Lebanon, Asharq Al-Awsat- In the taxi that took us around Beirut’s southern neighborhoods, a woman clad in black sat watching the passersby in silence, muttering prayers to God whispering verses of the Quran under her breath. From the front seat, I turned around and said, “Congratulations Hajja on your son’s martyrdom.” She looked at me and burst out in tears. She said, “You congratulate me but it was a great loss. Nothing will compensate for my loss.”
The taxi driver intervened and told the old woman as she wiped away her tears with her handkerchief, “Hajja, you should be happy. You are the mother of a martyr. Your martyred son is in paradise.” The distressed woman, who lost her son in last summer’s war during a battle in one of the villages replied, “Of course I am proud of him, but I miss him a lot.” She continued to weep quietly.
This mother’s sadness, that I came across by chance, is no different to that of other women who appear on Arab and international television channels reiterating that they are “proud of their sons who have been martyred”. They state that their loss was a “sacrifice for al Sayyed”, in reference to Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. But what kind of woman puts her son forward for “martyrdom”, celebrates his death, and in some cases prepares him herself for combat and sends him off to fight as if she is only sending him off to school?
The word “congratulations” does not obtain any significant reaction from Hajja Umm Mohammed Souror, whose son was among the first convoys of Hezbollah’s “martyrs.” She has become accustomed to hearing the word and finds her role as a “mother of a martyr” completely agreeable.
Hajja, whose son was killed in a Hezbollah operation in 1988 said, “Just like any other mother, I miss my son. Sometimes I cry for hours. However, I see him in the faces of his Hezbollah companions. I am very happy when the young men come to visit me. I would love for them to come every day.”
A portrait of the young man hangs above the front door. Inside the house, other pictures of the martyrs from the family hang beside pictures of weddings and other special occasions. There is a large portrait of the family’s most recent “martyr”. The family is proud that it has so many martyrs in the family.
“Do not believe that there is a mother who does not grieve for the loss of her son, but God gives us patience,” explains Umm Mohammed. The father of the martyr added, “Praise be to God. He has given us something to be proud of. Imam Khomeini used to say: I wish I were dust under the feet of the mothers and fathers of south Lebanon’s martyrs.”
In response to my repeated questions, the mother of the “martyr” expresses her sorrow for her son’s loss in a few simple and brief words. Mostly, she talks about the significance of martyrdom. She said, “I have seven young sons who are members of Hezbollah. I wish that they would all become martyrs like their brother.”
The father recounts that his son “used to read the Quran all night long and weep, and expressed his wish to be martyred until God granted him this wish. He was in his twenties.” He adds that his son received training from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. His superiors would tell the family not to attract any unnecessary attention to their son.
The father asked me, “Do you know what I did when they told me that my son had been martyred?” I waited in silence for the answer. The father demonstrated by kneeling down and kissing the ground.
The mother explained that she now has a special status among the people who now show her more respect. She is also looked after by the party and is frequently invited to visit religious sites in Syria or Iran. She repeatedly says that “a female Hezbollah official” frequently takes her by the hand when she attends a function and lets her sit-in the front row. She added, “Do not believe that the mother of a martyr is unhappy. She may cry sometimes but she is happy.” The father then turns to me and says, “Do not forget that we gain a lot of support. The Martyr’s Institution covers all our medical, housing, and school expenses.”
In the small store that she runs in Ayt al Shaab, Maryam Souror, the martyr’s sister does not understand my hesitation regarding congratulating or consoling her for the death of her brother. She shouts at me as I hesitate: “Why are you hesitating? You should congratulate me of course.” She explained, “I feel perfectly assured. I am not worried about my brother. I know he is in paradise.” She continued, “I grieved for my cousin who died of natural causes because I do not know whether he is in paradise or not, but I am confident that my martyred brother is in the company of Imam Al-Hussein and Fatima. I do not weep for him. In fact I envy him.” She says, however, “It is difficult not having him around but there is joy and pride within me. I can hold my head up high because my brother is a martyr. A woman who has no martyr in her family does not hold her head up high.”
Maryam’s cousin Zaynab, whose brother died in the recent battle, interrupted: “Other people think that these young men have complexes and that they want to die. The truth is however that they are highly educated. They have graduated from the best universities.” She adds, “The people outside our community have the wrong idea about us. They think that our women suffer from complexes, never speak to men and are forbidden to do anything. In reality our life is not like that it all.” Jokingly, I said to her, “You really are the best advocate for Hezbollah. Why do you not run for parliament or a seat on the municipal council? She replied: “Why should I run when we have the best men here to do so?”
Zaynab explained to me that she and other female members of the family asked to be given weapons to fight during last summer’s war but their role was restricted to preparing food for the fighters. She said, “We offered to help the young men by fighting and we asked them why they were allowed to bear arms and we were not. Their reply was that to fight in a war is a man’s duty whilst the woman’s responsibility is to prepare food and see to the young men’s other needs.”
