters’ graves in Behesht-e Zahra cemetery in southern Tehran. Three of the ten women interviewed had lost men in the war in Syria. Casualties among the Fatemiyun have been heavy. Photo: Mohsen Hamidi, April 2019

Existing studies on the Fatemiyun have focused on the Afghan men fighting for the Iran-backed government in Syria. The women behind the fighters – wives, mothers and sisters – have remained invisible, despite the fact that many fighters decided to go to Syria with family concerns in mind. Based on interviews with ten women in the Afghan city of Herat and Iranian capital Tehran, AAN guest author Mohsen Hamidiuncovers what the Syrian war has meant for these Afghan women. They reveal the crucial role women played encouraging or trying to discourage their men from going to fight in Syria, the struggle of surviving without their menfolk, and for some, the ordeal of getting a dead body back, and for others, coping with men who have returned injured or traumatised. The interviews show how a faraway conflict has put many families in dispute with each other – not everyone viewed the Syrian war as a ‘jihad’ or believed the Fatemiyun had gone there out of piety.

In this two-part series, the first dispatch, “The Two Faces of the Fatemiyun (I): Revisiting the male fighters,” can be read here.

Why focus on the women?

The first dispatch in this two-part series looked at the Fatemiyun from the perspective of the male fighters. It explored the reasons for many Afghan men deciding to fight in Syria – from wanting to improve life for themselves and their families through the benefits provided by Iran to Fatemiyun, to a desire to protect Shia shrines in Syria, to seeing war as a way to become men. It considered the role of Iran’s heavy propaganda campaign in recruiting fighters to support its ally, the Assad government, in the increasingly sectarian Syrian civil war, and the very heavy casualties taken by the Fatemiyun as it was deployed across Syria in some of the toughest battles of the conflict.

This second dispatch differs in two significant ways: it takes families and their decision-making as its point of departure, rather than individuals, and views the conflict and its impact from the point of view of the women whose men opted, or were compelled, to fight away from home, rather than from the standpoint of the men.

This is important because crucial decisions, such as whether to join or stay with the Fatemiyun, have typically been made within the family context – through lengthy talks with spouses, parents and siblings – taking into account family concerns, such as financial support or the option to move one’s family from Afghanistan to Iran. The members of the all-male Fatemiyun fighter group were never just isolated individuals, free from family ties or considerations. This is reflected in the current study.

This dispatch reveals the daily struggles of the fighters’ families. As such, it may inspire greater efforts to reduce the conflict, by (re)humanising the people involved. The dispatch also fills a research gap, breaking new ground, since, as far as the author is aware, this is the first research on the women behind Fatemiyun fighters. For detail about the methodology behind this research, including how interviewees were chosen, five living in Herat and five in Tehran, and how this sensitive subject was tackled, see footnote 1.

The rest of this dispatch is organised in three parts and a conclusion.

First, it examines the roles women played when men were deciding to go to war in Syria, whether trying to argue against or supporting or being bypassed.

Second, it explores women’s struggles to survive while their men are away fighting, whether their troubles are financial or being left alone without a man’s protection in a patriarchal society. It looks at the rituals and support groups which have helped ease absences.

Third, it hears some harrowing stories from women coping with bereavement (ten per cent of the Fatemiyun are estimated to have been killed at the peak of the group’s involvement), or with men returning injured (30-40 per cent) or severely traumatised by the war. It also looks at how they have tried to counter jibes that their men were fighting for material benefits or in someone else’s war, not a jihad.

A conclusion surveys the complicated feelings many women whose men have fought in Syria are left with.

Men going to war

Women’s stances

The distant Syrian war became near and very real for many Afghan families when their men, or men they knew, started signing up to join the Fatemiyun group. A first trigger was often increasing exposure to the conflict. Friends and relatives living in Iran began leaving for Syria as a result of an active campaign, including by Afghan clerics and sympathisers among the Afghan diaspora there, from about 2013 on. In Afghanistan, social media was an important means through which many young men learned about the armed conflict in Syria and, more importantly, how to participate in it (see examples in this previous AAN dispatch). More traditional means such as sermons or conversations in mosques also made many men think about going. When they began weighing up the pros and cons of joining the war in Syria, they often did so within a family context or with family concerns in mind.

The women in the family most affected by these men’s decisions were their wives and mothers; children, including daughters, were also affected, but might not have realised the seriousness of the decisions. Also, most of the men going were young, so if they had children, they would also usually still be too young to be fully aware of what was going on. More generally, making such a decision affected the whole family, both male and female members, with ripple effects extending far more widely, to extended families, local communities and beyond.

In most of the families within the purview of this research, women’s opinions counted, relatively speaking. This meant that major issues, such as a man’s departure to join the war in Syria, involved consultation and negotiation in which women took an active part. Few were families in which women had to comply with whatever decisions their men made. In a few cases, the women, only found out about their men’s plans through extended family members after the men had already left. In these cases, the men went to fight in Syria from Iran, while the women were in Afghanistan, with the men seemingly not wanting to cause family disputes that they would be unable to manage easily from afar.

Many families, and in particular mothers and wives, initially tried to discourage their men (sons and husbands) from fighting in Syria – although this discouragement was stronger in Afghanistan than in Iran, where the environment was far more supportive of and conducive to Afghans’ participation in the Syrian war. In nearly all cases, mothers and wives felt torn: they felt a profound desire to keep sons and husbands with them safely at home, but also knew that the material benefits provided to the Fatemiyun would ease difficult living conditions.

