The female wing of Iran's paramilitary volunteer militia the Basij played a crucial role in suppressing the protests of women in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential elections, according to a prominent Iranian-American activist.
Janet Afary, Iranian American researcher and feminist activist, the Basij Sisters is a group of militia women founded by Marziyeh Dabbagh, the most prominent woman fighter in Iran.
Dabbagh was arrested and tortured in 1972 for associating with Khomeini and was later released after her health deteriorated. She went to Europe where she formed Iranian cells that she personally supervised.
"Dabbagh became Khomeini's confidant and became his guard in Paris in 1978," Afary told Al Arabiya. "She took part in the Iran-Iraq war where she was a military commander and joined the Revolutionary Guard where she was in charge of liquidating opposition groups."
In the late eighties, she was sent to Moscow to meet former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and throughout the past two decades has been the head of the government-affiliated Islamist Women’s Society. She also became Majlis (Iranian Parliament) deputy in its first, second, and fifth sessions.
The ages of women who join the Basij, Afary added, range between 18 and 38, but the militia also includes older women who have been there since its establishment.
When war with Iraq started in 1980, Iran established special military training camps for women that included thousands of Basij volunteers, many of whom were related to male soldiers.
In the battle field
"They were sent to the battleground where they worked in nursing and cooking as well as lifting the morale of the soldiers and helping their families."
The number of Basij women reached 147,000 in 1994. They all received advanced military training.
"They recently launched an emergency unit in charge of suppressing insurgency inside Iran."
Although every female member of the Basij gets a good salary, medical insurance, and a house, Afary argues that money is not the real incentive behind joining the militia.
"The real reason is that Iranian girls want to escape from the authority of their fathers and their families. It is also an opportunity for them to get good education," Afary explained.
Joining the Basij allows women to meet several men, thus giving them the chance to choose spounses.
Although Afary admits that the Basij turned women into an active member of the Iranian society and allowed them to play a major role in the political scene, they still represent a suppressive power that clamps down on other women from liberal and secular trends.
"Basij Sisters took part in crushing female resistance and arresting several women activities after the election results were out. This did not happen during the time of Khatami."
Afary's research focuses on politics, gender, and sexuality in the contemporary Iran and the Middle East. She has also written extensively on the Iranian Constitutional Revolution. Her writings include The Iranian Constitutional Revolution: Grassroots Democracy, Social Democracy, and the Origins of Feminism (1996), Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism (2005), and Sexual Politics in Modern Iran (2009).
(Translated from the Arabic by Sonia Farid)