Zaynab, who cooked food for the fighters during the first few days of the battle said, “The reason is the need to maintain a young woman’s dignity. If she dies, no stranger should see her corpse. A fighter’s corpse could remain on the battleground for several days or may be taken by the Israelis”. She asserts, however, that “if a Shariaa-based opinion is issued that allows women to go to battle; we are prepared to do so. We will all go to war.”
Maryam and Zaynab do not conceal their pride in the masculinity of Hezbollah’s young men who play the role of the trustworthy protectors of women. Maryam said, “We sleep with our doors open because we know the people who protect us. If a strange man approaches a woman, they will rip his heart out.”
In Al Khiyam, the wife of the town’s baker says that she sent her husband and two sons to fight amongst Hezbollah’s ranks in last summer’s war. This woman, who has a large family, says, “I sent them to fight. I think that every boy should begin to train in the use of weapons from the age of 10 in order to defend his land.” I asked her: “Do you not fear for your children?” She answered: “Is there a woman in the world who does not fear for her children? Should I fear for my children and not the children of other women?”
This mother tells me how she stayed in the town until she was evacuated by the Red Cross: “I always found a way of reassuring myself about their safety. I found out that my husband and one of my sons were still alive but I was not reassured about the wellbeing of my second son until two days after the battle ended.” She added, “My heart was at rest in any case. I say praise be to God for returning them to me but if one of them had been martyred, I would still say praise be to God. May God be praised that they are still alive so that they can fight again.”
In the courtyard of Al Khiyam’s official school, a large crowd of children and their mothers are gathered for a small celebration organized by a private foreign association. I approached one of the mothers as she watches her son’s every move and I asked her: “Will your son take part in jihad one day?” The woman, who is dressed elegantly, is surprised by the question. She replied after little hesitation: “Just like the others.” I then asked her: “Do you not fear for your son?” She hesitates briefly and repeats her answer: “Just like the others.” She added, “My children follow the news about the war on television. War is already in their blood.” She turned to her child who is listening to our conversation and asks him who their leader is. He replied, “Our leader is Nasrallah.”
Her neighbor, whose house was demolished in the war, is holding her veiled nine-year old daughter’s hand. She describes the fear that her family suffered from during the war, as well as being displaced. She finally tells me in a quiet voice: “I am the mother of two collaborators. One of them was imprisoned for three years and the other is still in Israel.” She explains that her contacts with this son are limited to telephone calls during which they discuss “only what is absolutely necessary”.
This mother avoids talking about the situations of her two sons but asserts that Hezbollah has not treated her badly. She said, “When I went to its office after the war to receive the compensation that was given to those who lost their homes, I was the first person who was called up to receive the money.”
The concept of “martyrdom” occupies an essential place in Hezbollah’s discourse and activity. At one point, Hezbollah started to publicize the names of its martyrs and recounted their biographies, their upbringing, the training courses they attended, the battles they fought, and their visits to the holy shrines.
Perhaps the “martyrdom” of Hadi Nasrallah, the 18-year-old son of Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah in September 1997 conveyed greater meaning to this concept. The leader’s son was not exempt from combat and died in battle “just like the others.”
In addition to broadcasting programs about the martyrs, at a later stage, the secretary general began to visit their families, sometimes in the presence of media personnel. It was said that Nasrallah visited a family from Al Ashmar clan after following the “martyrdom” of the second son of the family. As Nasrallah walked into the house, he told the martyr’s father, “You have a higher rank than me. You carry two stars while I only have one,” in reference to the loss of his son while the other father had lost two sons.
Author and researcher Izzat Shararah Baydoun says that the martyrdom of a family member alters the whole family. The martyrdom becomes central to its affairs. She explains, “It is a requirement that to honor the martyr, the war must continue. Peace is like betrayal to the martyr.” She adds that the family “frequently pursues a political line that agrees with its new status and its sorrow for the lost son.”
According to writer and researcher Dalal al Birzi, the “mother of a martyr” experiences two different mindsets. At times she will focus on the noble goal of her son’s death but she will also feel the personal loss as a mother. Al Birza’s book entitled ‘Akhwat al Dhal wal Yaqin’ [Sisters of Shadows and Conviction] explores the backgrounds of Islamist women including members and officials of Hezbollah.
According to al Birzi, “There is no doubt that those mothers experience real grief for their sons but if they openly admit this, it is as if they are denying the value of the sacrifice that their sons had made. It is this significant moral value that helps those women to cope with their bereavement.” She adds, “I have not read anything about the suffering that the mothers of martyrs feel for the loss of their sons. Such talk is usually confined to private gatherings. Nevertheless, I sense that within them, there is overwhelming sadness that is alleviated by ideology.”
The role of Hezbollah’s women involves a lot of mobilization and guidance. Their activities bring political meaning to their role although they are not political in the traditional sense. So far, Hezbollah’s women have not engaged in military activity. Hezbollah officials continuously state that there is no need for women on the battlefront. The role of women in battle is restricted to logistical support including transporting weapons, passing messages, relaying information, and carrying out other surveillance and communication activities.