Making the decision together

Some women described how they had delayed or tried to string out discussions and decision-making in the hope of dissuading their men from going. After months and, in some cases, years of on-and-off negotiations within the family, these women finally agreed to the men’s decisions. (There are also families where the women successfully managed to fully dissuade men from leaving, but this study focuses on families whose men went to Syria.)

For example, in one family, which is very devout, a then Herat-based mother described how she bargained with her then Tehran-based son through social media for a year and a half, until she ultimately acquiesced to his departure to Syria. It ended tragically for this family:

He said, “Mum let me go to Syria.” He was just 16 then and had gone with his kaka [paternal uncle] to Iran through smuggling to find work there. I didn’t let him go because of his young age. He was also my eldest son. I wanted to see him rather than to let him go to Syria. He insisted for one year and a half. Sometimes he’d tease me by writing: “Bye mum, I’m going to Syria.” Some other times he wouldn’t reply to my calls and messages, leaving me concerned and not able to sleep at night. I said “No” when we were in touch. I said, “You should be at least 18 or reach an age that you can tolerate seeing someone die and not tremble.” He kept raising the issue and telling me he really meant to go to defend the [Shia] shrines [in Syria]. There was lots of preaching in Iran about it and we’re also strong believers. So, I finally let him go and gave him my halaliyat [forgave him for whatever wrong he might have committed in the past] … We said goodbye [in our last chat]. I never saw him again. I didn’t even hear his voice again … He just went once and he was martyred.

Couples also discussed the husbands’ possible participation in the Syrian war for months, thrashing out how their families would function in their absence, socially, financially and in other ways. What featured in these discussions, as well, were the wives’ concerns and deep desire to have their husbands stay at home.

A good example is a Herat-based couple where the husband finally opted to go to Syria after years of intermittent discussions within the family, including with his wife and a brother who was already a Fatemiyun member in Tehran and who was encouraging him to sign up. As a religious couple, both are religious students, with two children, they had tried to earn a decent living in seminaries in both Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif and then back in Herat for several years, but in vain. As the recognition that they would not be able to support their family in Afghanistan in a dignified way sharpened, they saw the war in Syria as an opportunity. Since the wife’s parental family lived in the same neighbourhood in Herat, he could go without her and the two children being left completely on their own. The couple agreed and the husband followed his brother’s call to enlist as a Fatemiyun member and work as a cleric, preaching the ‘Fatemiyun cause’ and performing religious rituals for Fatemiyun fighters in Syria (for detail on how clerics such as this Afghan man motivated combatants including Fatemiyun to fight in Syria, see here). (2) The opportunity to pursue a non-combat role in Syria made it easier for the husband and wife to arrive at this decision in agreement. The wife and children stayed behind in Herat, supported by remittances sent by the husband – directly or through his brother and other relatives in Iran. They are currently planning to move to Tehran. The wife said:

It’s of course difficult for us to be away from each other. It’s hard for every wife and husband. It’s more difficult for the wife. But as a family we should tolerate the distance patiently. Syria has helped him get to know himself better. It is also a religious duty to go and help the people there. He also found a job and an income and even got us a residence permit in Iran.

Making the decision alone

By contrast, the cases in which the men did not consult the women on their decision to fight in Syria, for whatever reason, were markedly different. Their decisions led to family disputes, but also reveal, strikingly, the agency some women have been able to exercise to prevent or discontinue some men’s involvement in the war. A Herat-based woman said her brother’s friend’s wife had successfully prevented her husband from joining her brother in Syria by convincing him, often in squabbles, that he could not leave her and their children entirely on their own in Kabul (the husband joined the Afghan police instead, but was killed in the war in Afghanistan). Another example is a Herat-based wife who went to great lengths to make her husband leave Syria where he was fighting. She put it bluntly:

He’d gone to Iran to find a better job and a better income. I didn’t hear from him for three months or so. I then learned from my da’i [also known as mama, maternal uncle] that he’d gone to fight in Syria. When I received a call from him, I quarrelled with him, asking “Why have you gone there?” and telling him to come back immediately. He came back home after a while, when he could. He was always talking about Syria and he again wanted to go. I fought with him again and there was lots of jang o jedal [wrangling and bickering] between us. He didn’t give in and neither did I. I said “You’ve got kids and you must think about them. What will happen to them if you were no more?” I eventually went to the house of my khosor [father-in-law] and demanded a divorce, just to put more pressure on him to change his mind. His parents and siblings were also against him going. Though he again went to Iran, he soon came back home without going to Iran or Syria again.

The same interviewee spoke about how another woman she knew had managed to stop her husband from departing for the Syrian battlefield by pleading with him not to leave her and the children on their own, persuading him that she was content with whatever work he did and whatever money he could make in Herat. Her husband is a plasterer engaged in informal construction work and looks for work anywhere in Afghanistan, including Herat city and recently in Lashkargah city in Helmand province.

In other cases, men who had wanted to join the war in Syria, especially younger ones, entirely bypassed their families and made their decisions in concert with their peers instead. This points to the important role of extra-familial ties, particularly friendship ties, in decision-making, but also does not exclude family connections altogether, since many of these men have been enabled by fighting in Syria to support their families back home. (For more background on the role of families and peers in the context of decision-making, see AAN’s previous reporting on migration to Europe). A Herat-based woman whose brother is a Fatemiyun fighter described how he was influenced by his peers to go to war in Syria:

One of his close friends came back to Herat from Syria and whispered thoughts into his ears to go to Syria. We [his sister and parents] said, “You’d better not go, there’s war and it’s difficult,” but he didn’t listen to us. So he went because his friends were going and he wanted to fight beside them. He first got smuggled from [Herat] to Iran, and then signed up for the Syrian war.

In some cases, women used all the influence they had to stop men from going but ultimately failed. “Zur-e zanha ba mardha namirasa [women’s force is no match for men’s],” said one woman living in Tehran whose sister’s son joined the Fatemiyun, summing up how an entire family including a mother, a sister and herself failed to keep a young man, a drug addict heavily influenced by his gang of friends, away from the Syrian battlefield. A similar experience was reported by another Tehran-based woman who did all she could, but failed to prevent her husband, also a drug addict under enormous peer pressure, from going to fight in Syria. Their stories point to the fact that drug addicts and other ‘problematic’ youths (those who have troubled relationships with their parents and siblings) are not only in a far more precarious situation and at greater risk of being recruited into the Fatemiyun, but are also more difficult to dissuade.

Changing minds because of war-related benefits

For almost all the women interviewed, the positions they took on whether to agree to men going or continuing to fight in Syria were not static, but changed over time as circumstances varied. In most cases, their stances gradually shifted from adamant resistance to increasing acceptance after the men’s participation in the war began bringing both material and immaterial benefits to their families. These benefits included better pay than from most jobs available to them in Afghanistan and Iran, more regular or permanent residence permits in Iran or the possibility of taking their families there and increased recognition in Iran such as preferential treatment with Iranian government institutions. There was also a growing conviction that their men were fighting a ‘just’ cause. These benefits definitely came as a relief to families in living in difficult conditions in Iran, especially those lacking residence papers.

This change was especially observed in families that had moved from Afghanistan to Iran after they had been given residence permits because their men were fighting in Syria. For families that were already living in Iran, their men’s involvement in the Syrian war and the residence permits saved them from constantly worrying about being rounded up by the Iranian police for deportation. They also reported better access to public services such as education for their children and healthcare for the elderly and infirm members of their families. This change in attitude towards men’s involvement in the Syrian war was thus far greater among the families of the Fatemiyun living in Tehran than those in Herat.

Other factors that changed Iran-based Fatemiyun families’ perspectives included pervasive exposure to extensive propaganda, including from Afghan clerics and sympathisers. The propaganda justified going to fight in Syria as a highly religious act that was socially valued. Its aim was to motivate families to support and press for men to join up. Increased social respect for Fatemiyun fighters in Iran, the senior ones, in particular, was real, illustrated by the fact that they were easily able to get visiting relatives’ Iranian visas extended or could, more importantly, intervene and get the release of undocumented relatives from deportation camps.

There were also other practical benefits. The women related to the two drug addicts quoted above increasingly approved of the men fighting in Syria once they realised it had helped them overcome their addiction and made them more religious and responsible. This, in turn, improved the prospects for their families back in Iran. In another example of a man recruited from a precarious situation, a Tehran-based mother said her son’s participation in the Syrian war had helped him overcome a series of troubles such as separating from his fiancée, dropping out from university and joblessness. It had also enabled his parents and siblings to move to Iran:

The benefits have been very good, spiritually and otherwise. He was an immature and inexperienced youth. He’s become mature and has travelled to see other people and a different place. He’s seen a war and has taken part in it. He’s really more experienced now. He’s also become more religious. He pays more attention to saying his daily prayers and following religious rituals. I’m very happy about it. I’m even now happy with him going to Syria. There’s no problem, even if he becomes a martyr in Syria. I now understand him much better. I wasn’t happy then [when living in Herat], but I am now [after moving to Iran]. I understand that our children are no better and no more than the children of Hazrat Fatema Zahra [3] and the children of the martyrs of Islam.

There was an arc about how families, including the women, felt about their men going to fight in Syria. From initially discouraging the move, they increasingly accepted the situation. This was especially true for those who had left Afghanistan to live in Iran. The women were, in many cases, an active and integral part of the decision to be involved in the war, even those who had not been consulted beforehand or had been completely sidelined. In any case, deciding whether or not to take part in the Syrian war made this distant conflict more tangible for these families. However, in many cases, it also led to bitter disputes over what to do, not just in terms of their men going to war there but also the war’s legitimacy, as will be discussed below.

When men are away

Women’s struggles

The men’s absence had more impact on families in Afghanistan than in Iran. None of the families had men at home, but those in Iran had more access to ‘war-related’ benefits than those in Afghanistan. However, Afghanistan-based families’ lives also improved when they moved to Iran thanks to their men fighting in Syria. Of the ten families involved in this study, four were already in Iran when their men went to war in Syria, three left Afghanistan to live in Iran, one was preparing to move to Iran, one had their man back in Herat and he decided not to return and one had stopped their man returning to war in Syria.

The most heavily-impacted families were those left with no adult man at home, especially wives on their own with small children. Interviewees said the mere presence of a man provided protection, given the patriarchal social context in which these families live, whether in Afghanistan and Iran. In this context, the fact that some of the interviewees were living on their own without a closely-related adult man (eg father, husband, brother) was generally considered ‘abnormal’ and ‘bad’ (especially if there were unmarried women in the household). According to a Tehran-based woman, her cousin’s departure to Syria was difficult because it deprived his mother and two sisters of male presence and support at home:

Though he usually used to hang out with his friends before he went [to Syria], it’s difficult for his family that he’s away now. They don’t have any other men at home. His dad had passed away. His mum is frail and unwell because she’s suffering from high blood pressure and asthma. He has two young [unmarried] sisters at home and an elder brother – he lives nearby, but has wife and children of his own. The elder brother visits them [mother and two sisters] sometimes. So they’ve at least got him around.