Dalal al Birzi explained, “In this context the women assume responsibility for preparing the ranks. They mobilize the people and provide assistance to the families whose sons have been martyred. This female activity takes the form of a well-coordinated civil apparatus that helps create a society that is in total harmony with its ideology.”
During the last Hezbollah conference in late 2004, the attendees approved a recommendation to increase female participation in direct political action by allowing them to be represented in the party’s political institutions. Rima Fakhry is the first woman to be appointed to Hezbollah’s Political Council. The party also began to nominate women for seats in the municipal elections. When these elections were held, voting centers in densely populated areas witnessed an extensive female presence.
Opening the door to female political participation, which was demonstrated by a marked presence of women, did not reach the extent of allowing them to run in parliamentary elections despite the fact that there are no ideological or religious prohibitions to a woman assuming a position in leadership.
Muna Harb, a professor at the American University of Beirut (AUB) who is researching Hezbollah and its institutions, says that the role that is assumed by Hezbollah’s women is eminently political, especially as it is voluntary. The women propagate the party’s ideology and the party’s leadership recognizes their role. Harb compares the role of Hezbollah’s women to that of Fatima [the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed] and Zaynab [the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammed] in their fundamental roles in Ashoura.
Muna Sukkariyah, a journalist, agrees that the role of women in Hezbollah have become more prominent over the past two years. She explains that female committees within the party carry out various activities such as visiting Christian institutions during religious festivals dressed in Islamic garb. This is a phenomenon that was unknown in the past.
Asked about her representation of women on the Hezbollah Political Council, Rima Fakhry, the first woman to join the Council, said, “Honestly, I am not interested in discussing the role of women in the council. It does not concern me. What concerns me is efficiency.”
I asked her whether she feared that her appointment to this body is simply a way of improving the party’s image. She replied, “I have certainly asked myself this question. I would not like to be a member just to add to the numbers. However, God has given me success and I consider myself on the same level as the male majority in the Political Council.”
Fakhri, 41, who graduated from AUB with a degree in agricultural engineering and is the mother of four children, attributes Hezbollah’s delay in representing women in its political structures to its “unique circumstances.” “Women’s activities began with the emergence of Hezbollah. There is no organizational obstacle to allowing women to assume leadership positions. However, there were considerations that delayed this. Also the priorities of our security conditions prevented women from assuming senior positions.”
Before being appointed to her current position, Fakhri was in charge of the women’s committees in Beirut. She has been an active member of the party for 25 years. She recounts that she was a member of a team that discussed giving women more responsibilities.
Fakhri describes herself as “exactly like any of the male brothers when it comes to discussions, analyses, or making suggestions.” Asked if her presence in the Political Council has changed anything within the Council itself, she replied, “The fact that I am a woman is not an issue. However, we have become more and more convinced that we have women in our ranks that are capable of political activity. An increasingly positive outlook on women’s political capabilities has developed.”
Why doesn’t Hezbollah nominate women to run for parliament when it has allowed them to run in municipal elections? Fakhri said, “To begin with our circumstances are not the same as an ordinary political party. If elections are held soon, we might see one of our sisters or more running. We are prepared for this now.”
Khadijah Salloum, the official in charge of Hezbollah’s women committees in the southern region of Beirut likes to repeat a certain expression: ‘good women equal good society’.
Salloum, 38 and the mother of four children, says that the women’s committees focus on educating women. She explains that what distinguishes the work of these committees is that they rely on a group of volunteers, mostly young women. She adds that the number of volunteers fluctuates but is generally estimated at approximately 500 female volunteers of various ages and skills.
According to Salloum, religious commitment is a basic requirement to accept volunteers. However, the need for certain skills might facilitate accepting women who do not wear the Islamic veil such as physicians or environmental workers. She says: “We operate based on our appreciation of the role of women, a woman who understands the implications of resistance and understands her role, and who realizes that without this resistance, we would be in the same situation as the dispersed Palestinian people.”
Salloum recounts the awareness of Hezbollah’s women during last summer’s war: “I remember that I asked a woman in her 70’s, who took shelter in a school, if she needed any help. She said to me ‘I’d prefer to be away from my village and my home than see Israel defeat us.’” She explains that a special committee is assigned the tasks of reporting a son’s martyrdom to his family and helping the family through this ordeal. She adds, “We visited a displaced family during the war to inform them of their son’s martyrdom. We didn’t know how to break the news to them but we were surprised by the reaction. The martyr’s father said ‘I feel honored that my son was martyred. I am prepared to give even more to preserve our dignity.’” She adds, “The Mujahideen themselves prepare their families for their martyrdom. In their wills, they ask their mothers not to cry and to remember the example of Zaynab and to say the words that she once said: ‘Please accept this [humble] sacrifice from us.’”