Wives were most affected by men’s absence. A Herat-based wife who remained alone with her two small children after her husband went to Syria had to ask her father and male siblings who lived nearby to come and stay at her house, especially at night. This was seen to offer her protection in the male-dominated community she lived in and to guard against or prevent local community members from talking about her behind her back.

Some women who were living with their in-laws (khesh) felt their husbands’ absence in Syria and the lack of their company and support keenly. This was especially so where wives and their in-laws were not on good terms. A Tehran-based wife described her difficulties:

I don’t have my [parental] family here [in Iran] while my husband’s relatives are all here and around. My [parental] family is in Afghanistan. It was difficult for me and my little kid to have him not with us while I was living in my in-laws’ place. I wasn’t happy and always talked to my husband about it. So I moved out four or five months ago. I now live on my own and receive money from my husband to keep life running.

Living a day-to-day life without a man was a struggle for the interviewees. Men’s absence required these families, the wives, in particular, to carry out male family roles themselves, including buying necessities in the market, finding and moving home if rent agreements changed and arranging protection for themselves and their children when needed. As women became responsible for all the housework, some reported getting help from female and male relatives with whom they were on good terms (if available, and often more from their own side than their husband’s). Seen from a different perspective, men’s absence forced some women to develop new skills and deal with the world outside the home, as also implied in the quote above by the woman who decided to live independently in the wake of her husband going to Syria.

Managing family finances has been another struggle for women, especially wives after their men joined the Fatemiyun group. When the exchange rate was still favourable, there were not too many financial hassles for these families to worry about. The Iranian government provided a monthly income of three million tomans – roughly 50,000-60,000 afghanis (1,000-1,100 US dollars) – for the first few years of the Syrian war. Things changed, however, when the Iranian currency, began to fall sharply; since early 2018; its value has fallen by over 60 per cent. That meant the monthly income came to be worth about 18,000 afghanis (because of the depreciation of the afghani, as well, that currently amounts to only about 225 US dollars). This severe financial blow was felt both by Afghan families in Iran and the families in Afghanistan that depended on remittances sent from Iran, including families of the Fatemiyun. Family purses had to be tightened, but how to do this was tough. Interviewees described the negotiations, carried out through social media and when men returned for visits back home, over how much and where to spend the money.

In some extreme cases, the unprecedented depreciation of the Iranian currency was one of the reasons why some men decided to stop fighting in Syria. A Herat-based woman, the sister of a Fatemiyun fighter, said:

His friends didn’t go [back] and neither did he. One reason was that their pay got less and less because the toman-to-afghani rate became very low. There wasn’t much war or much recruitment, either. So he and his friends decided it wasn’t worth going any more.

Women’s rituals and gatherings

For all the interviewees, in particular mothers and wives, being apart from their men was a constant struggle. They were constantly anxious about their safety, justifiably so given the high levels of Fatemiyun casualties in the Syrian war. To allay their fears, family members and in particular women resorted to a host of religious rituals including performing prayers (namaz and dua) and nazr (cooking and hosting/distributing food for free). Through these rituals, they sought to invoke divine protection for their men on the Syrian battlefield. This is illustrated by the following three quotes:

It was very hard for our parents to bear his absence. They were always praying for his protection. We, his sisters, were also praying for his safe-keeping. We all were worried about him. He was always in our thoughts and prayers.

– A Herat-based sister of a Fatemiyun fighter

After he left, we went to [a local shrine] and prayed to God to guard him in Syria. His mum cooked ash-e posht-e pa [literally “soup behind the footstep,” a ritual dish served to pray for someone’s safe return] in Mashhad [centre of Iran’s Razavi Khorasan province neighbouring Herat]. His sister also cooked this food in Tehran to pray for his safety in his Syria [war] journey. His mum also did nazr for him to pray for his safety.

– A Tehran-based maternal aunt of a Fatemiyun fighter

Every morning I prayed for my husband. The day my son also went [to Syria], I began saying two prayers, one for him and one for his father. I didn’t want to be lazy.

– A Tehran-based wife and mother of two Fatemiyun fighters (husband and son).

While these rituals were important to individuals performing them, those enacted collectively also served a social function. For instance, the women behind the Fatemiyun fighters brought together many other women, affiliated to the Fatemiyun or not, in a ritual called sofreh salawat (literally ‘tablecloth of salutation’). This is a special kind of nazr (the cooking/hosting ritual) for women only (with any small children). (4) It is held quite frequently. Besides being an opportunity for praying for the safety of the Fatemiyun fighters and the fulfilment of other wishes, the sofreh salawat serves as a venue for simply getting together and sharing a meal and as a means to relieve stress. Through such events, women socialise and are able to stay up-to-date about the goings-on in one another’s families.

In these gatherings, women spoke about the men who were, in one way or another, related to them and had left or were leaving or thinking about whether to leave for the Syrian war (although they kept some information private, such as actual decisions and dates of departure, or shared them only with close confidantes). During these conversations, they discussed the advantages and disadvantages of joining the war for the families, including considering what had happened to those they knew who were already in Syria and to their families in Afghanistan and Iran. These events thus played a role in shaping family decision-making – to go to Syria, or to stay there. Discussions went far beyond just the perceived benefits of joining the war in Syria for the men and their families. There were many contrasting voices. Representing several other interviewees, a Herat-based woman, the sister of a Fatemiyun fighter, said:

From sofreh salawat ceremonies [and elsewhere], we were learning that those who had gone to fight in Syria had gotten rich, were getting [good] sums of money and were buying themselves things [land, house]. But he [my brother] was not getting rich and not bringing money home. Then what was the use of [him going to] the war in Syria? Nesf-e nan rahat-e jan [Better to eat half a piece of bread and be comfortable]. Working here or in Iran would be better.

This reveals that the Fatemiyun group and the group of women related to its members were never a monolithic collective with only one voice and one narrative. While some women defended their men’s participation on religious grounds, others countered that these families had mainly been swayed by material benefits. Some women behind the Fatemiyun fighters were indeed very frank in acknowledging the pivotal role material benefits had played in their men’s departure to Syria and in them consenting to these decisions. Several other interviewees, however, especially those living in Tehran, spoke about how difficult they found it when others did not accept their religious justification for their men’s participation in the Syrian war. This is illustrated by the following two quotes:

Our relatives who are really near and dear to us aren’t happy about him [my son] going to Syria. They say it’s a pity he does this thing. His youth is wasted. They’re also worried that something bad will happen to him there. My sisters and brothers tell me these things. Those who are more distant relatives say he’s gone there for the money, the document [Iranian residence permit] and to live in Iran. We keep hearing these things and feel very bad and offended.

– A Tehran-based mother of a Fatemiyun fighter

Our own relatives were against him going to Syria. They asked why I sent my son. Some were even saying “You sent him to bring money for you from there.” These words have really been hurting me. They didn’t understand what I was telling them about defending the shrine of namus-e khoda [God’s honour]. (5)

– A Tehran-based wife and mother of two Fatemiyun fighters (husband and son)

Several women indicated that it was a constant struggle to explain to other people, including their close relatives, why their men had gone to fight in Syria. They found it difficult to tolerate perspectives, including from within the Fatemiyun, which countered their explanations in bitter ways. But the high instances of casualties (deaths and injuries) and traumatic events once the men were in Syria exposed these families to far tougher questions in terms of justifying their men’s involvement, both internally and in their encounters with their wider communities.

Men killed, injured or traumatised

Women coping with loss

Casualties among the Fatemiyun have been unsettlingly high: ten per cent killed and 30 to 40 per cent wounded at the estimated peak of 20,000 personnel from 2013 to 2018 (see the first dispatch of this series). Of the ten women interviewed, three had suffered bereavement, three had had their men return injured and rest their men traumatised, including after witnessing close friends and other comrades die horrible deaths. For instance, a Herat-based woman who maintains regular contact with several Fatemiyun families in Herat and Tehran said, “So many men got martyred in Syria. For example, there are so many men from [an area in Tehran] who have been fighting in Syria. There are very few families without a martyr there.”

Afghan women attending an event commemorating fallen Fatemiyun fighters in Mashhad Iran. Even such rituals were portrayed positively by those seeking to mobilise Afghans to fight in Syria. (Photo Fatemiyun News Website. January/February 2018)

Given the high number of casualties, the women also suffered from the catastrophic war in Syria in an indirect way. The biggest shock came when they, mothers, sisters and wives in particular, learned of the deaths of their sons, brothers or husbands. Their descriptions of these painful moments were moving. Representing the three women who lost their men in the Syrian war, a Tehran-based mother, who had already lost a brother fighting for the government security forces in Afghanistan and who had moved to Iran to meet her son coming back from the Syrian war, said:

After arriving in Tehran, I noticed many of our relatives came to our place at once. I had told my husband not to inform anyone about my arrival, though. I wanted to be on my own for some time and was impatiently waiting to see my son back… I thought our relatives were coming to express their condolence to me on the death of my martyred brother in Afghanistan. My paternal uncle talked about him, my martyred brother in Afghanistan, and said “You were khahar-e shahid [sister of a martyr] and now you have become madar-e shahid [mother of a martyr]. [Name of her son] has been martyred in Syria.” I paused after hearing this. I didn’t shake, but felt I was going down as ice melts. I felt I was being levelled to the ground and going down and the earth was opening.

They [Iran’s authorities] provide a place to live, such as apartments, to the families of the martyred. They can live in that place for as long as they wish and are alive. But they’re not owners and cannot pass that on as property after their death. There are apartment complexes for these families where they can live during their lifetimes. This is what my mum told me after coming home [to Herat] for a visit. She’ll soon go back to Iran. If they didn’t want to live [in the apartment complex], they would be given [money for] their rent and it would be up to them how to spend it and where to live. They also get the monthly pay of their martyred son [paid by the Iranian government’s Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs]. They used to get support from him from Syria and Iran while he was alive and they were living here in Herat.

One Tehran-based interviewee who had lost a son in Syria about three years ago said Iranian financial support had been decreasing over time, from a peak of 2.2 million tomans per month in 2016 to 1.2 million tomans per month in early 2019, a fall of about 55 per cent (at the time of writing, one million tomans was about 5,500-6,000 afghanis or 70-77 US dollars). Before the interviewee’s son went to Syria, her husband had been dying of cancer and she had to support a family of four children – one daughter and three sons – on her own. Her request for aid at the time had been rejected, nastily, by the relevant Iranian authorities:

Because we were having a tough life, I once approached the komite-ye emdad [Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, a major Iranian charity organisation] for help. An officer there told me, “Woman, go! We cannot even help our own Iranians, and Afghans come here.” I said “My husband has cancer and is dying. I have children.” The officer said, “Don’t argue with me!” I said, “You are Muslims and following the religion of Islam. You should help me in this situation. Many had introduced you to us to go to and get some help.” But the officer took our [temporary migration] registration cards and tore them up. So I even lost my cards. We had registered but didn’t get the [refugee] documents [known in Iran as amayesh cards].

In addition to some money and a food stipend from the Iranian government because of the death of her son in Syria, she and her remaining children work to make a living in Iran. However, residence papers are no longer a concern for them, as this family received them after their son fought in Syria. They might now even get Iranian citizenship following the son’s death.

There has also been support of a religious, psychological and social nature for bereaved families. Several interviewees spoke about collective pilgrimages to Shia shrines in Mashhad and Qom, considered Iran’s two holiest cities, and Damascus in Syria, especially the shrine of Sayyeda Zeinab. These would obviously not have happened without Iranian support. The women said the pilgrimages helped them begin coping with their bereavement. There were also informal support groups for bereaved women, both on and offline, either organised by the women themselves or the Iranian government (or a combination of the two). Online, women formed groups through social media platforms such as Telegram (before and even after its filtering in Iran) where they wrote and talked to one another about what they were going through and shared memories and pictures. In actual get-togethers, often once a week on Thursdays before the weekend, they gathered to pray, read the Quran and listen to religious sermons and other speeches, including by Iranian clerics who tend to portray their losses in highly favourable religious terms. For instance, they indicated that the dead men had attained, as a Tehran-based interviewee put it, “one of the highest degrees of martyrdom in the presence of Allah the Almighty.” The women also visit the graves of their men and others in cemeteries in Iran, both individually and collectively.

These women’s activities and the official support accorded by the Iranian government also served to make both the Fatemiyun-related women and other Afghan women in Iran aware of the recognition Iran has given to these families. This, in turn, has made other families think about or be more receptive to the idea of men going to fight in Syria.

Women coping with controversy

From the outset, there were bitter controversies about Afghan men fighting in Syria, the benefits they and their families receive, the status of men who lost their lives fighting in Syria and whether the sacrifices were worth it. With men getting killed or injured at very high rates, disputes became even more prominent. This has been very disconcerting for family members including women, in particular mothers and wives.

However, these controversies were not often spoken about in public. Moreover, members of Fatemiyun-related families tended to maintain limited interaction with others who challenged them over their men’s involvement in the Syrian war.

In some instances, nevertheless, the contentious issues were discussed among Fatemiyun-related families themselves. In a Thursday get-together of women who had lost men in Syria referred to above, a Tehran-based woman who lost a son in the Syrian war addressed this question to the ‘Haj Agha’ (Iranian cleric) leading the discussion that day:

It’s upsetting that some people don’t consider our martyrs as martyrs. They say they’ve been killed in a foreign war. This is even said by our close relatives, who tell us, “Your sons or husbands haven’t been martyred. You sent them to get killed in Syria intentionally.” Even a cleric said those who went and lost their lives in Syria had not been martyred, but were killed. The Haj Agha’s reply was that those who say these things are gomrah [misguided] who want to impose their beliefs on the people.

Although the Iranian cleric’s answer was a conclusive one, whether she was convinced by his answer is a different matter.

In Herat and Afghanistan more broadly, Fatemiyun-related families faced an additional controversy: why should men chose to fight jihad in Syria and not, for instance, against insurgents in Afghanistan that have also attacked religious places like mosques? Fatemiyun families including women found this question disturbing, but they were themselves unable (or unwilling) to elaborate, apart from saying that Islam has no borders. Even if some families got involved in heated disputes over this and other questions, answers were never convincing for the other side.

The controversy not only affected the Fatemiyun families but also the wider communities in which they live, including in Iran. This was even reflected in a rare Iranian news report about a Fatemiyun woman who had lost her husband in Syria. It recounts her meeting on a train two Iranian women who were opposed to the Iranian government’s intervention there. A degree of jealousy or unhappiness towards Fatemiyun’s privileges appears to be mixed in their argument: (7)

Once the two Iranian women noticed my husband was a Fatemiyun martyr, they said “You got 8 million tomans because your husband went to fight [in Syria].” I said “Look at me and my child’s conditions. With these conditions, did we get eight million tomans? We still live in a rented house.” I…said “If they gave you eight million tomans, you would also go ahead and send your dear ones there to bring you money.” They said “It’s none of our business. That alien country has nothing to do with us.” I said, “What you mean by ‘alien country’. If there’s war in a Muslim country, we must all help. It’s related to all of us. There’s no such thing as our country and their country.” My daughter afterwards told her amma [paternal aunt] that [one of the two Iranian women] was an old woman who was very bi-hijab [unveiled].

Why Afghan men go to war in Syria, why their jihad should be waged in Syria and how those killed in Syria should be treated have been particularly unsettling questions for the Fatemiyun families, including women. There has been no convincing response for those who asked. Many women who have lost their men in the Syrian war and others continue to wonder at whether the entire involvement was ultimately worth it.

Women coping after men return

The Syrian war has also given the women behind the Fatemiyun other problems. Once wounded and no longer able to fight, men were sent back to Iran for hospital care provided by the Iranian government. Once discharged, however, they returned to their homes, where it was women, mothers and wives in particular, who provided essential care to help them return to normal life. This has been a tremendous ordeal for women. Three of the interviewees were responsible for dealing with men with various injuries, including hands and legs shattered by shrapnel and a jaw hit by a bullet. In many cases, it took months for these men to recover, if they recovered at all, during which the women provided constant care, as well as prayers and other supportive rituals they believed would hasten the healing. However, the physical and mental scars of war will long remain with the men and their families.

Besides their physical injuries, according to all ten women interviewed, the Fatemiyun men have been severely traumatised. Upon their return, some men confided in their mothers and wives in particular about their terrible experiences in the war, especially their witnessing friends and comrades whom they had come to know intimately dying terrifying deaths. In addition to signs resembling the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (those affected were called mawji shoda – shell-shocked – by the interviewees), such as nightmares, flashbacks, waking visions and unaccountable anger, the men suffer high levels of survivor guilt. Three quotes below describe the trauma of war, one indicating the psychological consequences of witnessing war crimes:

After he returned, he wasn’t the previous man. He was aggressive. He had nightmares. Sometimes he cried loudly. He was depressed and often nervous. He was always saying he must return, he must go back to the war in Syria and he must be martyred… He wasn’t talking about the benefits Iran was giving the combatants any longer, but was always saying he didn’t deserve martyrdom and must go back to get martyred. This was very worrying for me. Some nights, he talked about his close friends who had been martyred there in frightening ways.

– A Herat-based wife of a Fatemiyun fighter

My son is now mentally unstable. If the TV volume is a bit high or the kids make some noise, he soon becomes angry. He becomes irritated. He cannot tolerate sound easily. These are the effects of the noise of war and explosions, I suppose. No one knows what he’s going through. These things happen to him sometimes. He’s no longer calm. He isn’t happy. He says he never feels happy anymore.

– A Tehran-based mother of a Fatemiyun fighter

He said he’d certainly go back to Syria after I told him not to go for the sake of his wife and children. He had one child then. He talked about the severity of the war, about Daesh kidnapping young girls and slaughtering and decapitating men, even old men … They [Daesh] slaughtered mothers and fathers and little children in front of the rest of their families. He said he wasn’t at rest even for a second after seeing these scenes in Syria. I told him not to go this time, but he said it was just the beginning of his work in Syria. My parents fell at his feet, begging him not to go, but it was no use in keeping him away from Syria. His wife asked me to intervene, but we all failed in stopping him from going to Syria again.

– A Herat-based sister of a Fatemiyun fighter

War crimes were also perpetrated in Syria by pro-regime forces (details on the serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed by all parties to the conflict can be read in this February 2018 report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic). It is possible that the Fatemiyun were involved in these crimes. AAN received information about at least one such case, on 15 February 2015, reported by human rights activists in Syria. According to this information, the Fatemiyun were part of a fighting force comprised of “[Pakistani] Zainabyoun, [Lebanese] Hezbollah, [Syrian] Assad army and Assad militants [possibly militias]” that blocked and attacked various small towns in the countryside north of Aleppo, namely in the Al-Mallah, Retyan, Herdatnin and Bashkoy areas. While the Syrian forces attacked houses in the towns driving some inhabitants to flee, the Fatemiyun were reportedly stationed at checkposts outside the towns and were involved in shooting fleeing civilians in their cars. In total, 43 civilians were killed and 150 more were injured (along with nine members of the opposition Free Syrian Army who were also killed). It is not clear whether the number of victims included only those harmed at the checkposts or also those in town. AAN has been unable to independently verify this report.

If true, however, this and other possible similar cases could be another factor contributing to former Fatemiyun fighters’ trauma, as it would be extremely difficult to speak about and cope with them, with potential judicial consequences, at least in Afghanistan.

Conclusion

While it was often the men themselves who ultimately decided whether to go to fight in Syria and to continue fighting there, the women, wives and mothers in particular, played important roles in the decisions made. In some cases, women were consulted and some women, certainly, were able to prevent or put an end to their men’s involvement, often, however, through bitter rows. Yet in other cases, they lacked any influence in their men’s decision-making.

These women were torn between wanting their men to stay at home and the knowledge that living without them would be economically tough. Often it was difficult living conditions which drove their men to go to Syria in the first place, given the promise of material benefits if they went; some fighters also had a strong religious motivation. Over time, for many of the women, their positions gradually shifted from total resistance – which had often delayed, but in the case of our ten interviewees, not stopped their men from going – to increased acceptance, once the men’s involvement brought benefits to their families. This was especially the case for families already in Iran or for whom their men’s decision to fight in Syria meant they could move there.

Whatever role women had in men’s decision-making, these decisions have seriously affected their lives. After their men left, it fell to the women, and to wives, in particular, to carry on all the family work. This was a daily struggle, particularly when financial support received in Iran shrank due to the plummeting value of Iran’s currency. In particular, men’s absence created huge difficulties for families left with no man at home and for those wives who had to live with in-laws they did not get on with. Gravely concerned about the safety of their men, women resorted to a host of religious rituals. Those enacted collectively served a social function as well, allowing women to keep abreast of the goings-on of Fatemiyun in Syria.

Women have had to struggle to cope with their men returning injured or traumatised, or as corpses. Women related in the interviews how they have provided care to those injured and traumatised to help them get back to normal life. They have been helped by online and actual support groups, but the hurt and damage of the war will remain to haunt these families for a long time. Supported by the Iranian government, these same support groups have made Fatemiyun-related and other Afghan families aware of the recognition Iran has awarded the Fatemiyun fighters and their families. That recognition has also, in turn, helped ongoing recruitment.

The women have also faced criticism from relatives and others as to why their men went to fight in Syria in the first place. Sometimes, they have become embroiled in bitter disputes within their communities. This has been especially the case in Afghanistan, where perceptions of Afghans going to fight in Syria have been far more negative than in Iran. There, regime propaganda in favour of the Syrian war has had a strong impact. Some women had second thoughts about whether the sacrifices had been worth it, especially when their men were killed or severely injured in action. Many continue to wonder at what has happened and why.

These ordinary, down-to-earth families were struggling to cope with dire socio-economic circumstances when they felt the pull of the Syrian war. Their men opted or were compelled, to pursue war as a way of life, for better or for worse. They could have instead lived lives in and through peace.

 

Edited by Sari Kouvo, Martine van Bijlert, Thomas Ruttig and Kate Clark

 

* Mohsen Hamidi (pseudonym) is a local researcher with a focus on western Afghanistan including Afghan-Iranian relations.

 

(1) This dispatch is based on interviews with ten women with close relatives among the Fatemiyun: three wives, two mothers, three sisters, one maternal aunt and one woman who was both wife and mother to Fatemiyun fighters (ie her husband and her son). Given their indirect involvement in and deep knowledge of the Fatemiyun group, these women are key informants. To capture the potential geographic and other variations in experiences of Fatemiyun women, the author decided to conduct interviews in Afghanistan, in Herat city, and Tehran – five in each. They were carried out in late 2018 and early 2019. Of the ten families studied through these women, four were already in Iran when their men went to war in Syria, three left Afghanistan to live in Iran, one was preparing to move, one’s male relative was back in Herat and had stopped fighting in the war, and the interviewee from the last family had prevented her male relative from returning to Syria.

The women were approached by two female research assistants (one in Herat and one in Tehran) who had previous acquaintanceship and therefore already some rapport with them. This prior familiarity provided easier and safer access, both for the key informants and the research assistants, and contributed to a ‘do-no-harm’ research approach. The anonymity of both the key informants and the research assistants is maintained here to protect their privacy and the confidentiality of the conversations.

Having secured the consent of the interviewees to take part in this research (in a few cases, potential interviewees refused to do so, something which was fully respected), the research assistants used a rough list of general, open-ended questions to stimulate conversation. The questions were about family decision-making prior to the men joining the war in Syria, family life while the men were fighting away from home, family life if the men were killed, injured or affected otherwise and family life after Syria, at least at the time of the interviews. The interviews were largely unstructured and the interviewees were not interrupted to allow as natural flow as possible in the conversations. The conversations were either recorded (if permission was granted) or written down. The transcribed and handwritten conversations were analysed and form the basis of this dispatch.

AAN takes research security seriously. Without stressing that the topic was ‘sensitive’ and thus making it so beforehand, the author held several rounds of consultations with the research assistants over the course of a couple of months, talking through the need to make sure their research would pose no risk to them or their key informants and that both had the right to quit the research whenever they wanted to. Since the research assistants approached women they knew and relationships of trust already existed, they determined that the research was reasonably safe and therefore doable.

The ten key informant interviews are complemented by the author’s intermittent observations, since 2014, of an extended family that has members in the Fatemiyun. Through on-and-off observations and informal conversations over the course of five years, it became possible to study several members of the Fatemiyun from within and over time, contrasting with research approaches that have so far looked at the group from without or only at one point in time.

Finally, this dispatch does not claim to be representative. The sample size is small (n = 10) and the interviewees were chosen through convenience sampling. However, given what was feasible, it is an exploratory study that is relevant to the topic under discussion (experiences of the Syrian war by women whose men have participated in it). Such subjects are often best captured through qualitative approaches.

(2) One of the things clerics including this Afghan one have done in Syria has been to recite religious songs such as nohas (lamentations) and maddahis (panegyrics) to reinforce fighters’ morale. For example, to challenge the idea that individuals have gone to war in Syria just to get better pay than what they could find back in Iran, one noha quotes a child whose father was killed in the Syrian war as saying: “Love is priceless. To fight and to die has no price but for love [of defending Shia faith].” The clerics are mostly stationed in military bases or mosques that the Fatemiyun fighters visit in Syria.

(3) Hazrat Fatema is the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad and wife to Ali ibn Abi Taleb, the first imam for Shia Muslims and the fourth caliph for Sunni Muslims.

(4) In sofreh salawat ceremonies that were held or attended by the interviewees, a woman usually hosted other women in her home to recite thousands of salawat (salutations to the Prophet Muhammad and his progeny) with tasbih (prayer beads). The women also prayed to God to answer their praying, including entreaties for their men to be well and return from Syria safe and sound. They then ate food that was mostly ash (soup). These events were also opportunities for both hosting and participating women to meet and socialise.

(5) It refers to the shrine/mosque in southern Damascus, the Syrian capital, in which lies the Prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter, Sayyeda Zeinab. Her tomb is an important Shia shrine. She is highly revered by Shia Muslims for her role in preserving and continuing the prophet’s lineage through her grandparents, Fatema and Ali.

(6) The Office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (aka Beit-e Rahbari or the House of Leadership) is reportedly one of Iran’s wealthiest institutions with “holdings of about $95bn,” according to this BBC report about recent United States sanctions targeting his assets. However, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani responded to these US sanctions by saying: “They [the Americans] say they want to confiscate the property of our leader. His property is just a hosseiniya [a place of worship] and a simple house. Our leaders are not like the leaders of other countries who have billions in their foreign accounts that they want to sanction and confiscate.”

(7) There have been protests in Iran against the Iranian government spending billions of US dollars financing and supporting its regional allies including Syria, given deteriorating economic conditions for Iranians inside the country. There was also heated discussion in Iran when militia groups such as the Fatemiyun got involved in assisting people affected by recent destructive floods there. Regarded as an ‘alien’ involvement, some Iranians said they had been sent to suppress domestic protests.

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Thematic Category: Region